U of I confirms Zook will return, four assistant coaches fired

John Supinie

Ron Zook will return next season as Illinois football coach amid a shakeup in the coaching staff. Now the trick is for Illinois to sell the changes to boosters who pleaded for a more significant overhaul.

Illinois fired four assistant coaches and will hire coordinators on offense and defense in an attempt to save a program sliding toward the bottom of the Big Ten Conference, and Zook likely gets one more shot at finding the right combination.

Zook suffered through a 3-9 record this fall for his fourth losing season in five years as Illini coach. He is 21-39 at Illinois, winning more than three games in only two seasons with the Illini. The 55-year-old led Illinois to the nation's biggest turnaround in 2007, when he led the Illini to a win over top-ranked Ohio State and the school's first appearance in the Rose Bowl in 24 years.

The Illini fired offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard, wide receivers coach Jim Pry and special teams coach Mike Woodford, the school said Friday. Co-defensive coordinators Dan Disch and Curt Mallory would be retained as position coaches.

"These are some major coaching staff changes," Zook said in a written statement. "Obviously we are not happy with the way the past two seasons have gone, but we believe in this program and its ability to rebound with the necessary decisions.

"I can't thank these coaches and their families enough for how hard they worked, for the heart and soul they poured into Illinois football. These are good, good people. These are the most difficult days in our business. I really wish all of them the very best in any future endeavors. I truly mean that.''

Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther and Zook declined interview requests.

If stability is a key ingredient in building a winning football program, that's one variable lost in Zook's tenure. Heading into his sixth season with the Illini this fall, Zook will work with his third offensive coordinator. Illinois will have a different leader on defense for the fourth time under Zook.

The coaching change on offense comes after Illinois averaged 35.4 points a game over the last five games. Illinois lost 53-52 to Fresno State in the season finale Saturday.

The criticism showered on Zook and his program continued to build as Illinois lost six of its first seven games this season, with the lone win coming against Division I-AA Illinois State. Guenther said in late October that there would be changes "but none at the top,'' in referring to Zook.

Prior to the season, Guenther gave Zook a contract extension, and Zook still has four more years remaining on a deal that pays him $1.5 million per year. Zook will host a big recruiting weekend beginning Friday evening. The team banquet is Saturday.

When he publically backed Zook during an impromptu press conference at halftime of a loss at Purdue, Guenther said Zook deserved more time, but Illinois fans and boosters are already running out of patience. Illinois' non-conference game against Fresno State on Saturday drew less than 20,000 fans despite selling more than 48,000 tickets.

Now, Illinois needs another eye-opening turnaround from Zook.

After winning four games in his first two seasons combined, Illinois broke through in 2007. The Illini upset top-ranked Ohio State while winning their last four games in the regular season and played in the Rose Bowl. Illinois lost 49-17 to USC, then slid back down the Big Ten ladder. Illinois posted a 5-7 record in 2008, then dropped off dramatically this past season.

The Illini were 2-6 in the Big Ten this season and the foundation appears to be crumbling.

According to media reports, sophomore wide receivers A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott plus sophomore tight end Hubie Graham are leaving the program.

Recruiting has been Zook's strength, but the Illini are hitting hard times even with a guy whose reputation is built upon landing players. Illinois already saw Johnsburg tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, the top-rated player at his position nationally, decommit and jump to Iowa. Four-star cornerback Corey Cooper has shown interest in Notre Dame after an early commitment to Illinois.

John Supinie can be reached

Zook 'em

A year by year record for Illinois coach Ron Zook.

Year/Overall/Big Ten