Zook looking to new coaches Petrino, Koenning to improve Illini

John Supinie

Change isn't always the easiest option, but sometimes it's the only way.

Midway through last fall, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther promised a change in Illini football everywhere but the top. Now the man at the top attempts a transformation after hiring two coordinators to run their own systems, and Ron Zook's challenge entering his sixth season as Illinois head coach sounds simple.

"I try to keep my mouth shut and stay out of their way,'' Zook said.

That's probably hard for any college coach with $1.5 million per year on the line. The trick is keeping hands on without choking the program by micro-managing. Zook hired offensive coordinator Paul Petrino from Arkansas and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning from Kansas State, finding two guys to leave stable programs for the turmoil here.

With four losing seasons in Zook's first five years here, Guenther came to the conclusion last winter "that we needed more strength around him.'' Petrino and Koenning were chosen to run each side of the ball, putting Zook in the role of college football CEO.

"It's been more difficult,'' Zook said. "When I hired them, I said I wanted to do that. A lot of times when you're so involved in it, you don't see the forest for the trees. Now I'm able to step back and see things I wouldn't have been able to see. Some coaches are hands on. Some guys aren't. I'll probably have a happy medium.''

The future of Zook's program revolves around the working relationship of these three coaches. Along with the major gameday decisions, Zook will handle the big picture -- anything from recruiting, chemistry, discipline, academics, personnel, setting the tone and coaching the coaches. He sits in meetings, providing suggestions and another set of eyes. 

Yet Zook must trust the coordinators will do the job and then let them do it, just like they had to trust Zook would allow them to do it their way.

"Any head coach has the final say,'' Petrino said. "They say run it the way they want it run. Most head coaches let coordinators run their side of the ball. Right now, we're running the package he brought me in here to run. If he has suggestions and ideas, I'll listen. He's the boss.''

Koenning "hasn't had any reins put on,'' he said, even though he works the segment where Zook has experience.

"If there's any question about it, it's his whistle,'' Koenning said. "If he has a certain way he wants it done, this is the time to tell me, not Saturday where we have to adjust everything. Time is the only way (to build trust). Like any relationship, you see how people are going to react.

"I've got to make sure I react a certain way, that I don't do or say something that's not taken in the wrong way. He's the head coach. He should be treated with respect and honor. Even if I feel a certain way, there's a place to communicate that. He's been fantastic about not saying, 'We're not doing this or that.' ''

The hiring Petrino and Koenning signaled a departure from the past, when Zook wanted a read option, one-back offense and his own defensive scheme. Petrino brought an offense labeled as pro-style, but he calls it a multiple set that can adjust to the talent, such as mobile quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Koenning's scheme allows adjustment into a 3-4 thanks to a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.

Realistically, Zook hired talented coordinators who were better than anyone dreamed a program in such chaos could land. He made a trip with his wife, Denise, to Fayetteville, Ark., for a home visit with Petrino, and Zook burned plenty of cell phone minutes with Koenning while on recruiting trips.

"All three of us did our homework,'' Zook said.

Petrino wanted out of the shadow of his older brother, Bobby, the Arkansas coach. An aspiring head coach himself whose name surfaced with openings at Western Kentucky and Marshall, Paul Petrino needed to prove himself elsewhere after spending the last seven years under his brother at Louisville and Arkansas with a quick stop in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.

As the coordinator under his talented brother, Petrino worked with an offense that ranked eighth in the nation last season in scoring (37 points a game), 10th in passing (303 yards per game) and 14th in total offense (439.3). 

"We worked great together,'' Petrino said. "It was always going to be his offense. I had to go out and try to do it without him.''

Illinois offered variables that allowed Petrino to take the risk.

"Any time you're looking for a job, you look at all the different things,'' said, Petrino, the son of a small-college coach. "The three things that helped me were meeting with coach Zook, having a two-year contract and the ability of bringing in two guys (Jeff Brohm and Greg Nord) I worked with before. They knew the offense already, so I wasn't teaching everyone it.''

Koenning's move came more for personal than professional reasons. Last fall, Kansas State went from 112th in rushing defense to 16th in Koenning's only season as co-defensive coordinator. The Wildcats improved from 117th to 40th in total defense.

But Koenning was alone at Kansas State while his wife and family remained at their vacation home along the Alabama coast. Assistant coaches under Kansas State's Bill Snyder are known for working long hours.

"My goal is to be the best football coach and leader to these men,'' Koenning said. "Before that, it's being the best husband and father to my wife and kids. When I'm not there, I can't do that. That's always a priority. When I can't make that a priority, I need to change my address where it won't be a problem.''

Koenning and his family settled in a home southwest of Champaign near Monticello, where they have room for slumber parties, 4-wheelers and long walks to the Sangamon River.

"We feel fortunate and blessed,'' said Koenning, whose drawl reminds you he's a native of Oklahoma. He hoped his kids would have a chance to graduate from the Monticello High School.

To do that, things have to work between Zook and his hired guns.

NOTE: Illinois will scrimmage at 10:15 a.m. Saturday in Memorial Stadium. The practice session starts at 9:40. The event is free and open to the public.

John Supinie can be reached at

The hired hands

A look at the Illinois coordinators

Paul Petrino

Age: 42

Hometown: Helena, Mont.

Playing experience: Four-year starting quarterback and NAIA Division II player as a senior at Carroll College in Montana, where he played for his father, Bobby Sr. 

Coaching highlight: While offensive coordinator in 2004, Louisville led the nation in total yards (539 per game) and scoring (49.8) in 2004.

Did you know: Petrino wore an elastic sleeve on his knee earlier this week after hearing a pop. "We'll get through spring, and then we'll take a look at it,'' he said.

Vic Koenning

Age: 50

Hometown: Owasso, Okla.

Playing experience: A team captain and three-year starting linebacker at Kansas State, Koenning earned the Coffman Award for outstanding leadership.

Coaching highlight: Led Clemson to ninth in the nation in total defense (307 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (18.7) in 2007.

Did you know: Koenning was 5-29 in three seasons at Wyoming coach