Illinois fires football coach Zook

Illinois coach Ron Zook was fired Sunday after the Illini followed a 6-0 start to this season with a six-game losing streak.

Zook and the Illini finished off their collapse with a 27-7 defeat at Minnesota on Saturday.

”I believe we need new leadership to take the program to the level to compete for championships on a consistent basis,” Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas said in a statement released by the university. ”This is an extremely competitive conference, and we are determined to go head-to-head with the very best.”

Thomas said the defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will take over as interim head coach while a search begins for Zook’s successor.

Zook wasn’t immediately available for comment but planned a press conference for late Sunday afternoon.

Zook finished 34-51 at Illinois. He took the 2007 team to the Rose Bowl and lost to USC. Last season’s squad beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl.

With six wins the Illini could still go to a bowl game. It would be their first back-to-back bowl appearances since 1991 and ’92.

Zook came to Illinois in 2005 after being fired in his third season at Florida. He replaced Ron Turner, now an Indianapolis Colts assistant coach.

The 2007 season was Zook’s high point at Illinois. The Illini were Big Ten runners-up and upset an undefeated Ohio State team in Columbus that was shooting for a perfect season and a national title.

But only two of Zook’s Illinois teams finished with winning records, 2007’s 9-4 squad and last year’s 7-6 Texas Bowl team.

Thomas praised Zook for the elevating Illinois – Zook took over after Turner produced four losing seasons in five years. But Thomas, who became AD just last summer, also alluded to Zook’s uneven tenure at Illinois.

”It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner. I wasn’t here seven years ago when Ron Zook took over as coach, but it’s clear the program is in better shape than what he inherited.”

As word of his firing spread, some of Zook’s former players used social media to support their former coach.

”Zook was a good coach and Man,” former Illini quarterback and current Oakland Raiders receiver Eddie McGee wrote on Twitter. ”Great person who believed in his players. Would do anything for them. If you played for him you know that.”

”I still love him as a coach and as a father figure,” current Illini tailback Jason Ford wrote.

Zook went 2-9 in his first season at Illinois but Illini fans had the promise of better times ahead. Known as an extraordinary recruiter, Zook’s first signing class included highly regarded Chicago quarterback Juice Williams, who started most of the next four seasons.

After another two-win year – Williams’ freshman season – Zook and the Illini delivered on that promise with the trip to the Rose Bowl. Illinois was blown out in Pasadena, 49-17 by USC, but fans thought good times were on the horizon.

Illinois followed up that surprisingly good season, though, with two bad ones, defying high expectations to go 5-7 and, in 2009, 3-9. Zook kept his job amid speculation that he wouldn’t, but was forced to fire virtually his entire staff and hire offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and Koenning. With their help Illinois went 7-6 in 2010.

This season, though, left fans with even deeper doubts.

Illinois took advantage of an early schedule that included five home dates and opponents such as Arkansas State and South Dakota State to roll to 6-0. Then came the losses.

While the defense mostly held up well the offense struggled. Illinois at one point went three games without scoring a first-half point. The Illini averaged less than 15 points a game through the losing streak after putting almost 35 a game through the unbeaten start.

And Illinois’ special teams – a point of emphasis for Zook, who has been an NFL special teams coach – were often bad. The Illini were last in the Big Ten this season in both kickoff and punt returns and near the bottom of the conference in both kickoff and punt coverage.

Zook brought both that NFL pedigree and the reputation as a tireless worker and recruiter to Illinois.

He peppered his press conferences with references to coaches like Steve Spurrier with whom he’d worked, and once told a reporter, ”Can you imagine how much you could get done if you didn’t have to eat or sleep?”

But he also brought baggage with him from Florida.

Gator fans were never sold on him as the replacement for Spurrier.

Zook won in each of his three seasons in Gainesville, but never enough, going 8-5, 8-5 and 7-4.

And he had the distinction of being perhaps the first target of a serious Internet campaign to fire a coach. The website went up shortly after he got the job. He also reportedly got into a shouting match during the 2004 season on the Florida campus with members of a fraternity after a fight between them and some of his players.