Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Two seasons ago, Illinois was one of the fastest-rising programs in the nation, improving from 2-10 to 9-4 en route to earning the school's first Rose Bowl bid since the 1983 season.
Now, following consecutive losing seasons, Illinois is neck deep in upheaval.
Starved for success
Despite being the flagship university of the fifth most-populous state, Illinois has struggled to have consistent success over the past 20 seasons. In fact, only one Big Ten school has been to fewer bowls since 1990 than Illinois.
Ron Zook is under scrutiny as he enters his sixth season in Champaign with a 21-39 overall record, including 12-28 in the Big Ten, and that one bowl bid.
Zook fired four assistants, demoted one and saw another leave. Given the wholesale changes and lack of consistent success during his tenure, does Zook think he faces a win-or-else season?
"I really don't think that's the case at all," he said. "If that was the case, we wouldn't have hired the coaches that we hired. The guys came in here with multiyear contracts. We can't worry about that. The whole thing is to win.
"The coaches that we have brought in, they think we can win. We have to make sure the players think they can win, which they do. I don't think you can say, 'Well, they have to win this many.' Would these guys have left the positions that they were in if that was the case?"
Gone are co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory (left to be Akron defensive coordinator), offensive coordinator Mike Schultz (fired), quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard (fired), receivers coach Jim Pry (fired) and special teams coach Mike Woodford (fired). Dan Disch was stripped of his co-defensive coordinator title and will coach linebackers.
"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," Zook said.
If these changes don't produce results, Zook may be out the door. Zook received a contract extension last summer through January 2014 that pays him about $1.5 million annually.
The hires that figure to make or break Zook are the coordinators: Paul Petrino (offense) and Vic Koenning (defense). Each will be paid handsomely to make Illinois beautiful. Petrino reportedly was given a two-year contract that will pay him $475,000 annually. Koenning will be paid $325,000 per season in a two-year deal.
"You look at what they've done and where they have been and what they have accomplished," Zook said. "When you start looking for guys, you look for who the best guys are out there, guys who can come in and implement their offense and defense that you want to do and obviously be successful. They have proven track records."
Petrino, Illinois' third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, arrives with strong bloodlines but with something to prove. The younger brother of Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, Paul Petrino served as the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator the past two seasons. He also was offensive coordinator at Louisville under Bobby (2003-06) before coaching receivers with the Atlanta Falcons for his brother in 2007.
But Petrino never has had full command of an offense, as others - including his brother - have been heavily involved as play-callers during Petrino's previous coordinator stints.
It will be Petrino's task to fix an offense that sputtered the past two seasons. Illinois' attack finished strong in 2009 (1.024 combined yards in the final two games) but still was only fifth in the Big Ten in total offense (393.5 yards per game). The running game traditionally has been strong under Zook, but the passing attack has waned. This past season, Illinois had the No. 10 passing offense in the Big Ten (193.1 yards per game).
A name tag is required
After a 3-9 season, Illinois' second losing record in a row, Ron Zook overhauled his coaching staff. Five coaches are gone (four fired, another left for a different job), while another was demoted. The holdovers are offensive line coach Joe Gilbert and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore. Here's a look at the comings and goings.
Co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory (left to be Akron defensive coordinator)
Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz (fired; no job)
Quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard (fired; no job)
Wide receivers coach Jim Pry (fired; no job)
Special teams coach Mike Woodford (fired; no job)
NOTE: Dan Disch had been co-defensive coordinator but will just coach linebackers this season. Illinois also still must hire a secondary coach.
Petrino, who must find a quarterback with Juice Williams gone, will move Illinois away from the spread offense it primarily has employed under Zook to more of a pro-style attack.
"If I had to watch a pro team and say what [the offense is] similar to, I would say the Giants," Petrino said at the time of his hiring. "My brother worked with Tom Coughlin at Jacksonville for three years. And even before he went there, we were all one-back [sets] when I was with John L. [Smith] at Idaho and Utah State and Louisville. ...
"And then we kind of took a lot of the things he did with the Jaguars and everything we kind of do with our running back offense and kind of brought it together. So it's kind of a combination of the two."
The offensive transition might not be that difficult because Petrino has worked with the two other new offensive hires: tight ends coach Greg Nord (hired off Louisville's old staff) and quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm (Florida Atlantic). Petrino, Nord and Brohm worked at Louisville together when Bobby Petrino was Cardinals coach from 2003-06. The other new offensive coach is DeAndre Smith, who will coach running backs after serving in that same role at UNLV in 2009.
"The great thing about that, particularly when you are implementing a new offense, is that you have guys who are on the same page," Zook said. "They've worked together and they think alike. Not only will it help the other two coaches on offense, but it also will help the players and accelerate the teaching process."
Koenning arrives after one season at Kansas State, where he worked as co-coordinator and helped the Wildcats' defense improve from No. 117 to No. 40 in total defense, yielding 140 fewer yards and 12 fewer points per game than the previous season. Koenning, whose staff also will include a yet-to-be-hired secondary coach, will take over a defense that finished last in the Big Ten in scoring (30.2 points per game) and total defense (403.2 yards per game). The unit stumbled badly down the stretch, yielding at least 32 points in three of its final four games.
"The talent is there, so I am excited to see how far we can take this team," Koenning said. "I am up for the challenge and excited about improving every day."
Koenning is a magnetic personality who brings a wealth of experience to Champaign. He was coach at Wyoming from 2000-02, going 5-29 in those three seasons, and also has been a defensive coordinator at Clemson (2005-08) and Troy (2003-04). Each of his four Clemson units finished in the top 25 in the nation in scoring defense, total defense and pass-efficiency defense. No other Clemson defensive coordinator has enjoyed a similar run of success.
"It will be fun," said Zook, whose team starts spring drills in late March. "The players are excited, I'm excited, I think everyone is excited. The players are looking at it as, 'Hey, they've attracted a couple of the top coaches in the country and that is what people think of our program and what we are capable of doing.'
"I know I am excited about it. I can't wait to get recruiting over with and get on with the football part of it and see what we have got."