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Posted: Saturday October 24, 2009 4:10PM; Updated: Saturday October 24, 2009 5:29PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Strap in Illini fans, you'll be dealing with Safe Ron Zook for a while

Story Highlights

Illinois' AD leaked to the Big Ten Network that Ron Zook will be back in 2010

Why? The numbers in Zook's contract matter more than the team's record

Unfortunately, fans will miss out on a chance to watch Fired Ron Zook coach

Purdue Illinois

14

Two years removed from a Rose Bowl berth, Ron Zook's Illini fell to 1-6 on the season after losing to Purdue.
Two years removed from a Rose Bowl berth, Ron Zook's Illini fell to 1-6 on the season after losing to Purdue.
AP

You have to wonder what transpired in the visiting athletic director's box Saturday afternoon at Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium.

Earlier in the day, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther had leaked to Big Ten Network analyst Glen Mason that Ron Zook would coach the Illini in 2010. Then, when reporters cornered Guenther before kickoff against Purdue, Guenther scurried away. "Glen is my friend," Guenther said of the former Kansas and Minnesota coach. Way to stick to your guns, Mr. Guenther.

Someone with a little more common sense must have gotten in Guenther's ear during the first half. Someone must have said he risked a fan mutiny if he didn't offer at least a cursory explanation for his decision to retain Zook, who is well on his way to a fourth losing season in five years.

So at halftime, Guenther emerged and spoke for less than a minute to reporters whose employers aren't a revenue stream for the Illinois athletic department. "There will be some changes, but there won't be a change on the top," Guenther said, according to the Daily Illini. "There's a great deal of frustration obviously with the program at the moment. We're still going to evaluate [at the end of the season] but I think it's really unfair to start jumping at the end of the fifth year on a guy."

At the time, the Illini trailed the Boilermakers by two touchdowns. Illinois would go on to lose, 24-14. Two years after making the Rose Bowl, Illinois is 1-6 (0-5 in the Big Ten) and hasn't beaten an FBS team.

Five years ago this weekend, I covered a game Zook coached at another out-of-the way campus. Zook's Florida team fell that day to Mississippi State. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley emerged steaming from the visiting athletic director's box. He did not give Zook a vote of confidence. Less than 48 hours later, Foley had fired Zook.

Guenther doesn't think it's fair to start jumping on a guy at the end of the fifth year. Foley jumped on Zook in the middle of his third year at Florida. Illinois has had two winning seasons this decade. Florida has won two of the past three national titles and currently sits atop the BCS standings.

You do the math.

More than likely, Guenther's vote of confidence has roots in a different kind of math. The liqudated damages clause in Zook's original contract called for the coach to be paid the balance remaining on the contract. The contract has been extended twice, but it appears the buyout clause hasn't changed. Zook makes somewhere between $1.3 million and $1.5 million and has four years remaining on his deal. To fire him would cost between $5.2 and $6 million, and that would be before Illinois paid a penny to its next coach.

Complicating matters further, the chancellor and president at Illinois just resigned under pressure because of an admissions scandal. It's likely that whoever is minding the ivory tower in Champaign has so much on the plate that a coaching search would be a completely unnecessary distraction.

So strap in, Illini fans. You're probably not getting a change this season. Which is a shame, because you'll miss out on a few weeks with one of the best coaches in America. His name is Fired Ron Zook. Go back to 2004. Just five days after his firing, Zook nearly led the Gators to an upset of No. 7 Georgia. Later, Zook coached Florida to a 48-14 win against a good South Carolina team and stunned Florida State on the day the Seminoles christened Bobby Bowden Field.

Once fired at Florida, Zook stopped doing all the things that got him fired. He stopped meddling in Charlie Strong's defense. He stopped tightening up at the end of games. He let it ride, and his team was better off for it.

Given its talent level, Illinois could be dangerous with Fired Ron Zook at the helm. Unfortunately, unless Safe Ron Zook starts coaching like Fired Ron Zook, the next five weeks might last forever.

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