Thomas bases decision on Zook's tenure, not just this season.
- It wasn't about a 20-point loss Saturday in Minnesota. Maybe not even about a six-game losing streak to end the regular season, even though that didn't help Illinois football coach Ron Zook's case for keeping his job.
Athletic director Mike Thomas studied the seven years since Zook was hired by Ron Guenther in 2004. When it came to the bottom line, an 18-38 record in Big Ten play forced Thomas to make a swift move Sunday, after a little more than 3 months on the job, and fire Zook, who was 34-51 in seven years overall.
"There are a lot of things that go into this,'' Thomas said. "Primary is competitive success. To me, you have to have success within your own conference. In the past seven years, we've won 32 percent, roughly a third, of our Big Ten games. We have a winning record against one Big Ten team. That's Indiana.
"As I said from the beginning, I would assess the total body of work, not just the body of work I observed in the last three months.''
It's about competing for a Big Ten title, Thomas said.
"I don't see any reason why the Fighting Illini can't be thought in those terms with other teams traditionally positioned to do that,'' he said. "Project is probably a strong word (in describing the program). There's some tweaking. This isn't a reality show for Extreme Makeover. We've got a great foundation. It's not taking things from ground zero.''
Thomas named defensive coordinator Vic Koenning as interim coach who will handle the Illini in the transition including an expected bowl trip. Thomas said he won't use a search firm and won't drop any details. He would prefer a head coach, but head coaching experience isn't a deal breaker.
A new coach won't lead the Illini in a bowl game, Thomas said, but it was apparent that he wanted to move aggressively. Illinois will likely pay closer to $2.5 million for a coach than the $1.75 paid to Zook, who will get $2.6 million in a buyout of the two years remaining on his contract.
"We don't want to lose great candidates because we can't pay the going rate,'' Thomas said.
This is a defining hire for Thomas, a first big impression in a tenure that began when he was hired on Aug. 10. His reputation was built on coaching hires, including landing Brian Kelly, who led Cincinnati to two BCS bowl games before leaving for Notre Dame.
Thomas acknowleged this hire is "extremely critical.''
Attendance also played a role in the decision, and the economy was just an excuse for Illinois' inability to generate a string of sellouts following a fast start.
Thomas met with Zook Sunday morning in Thomas' office, then Zook informed the staff before meeting with the players at 1 p.m.
"Last night, I came to the final conclusion it was time to move,'' Thomas said. "Once I came to that conclusion, it was best to move as quickly as possible.''
The news began to leak by late morning. The players, who were off Sunday, were called for a 1 p.m. meeting.
"I got a text that we had a meeting in an hour,'' said linebacker Trulon Henry. "That's never a good message on Sunday.''
Henry called the news emotional, but Zook told them to "stay positive,'' he said. The players would bounce back and play well in a bowl game, cornerback Tavon Wilson said, after learning of Zook's fate.
"Coach Zook is always telling us we're playing for a lot,'' Wilson said. "We've got a great chance to win back-to-back bowl games. That's a great accomplishment, no matter what's the bowl game.''
By later afternoon, Zook read a statement to the media, thanking his wife, Denise, and family, "coach Ron Guenther,'' Thomas and the university administration, the media and, lastly, the players. Zook stopped briefly, perhaps holding back his emotions.
"They know hnow I feel about them,'' Zook said. "Y'all know how I feel about them. I want to make sure our players are OK.''
From here, that's somebody else's job.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.The initial list Here are some names to consider for Illinois football coach. Mike Leach, former Texas Tech coach Everybody's favorite is a maverick who reminds some of Mike White, who energized the fan base in the 80's. Kevin Sumlin, Houston coach The Indianapolis native and former Purdue linebacker might be ready to jump. He has a high-powered offense. Todd Monken, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator The Wheaton native, who also has NFL experience, knows the Chicago suburbs and helped land the commitment from Rochester senior QB Wes Lunt. Willie Taggert, Western Kentucky coach Youngest coach in major-college football is a recruiting whiz who has Hilltoppers bowl eligible. Sal Sunseri, Alabama linebackers coach The former Pitt All-America linebacker is in his third season with Alabama after working in the NFL. Kirby Wilson, Steelers assistant coach Former Illini is a native of Los Angeles. Tim Beckman, Toledo coach The MAC has been a fertile ground mined by Mike Thomas when he was Cincinnati AD. Larry Fedora, Southern Miss coach The offensive coordinator briefly under Ron Zook at Illinois, he jumped to Oklahoma State before taking over Southern Mississippi.