By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) The next time Ron Zook walks out of a press conference at the University of Illinois, it might be his last.
Like, this Saturday afternoon.
Considering Illinois' current four-game losing streak (almost certain to be five after clashing with No. 15 Wisconsin), Zook's staggering 0-6 record at Illinois following a bye week (that's winless with two weeks to prepare), his overall seven-season mark of 34-49 (an anemic winning percentage of .410) and the fact that he recently didn't know the score of a game he was coaching, it's no longer a question of when Illinois' eternally befuddled leader will be fired.
It's merely a question of when.
On Wednesday, new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas described himself as being on a "listening tour" when he told the Illini Rebounders club that he "is auditing all U. of I. programs and will evaluate football and other sports at the season's conclusion."
Based on that statement, it's my guess is that Zook will live to coach again after the Wisconsin game – but only for a week. I think he'll be fired after the regular-season finale at Minnesota.
After all, if your coach is a lame duck, there's simply no good reason to keep him quacking through a bowl game, if Illinois is indeed invited to one.
So, with Ron Zook's fate all but sealed in Champaign, the question now turns to who Illinois should pursue to take his place. And while candidates such as former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach and current Houston coach Kevin Sumlin have been tossed around of late, I have two bigger names that Thomas should seriously consider if Illinois is indeed serious about establishing a championship-caliber football program.
And they're Petersen & Patterson. As in, Chris and Gary, the respective head coaches of No. 10 Boise State and No. 19 Texas Christian, and two of the hottest names in all the college game.
Now, before you scoff at the notion of either man bolting Boise or Fort Worth for Champaign, hear me out. Because, it really shouldn't be such a far-fetched idea – not at all if Illinois is willing to pony up the cash and pay.
Currently, Illinois pays Ron Zook $1,750,000 a year, which, according to USA Today, places him sixth among Big Ten coaches, behind Iowa's Kirk Ferentz ($3,785,000), Michigan's Brady Hoke ($3,254,000), Nebraska's Bo Pelini ($2,775,000), Wisconsin's Bret Bielema ($2,500,000) and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio ($1,918,000).
Zook's salary, meanwhile, stands higher than that of Minnesota's Jerry Kill ($1,700,000), Indiana's Kevin Wilson ($1,260,000), Ohio State's Luke Fickell ($1,172,000), the $1,022,794 that Penn State was paying Joe Paterno, and, finally, Purdue's Danny Hope ($925,000). But his compesnation will almost certainly fall behind what both Ohio State and Penn State will pay their new coaches next season, placing Illinois' football salary an unimpressive 8th in the 12-team conference.
This week, USA Today released an analysis of football coaching salaries in which it found that the average pay for major-college is $1.47 million. However, in the six conferences with automatic Bowl Championship Series bids – including, of course, the Big Ten – the average salary is $2.125 million.
So, while Zook's salary may be above average nationally, it's well below average on a major-conference scale – not unlike the Illinois football program itself. And, like most things in life – except for Alfonso Soriano – you do get what you pay for.
So, with the start of a new era at Illinois with a new athletic director, why shouldn't the Illini finally pay big for a great coach?
After all, that's how you build a great program.
As for Patterson and Petersen, here are their details. In January, the 51-year-old Patterson – who led TCU to a 13-0 record and Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin last season – had his contract extended through the 2018 season. USA Today reports Patterson's current salary as $2,018,362, but a source told ESPN earlier this year that his total package is now worth nearly $3 million per season and that the entire deal is guaranteed.
Meanwhile, the 47-year-old Peterson – who is merely 69-6 as Boise State's head coach – had his five-year contract fattened by the university in October. According to published reports, Petersen's total compensation this year will be $1.5 million. That amount will then increase by $100,000 every subsequent year to $1.9 million in 2015. His buyout clause is valued at $650,000.
With a deal worth nearly $3 million per year and the Horned Frogs headed for a new conference (the Big 12) that's more high-profile and a great geographic fit, Patterson might be beyond Illinois' ability to lure him to the Midwest. That said, you never know until you ask – and wave cash along with Big Ten stability.
Petersen, meanwhile, might finally be ready for a new challenge, a big pay raise and an opportunity to coach in the Big Ten – rather than watch his Broncos join a ridiculously far-flung and increasingly fragile Big East, as has been rumored.
I'm sure that Mike Thomas has his own list of names who he'd like to see as his coach at Illinois. But my advice is this: Aim high.
And try to put try to finally put Illini football on the map.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago's North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.
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