Here's quick overview of the coaching situation this season, as per Dennis Dodd's 2011 Hot Seat Ratings.
|Michigan State||Mark Dantonio||0.5|
|Ohio State||Luke Fickell||3.5|
|Penn State||Joe Paterno||2.0|
Obviously, this is a two-person list between Illinois head coach Ron Zook and OSU's interim coach Luke Fickell. One could theoretically argue that Fickell's rating ought to be higher, since he almost by default has to win big this year or he's out, but it's not exactly going to be a huge hit to Fickell's career if OSU ends up hiring a bigger-named coach after the 2011. It's not even a given that such a move would leave Fickell out of a job; wouldn't the transition period be softened if Fickell returned to being the assistant head coach for Ohio State under the new head coach, as was the arrangement under Jim Tressel?
As for Zook, though, his Illini are coming off a 38-14 thrashing of Baylor in the Texas Bowl (including this wholly unnecessary last-minute touchdown), and that 2010 squad set an all-time program record for most points scored per game with 32.54 ppg*. Considering the fact that QB Nathan Scheelhaase was just a freshman in '10 and all, the future would appear to be much brighter than Zook's job security would indicate.
But to think that is to ignore the history of Ron Zook, and the disappointment that defines his legacy.
It's to ignore the fact that the Texas Bowl berth was only Zook's second in six years at Illinois (the other being a still-unbelievable Rose Bowl, one in which Illinois was so thoroughly throttled by USC that ESPN eventually forced the Rose Bowl to start taking high-level non-BCS teams instead of marginally qualified Big Ten or Pac-12 teams). It's to ignore the fact that Zook couldn't go more than three games over .500 in any of his three seasons at Florida, while Urban Meyer turned Zook's players around and won a national championship with them two years later.
Indeed, if there's any long-term method to Illinois' hiring of Zook, it was to replenish the talent stock to competitive levels, then to cut ties at the point when his teams started underachieving so a more disciplined coach can come in and take the program to new heights. Now, the fact that Zook's not only still around but the third-most tenured coach in the Big Ten means that A) it's been a weird decade in the Big Ten and B) Zook's actual accomplishments still do mean something. No coach is going to want to go to a football program that hasn't been to consecutive bowl games in almost 20 years, but will still fire a coach two years off a Rose Bowl bid, after all. Similarly, if Zook keeps getting to the postseason, he'll keep earning his paycheck year after year. So that's why he's still at Illinois and deserves to be.
It's just, well, it's hard to imagine that arrangement holding up on both sides for much longer.
*Incidentally, that touchdown proved to be the difference-maker for Illinois breaking the record; they trailed the 2001 team by the slimmest of margins in PPG (32.50) before Zook called that bootleg. Now, a coach calling for a cheap touchdown long after a bowl game has been decided and his team breaking a program record on that play might just be a coincidence, but we're talking about Ron Zook here.