With Zook 34-50 in seven years here, Thomas would please the Illini crowd by firing the football coach.
There's just one more regular-season game left for Illinois and coach Ron Zook.
With a five-game losing streak, Illinois (6-5 overall, 2-5 in the Big Ten) plays at Minnesota (2-9, 1-6) Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN), and the big question is Zook's future with the program. Everyone wondered if the quick handshake with Illini athletic director Mike Thomas and the heckling from fans were the send off for Zook, who is 34-50 in his seventh year here.
Q: What will Thomas do?
A: Thomas inherited a desk full of issues when he took over the job in August following the resignation of Ron Guenther in May. Besides handling the renovation of Assembly Hall and some growing concern with the basketball programs under coach Bruce Weber and Jolette Law, the big issue was football.
Football revenue is the engine that drives the train, and Thomas likely learned in his first few weeks on the job public opinion was strongly against Zook prior to the season. Following the 6-0 start, this five-game slide fell onto the shoulders of Zook, who remarkably survived a coaching shakeup directed by Guenther two years ago when Illinois finished 3-9.
The only way to keep Zook would be to extend his contract, because his staff would struggle to recruit if he has only two years left on the deal. Also, the current staff might need more freedom, such as taking a handful of junior-college players to boost the talent level. Both options sound like a longshot for Illinois.
The Illini are bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1992, and they will play in a bowl game if the offer is extended. Illinois would be a strong candidate to fill bowl slots left vacant by other conferences if the Big Ten fills its tie ins.
Nevertheless, Illinois fell short in a season with a record eight home games in Memorial Stadium. If Thomas wants to get high-dollar boosters and the average Joe Illini fan behind him, the popular move is firing Zook. Thus, for Thomas, it seems like the only decision he can make.
Q: When does it happen?
A: If Thomas is going to make a change -- and all indications point toward that conclusion -- it would happen following the game at Minnesota. Coordinators Vic Koenning and Paul Petrino could handle the team during the bowl game, and Thomas would get to work on landing a replacement.
There's no time to wait until after the bowl game.
Like Guenther, Thomas will likely go into seclusion to put together a deal. It shouldn't be a surprise if Thomas uses Parker Executive Search committee, the firm that was involved in landing university president Michael Hogan and Thomas. If so, it would make the hiring process even more secretive.
Thomas traveled with the basketball team to Cancun, Mexico, on Sunday prior to the Cancun Challenge Tuesday and Wednesday.Q: What should fans expect from the Illini in Minneapolis?
A: The players love this staff and want to end the season with a win. There seems like no quit in these guys, although a good start would keep confidence from sagging.
Petrino will remain on the sideline, he said, to inject his passion and confidence. Koenning's defense was ranked ninth nationally before the 28-17 loss to Wisconsin, and the Illini held the Badgers to season low totals in points (28) and yards (285).
The Illini would probably use Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole at quarterback, although Scheelhaase might take a higher percentage of the snaps "because he gives us the best chance to win,'' Zook said Sunday.
Thanksgiving break will help, Scheelhaase said, because the players can concentrate on football with school closed during the week. The Illini will hold Thanksgiving dinner in the stadium club Thursday.
Freshman running back Donovonn Young suffered a sprained ankle after scoring two touchdowns against Wisconsin, but Zook didn't go so far as say Young would play. It seems doubtful.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.