Illinois head coach Ron Zook looks on from the sidelines during the first half of the NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011 in Champaign, Ill. Wisconsin defeated Illinois 28-17. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: December 24, 2011 8:20AM
Everybody at Illinois is talking about the things they can accomplish with a victory Saturday at Minnesota and how they can get that job done if they stick together.
They can become the first Illini team since 1989 and ’90 to post back-to-back winning records. Already a lock to be the first Illini team since 1990 and ’91 to go to back-to-back bowls, they also can improve their bowl résumé. With a bowl win on top of a win at Minnesota, they can post eight victories, Illinois’ second-winningest season in a decade, and become the first team at Illinois to win back-to-back bowl games.
‘‘We have a chance to do some things that not a lot of guys have done here,’’ quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ‘‘That’s something you lose track of because [of the negative stuff].’’
The elephant in the locker room is what the Illini can’t seem to be able to do: save Ron Zook’s job.
‘‘They don’t have school; they don’t have anything to worry about but football,’’ Zook said innocently Tuesday when asked about morale, putting amazing faith in the Thanksgiving break.
Whether or not Illinois, which has lost five in a row, is able to stop the bleeding in Minneapolis, look for Zook to be dismissed by new athletic director Mike Thomas early next week.
And look for a big chunk of Illini Nation, which hasn’t embraced Zook, to sigh with relief.
In the long run, it might be better that retired athletic director Ron Guenther ignored cries for Zook to be fired two years ago. This way, Thomas can hire his own coach, and a program with a history of underachieving can try to change that course.
Good luck with that. Since Ray Eliot retired in 1959, Illinois has had two coaches with winning records. One (Mike White) was forced out amid a recruiting scandal; the other (John Mackovic) bolted to Texas.
Unlike last Tuesday, when Zook set himself up for disaster by saying he’d walk out of his news conference if anybody asked about his job situation, this week’s briefing was low-key.
Yes, backup QB Reilly O’Toole will have some opportunities, but Scheelhaase remains Illinois’ main man. Yes, Zook’s helping Justin DuVernois, his struggling freshman punter, deal with some nasty e-mails. Yes, he’s proud of the seniors who will finish their college careers Saturday: ‘‘They came here when it wasn’t cool to come here.’’
And, yes, the Illini have a lot to play for, even if their 6-0 start is a distant memory, obliterated by the five-game skid.
‘‘These guys have a chance to do something that’s never been done, a chance to win two bowl games in a row,’’ Zook said. ‘‘There’s enough things they’re playing for. Pride. All the hard work they’ve put in. They want to show that this program is going in the right direction.’’
The good news is, Illinois is going to a bowl — whether it’s the TicketCity Bowl in Dallas, the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, the Pinstripe Bowl in New York or the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque.
‘‘This game can change a lot as far as where we go,’’ Scheelhaase said. ‘‘Morale’s good. The best thing about our team is we like being together, and we enjoy competing. Sure, there’s guys that might be down. But when you step into the locker room and see guys ready to go, why wouldn’t you be?’’
A win at Minnesota will have an influence on the bowl destination.
‘‘We have a lot to play for,’’ linebacker Jonathan Brown said. ‘‘We’re still a really good team regardless of the record. We’ve been in every game. We know we’re a good team. We just have to go out there and play like it.’’
Even with a win, it’s looking like an interim coach, rather than Zook, will be leading Illinois on that bowl trip.