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Morrissey: The book on Ron Zook is that his time is past

RZook’s coaching stock has taken drastic tumble wake four consecutive losses after 6-0 start.  |  JONATHAN DANIEL~GETTY IMAGES

Ron Zook’s coaching stock has taken a drastic tumble in the wake of four consecutive losses after a 6-0 start. | JONATHAN DANIEL~GETTY IMAGES

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Over the 10 full seasons, the Fighting Illini have played in two New Year’s Day bowl games (Sugar, 2001 season and Rose, 2007 season) but have also twice lost 10 or more games in a season.

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Updated: December 18, 2011 5:26PM

I’m positive the Sun-Times’ crack team of headline writers can do better than this, but let’s start with, “Illinois must give Zook the hook.’’

Or maybe, “GadZooks — he’s still here?’’

It’s not a good thing when your most notable attribute is the catchiness of your last name, unless your name happens to be Bowden, Bryant or Rockne. When your name is Zook, it means it’s time to go.

On Tuesday, Illinois coach Ron Zook walked out of his weekly news conference when a reporter had the audacity to ask him a question connected to his future at the school — after he had set ground rules that no one should ask about his job status. He didn’t want to be a distraction to his team, he said.

You know what, Ron?

Bad coaching is a distraction.

Four Big Ten losses in a row after six consecutive victories against mostly weak competition is a distraction.

A player getting shot in the hand — that’s a distraction.

The reason Illinois needs to fire Zook is the same reason it needed to fire most of the head coaches who came before him: The football program should be better than this in all ways — consistently.

Zook’s record speaks for itself

Athletic director Mike Thomas has said he’ll wait until after the season to assess the coaching situation. It’s what athletic directors say and do. But if he’s waiting to see how Zook and the Illini perform in their last two games, against Wisconsin and at Minnesota, he’s misguided. You either believe in your coach or you don’t. You don’t wait to see how he fares in his last two games to know if he’s the man to lead the program he has led for seven seasons.

Zook’s record at Illinois is 34-49. Even if you take away his dismal first two years, when he didn’t have “his’’ players, the record is 30-30 (17-21 in the Big Ten) with two bowl appearances. Not nearly good enough.

What did we hear about the Zooker when he came to Champaign from the University of Florida? That he could recruit but couldn’t coach. Very little he has done at Illinois has changed the perception about his coaching. And his recruiting hasn’t been anything special.

The Zook Era can best be illustrated by a call he made against Ohio State last month. The Illini were down by 10 with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter. They needed a field goal and a touchdown to tie. Faced with a fourth-and-3 from the Buckeyes’ 17-yard line, Zook chose to go for the first down rather than try a 34-yard field-goal attempt, even though Derek Dimke had made a 49-yarder two games earlier. It was a brutal, jaw-dropping decision. A field goal at least gives you the chance to try to recover an onside kick.

When the Illini failed to convert — of course they did — the game was all but over.

No, it’s not fair to reduce a coaching tenure to one decision, but that call is representative of the kind of things that happen too often with Zook on the sideline.

Little buzz about Illini program

Illinois football should be so much more than what it is. It should be a bigger part of the conversation, especially in Chicago. That talk of the Illini in this city is not much louder than Zook’s raspy voice is a shame.

Whether Northwestern is or isn’t “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,’’ as it markets itself, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it shouldn’t even be a question. Illinois has the size and the resources to be a regular factor in the Big Ten, to own the state, to own this city. A bowl game every two or three seasons shouldn’t be the bar. Northwestern has gone to three bowls in a row.

We can debate forever how much control a college football coach has over his players away from the practice field, but the bottom line is that he’s the one who has the ultimate responsibility. The shooting of senior linebacker Trulon Henry over the weekend didn’t help Zook, in terms of timing. Same with the arrests of two redshirt freshmen after being involved in a fight.

But, as it usually does with ­college football, a coach’s fate comes down to wins and losses. There have been too few of the former and too many of the latter at Illinois. Simple.

Who’s to blame? Zook. Time to give someone else a look.

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