A crazy day in the land of orange and blue as Zook walks out of press conference. Just another day after chaotic weekend.
The circus came to town early this week, and the sideshow featuring the job status of Illinois football coach Ron Zook took center stage again Tuesday.
One day after attempting to avoid questions about his future, Zook walked out of his weekly news conference after warning the media he wouldn’t talk about his job.
“I want to make one thing clear,’’ Zook said to start the news conference. “This thing is about our football team, the team we’re playing. It’s not about me. It’s not about my future. I think our fans and players deserve that. If you feel compelled to talk about that, then my part will be over with.’’
When asked 15 minutes later about his status becoming a distraction to the team, he grabbed his papers and walked out.
“You just couldn’t let it go,’’ Zook said.
With the Illini free-falling to 6-4 overall and 2-4 in the Big Ten Conference heading into a Big Ten Conference game against No. 15 Wisconsin (8-2, 4-2) Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2), the distractions have become the story.
Zook’s status. The Illini’s four-game losing streak. The gunshot wound to Trulon Henry early Sunday morning. Two freshmen arrested in a separate incident last weekend. It's more interesting than the game, in which the Illini are 14-point underdogs while trying to find the running game and a way to stop the Badgers.
But the topic of Zook is off limits with the coach, who said Monday night that it wasn’t the proper time to ask if he’ll be back next year. When is the right time?
“Whenever something happens, if it happens,’’ Zook said.
Zook is 34-49 in seven years at Illinois. After a 6-0 start, the Illini still could finish with a losing season for the fifth time under Zook.
Bowl eligible in early October, the Illini will accept a bowl berth no matter their record. If the Big Ten bowl slots are already filled, the Illini would be a strong candidate to fill other bowl slots left vacant.
Athletic director Mike Thomas indicated there’s no scenario where a coaching change would be made before the end of the season.
“As I said from Day 1, I will assess the situation throughout the season, and at the end of the season, we will go from there,’’ he said in his office Tuesday. “If you ask me three days from now, I will give you the same answer.’’
While Zook retaining his job is considered a long shot, there are three scenarios to consider:
-- If the Illini win their last two regular-season games, it would be difficult to fire a coach at Illinois with eight victories in a season, considering the program’s long-term history.
-- If the Illini split the last two games, Zook’s job is seen as in peril.
-- If the Illini lose the last two games, Zook would be fired.
Zook has two years left on a contract that pays him $1.75 million per season. The buyout is $1.3 million per year.
The players wouldn’t talk about Zook, most likely by design.
“We really don’t hear too much,’’ quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “We’re focusing on our stuff. We’re not on blogs or chat boards. We just need to focus on what we need to do and let other people worry about the other stuff.’’
Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus described the weekend as "chaotic.''
"That was really a tough weekend,'' said offensive tackle Jeff Allen. I totally forgot about football after the siutation (with Henry).''
Putting this all out of mind -- especially Henry's injury -- to play Wisconsin might be difficult.
"I don't know that you want them to put everything aside,'' Zook said. "You want them to focus on the job and play as hard as they can. If they can't focus on their job, then you have issues.''
Former Illini wide receiver Arrelious Benn, in town to visit Henry (Benn’s brother), spoke to the team following practice Tuesday.
“I told them to keep fighting,’’ Benn said. “Nothing else matters but the team right now. We don’t care about what anybody else says.
“They have a lot more talent playing on offense than when I was here. They’re just a couple plays away, some big splash plays. When they look back at the tape from what they did the first couple games to what they’re doing now, they’re two totally different teams.’’
Zook promised changes in plays, personnel and tempo against Wisconsin. But the change everyone wonders about concerns his job.
“I feel for presidents and head coaches,’’ said Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who compiled a 5-29 record as Wyoming coach from 2000 to 2002. “That’s the two most criticized people in the country.’’
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.