Regardless what happens this year during Illinois State’s football season, athletics director Sheahon Zenger will be drawing up a new contract.
If things go as hoped and expected, current coach Denver Johnson and his staff will be the recipients of the new deal. If things go south, then Zenger will be in the market for a new man to lead the program.
It’s that simple with Johnson in the final year of his contract.
Johnson has a 32-35 record in six years at the ISU helm, but things are in place for this to be the most successful season in his tenure and since the Redbirds advanced to the semifinals of the I-AA playoffs with an 11-3 ledger in 1999.
Last year the Redbirds surprised people by going 7-4, but it wasn’t good enough for Zenger to give Johnson a new contract and take the ISU coach off the hot seat this year.
To Zenger’s credit, it was his first year on the job and he wanted time to evaluate the overall program thoroughly. There were some who believed Johnson should have been given a new contract after last year to keep stability in the program.
However, had Zenger given Johnson a new contract and if this season goes bust, then Zenger would be saddled with a coach and program for an extended period of time that he might not necessarily want.
Johnson and the players know the situation as they prepare for the season opener Saturday at Kansas State, but Zenger doesn’t sense it being a distraction.
“‘Denver is directing the team in a great fashion with everything in mind,” said Zenger. “I sense the players know this can be a great season. The coaching staff has that mindset. Our staff has that mindset and I believe the community has that mindset. I don’t think any of us expects anything but a pretty special season.”
Zenger has been pleased with what he’s learned about the football program since arriving on campus a little over a year ago.
“In the time I have been here, I’ve seen that Denver and his staff have recruited well,” he said. “I was pleased with the game plans, the game organization, and discipline of the team in terms of penalties. What this team accomplished offensively and defensively, and where it stacked up in the conference and nationally, was pretty spectacular.
“The team has shown great academic progress over the last few years, particularly this past year, and they’ve done an incredible job being involved in the community. Denver has assembled a strong coaching staff. The practices are going well at this time and the team looks great.”
All of the above, along with injuries, etc., are factored in when evaluating a program. But as everyone knows, the bottom line is the won-loss record.
The Redbirds have been ranked as high as sixth nationally in preseason polls and third in the Gateway Conference, arguably the top I-AA conference in the country.
“Last year we performed beyond expectations,” said Zenger. “This year the conference and national polls have kind of put a target on our back. But I believe we have a staff and team full of competitors and it will be fun to watch them rise to the occasion. We are 100 percent behind our coach, staff and team.”
Zenger said he doesn’t have a “magic number” of wins the Redbirds have to reach for Johnson’s contract to be extended. Obviously, if ISU qualifies for the post-season playoffs, the decision is a no-brainer.
And it’s a safe bet that a record under .500 won’t produce a new contract for Johnson. If the Redbirds go 6-5 or 7-4, and don’t suffered a lot of injuries to key personnel along the way, then Zenger will have to take an even longer and harder look at what’s in the best interest of the program to move it forward.
Regardless what kind of start the Redbirds get off to (5-0 or 0-5), Zenger will not make a decision on Johnson’s future until after the season.
“I believe the coaching staff needs to have its season in its entirety, said Zenger. “I’ve learned in this business not to review based on potential, but rather on performance. We’ll sit down at the end of the year and review the season, and the previous six seasons, and take a look at the overall program.
“I think this is to Coach Johnson and his staff’s benefit because I believe in these guys and think they have a great year ahead of them. At the end of the year when that’s been born out they all stand to benefit substantially from that type of success.”
Here’s to hoping Denver is the one signing the new contract to be the coach at ISU next year and not someone else.