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Tupper: How long is Guenther's leash on Zook?

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Illinois coach Ron Zook talks with Tavon Wilson (3) during a Big Ten Conference football game against Penn State on Saturday (Oct. 3, 2009) at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. (Pantagraph/Joel Fellers)

There were tears in the Illini football locker room after the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 2008. It was sadness at not being able to win a revered bowl game in a beautiful college setting.

But there also was a sense of optimism and hope. Illinois football had climbed up off the mat, had staged an exciting season, and, after this unexpected visit to Pasadena, was ahead of the curve on its resurgence back into the land of college football relevance.

Ron Zook and his crew were rounding up talented players and maybe the best was yet to come.

Less than two years later, we are wondering how in the world did this Illini football program swerve so completely into the ditch?

How did individual players such as quarterback Juice Williams regress?

What happened to the promise of magic from wide receiver Arrelious Benn, who hasn't caught a touchdown pass in almost a year?

How did a team that looked like it might join the upper crust of the Big Ten become the last-place team in the league?

When - and how - did this team slip through Zook's fingertips?

And, perhaps most important, what happens now?

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As the 1-4 Illini prepare for Saturday night's road game at Indiana, there are far more questions than answers at this point.

Can Zook, who received a one-year, $1.5 million extension in July that keeps him under contract until January 2014, survive beyond this season?

Does his boss, Ron Guenther, see Zook as capable of engineering the far-reaching fix it will take to get this back on track?

Or does Guenther conclude it is broken beyond internal repair?

Do donors who might help pay for a buyout trust Guenther to hire another football coach? Many tell me they do not. Guenther has done a great job with facilities and fundraising, but his formula for hiring a football coach hasn't worked the way he'd like.

And what will Guenther's new bosses (a new president, a new board of trustees) have to say about the next hiring process? In the past, they allowed him to be a one-man search committee. Will they demand a different approach? Should they?

Until now, Guenther has not wanted to wade in on what could appear to be a vote of confidence for Zook. That's messy business if it can be avoided, and I'm told he feels it's still too early for such a public discussion.

But if Illinois loses at Indiana and at Purdue the following weekend, the time for such a discussion will be at hand.

And there are financial variables to consider, beyond a buyout.

Now that Memorial Stadium has been renovated, the athletic department depends a great deal on those luxury suite leases. No one feels good about paying high rent to watch low-quality football. Fans want to win, but at the least they want to have hope.

Each week, it feels more and more hopeless.

Students exited Memorial Stadium early Saturday against Michigan State, and more and more season ticket owners are willing to hand them off to anyone who wants a first-hand peek at an inferior product.

Answers to the biggest questions will depend almost entirely on Guenther's assessment, and he meets regularly with Zook to take a hard look at the issues. Guenther has always been supportive of his coaches, but he fired Lou Tepper, he fired Ron Turner and if he sees ruin beyond repair, he'll fire Ron Zook, too.

In a couple of weeks, Guenther may be willing to offer insight on some of the tough questions.

But many fans already have their own answers.


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