By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The Ron Zook era had a few highlights, but his seven-year tenure at Illinois was mostly met with mixed results. During Zook’s watch, the Fighting Illini played in the 2008 Rose Bowl, but followed that up with a disappointing 5-7 season. Illinois showed improvement last season, finishing with a 7-6 record and a Texas Bowl win over Baylor. And things were looking up after a 6-0 start this year. However, the Fighting Illini lost six in a row, including a disappointing showing in the finale against Minnesota.
Who might replace Zook at Illinois?
Tim Beckman, head coach, Toledo – Beckman is a rising star in the non-BCS ranks, leading Toledo to a 21-16 record over the last three seasons. The Rockets fell just short of winning the MAC West title this year, but have earned a bowl trip for the second season in a row. Beckman also has coaching stops as an assistant at Bowling Green, Ohio State and Oklahoma State.
Paul Chyrst, offensive coordinator, Wisconsin – Chryst has quietly become one of the top assistants in college football. Under his direction, the Badgers have led the Big Ten in scoring offense for three consecutive seasons. Before joining Wisconsin as the offensive coordinator in 2005, he coached at Oregon State from 2003-04 and with the San Diego Chargers from 1999-01. However, he does not have any head coaching experience. Chryst graduated from Wisconsin in 1988, so pulling him away from Madison won’t be easy.
Dave Doeren, head coach, Northern Illinois – Doeren has only been a head coach for one season, but the results are impressive. The Huskies finished the regular season with a 9-3 record and a spot in the MAC title game against Ohio. He has Big Ten coaching experience, working at Wisconsin from 2006-10. Doeren is probably a longshot considering his overall limited head coaching experience. However, he appears to be a name to watch for BCS coaching searches in the next few years.
Ron English, head coach, Eastern Michigan – Coaching in Ypsilanti at Eastern Michigan is arguably one of the toughest jobs in college football. English has made steady improvements, starting 2-22 through his first two years, but leading the Eagles to a 6-6 record in 2011. While six wins may not seem like much, before this season’s record, Eastern Michigan had only two seasons of at least six victories since 1988. English has Big Ten coaching experience, working under Lloyd Carr at Michigan from 2003-07. He may not be the flashiest name, but he’s a no-nonsense coach and someone who can get results at a bigger program.
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – Fedora’s name has popped up in a couple of coaching searches – Ole Miss, North Carolina, Arizona State and Kansas – and probably won’t be at Southern Miss next season. If this is Illinois’ target, it will have to move fast. Fedora has led the Golden Eagles to a 32-19 record in four seasons and a Conference USA East title this year. Before coming to Southern Miss, he coached at Florida and Oklahoma State as the offensive coordinator. Fedora does not have any Big Ten coaching experience, but has built a strong resume from his time with the Golden Eagles.
Hugh Freeze, head coach, Arkansas State – Just like Fedora and Hudspeth, Freeze is going to be a hot commodity this offseason. In one year as Arkansas State’s head coach, Freeze led the Red Wolves to a 9-2 record and a shot at the outright Sun Belt title. He worked as an assistant at Ole Miss from 2005-07 and went 20-5 in two seasons as the head coach at Lambuth. Freeze is regarded as a great recruiter, but does not have any experience in the Big Ten. He is also expected to be targeted by Memphis and Ole Miss to fill its vacancies this offseason.
Mark Hudspeth, head coach, UL Lafayette – Hudspeth has had a quick rise through the coaching ranks over the last few seasons. He was the head coach at North Alabama from 2002-08, leading it to a 66-21 record and four playoff appearances. Hudspeth worked under Dan Mullen at Mississippi State from 2009-10 and took over the head coaching spot at UL Lafayette this year, leading the Ragin’ Cajuns to an 8-4 record and a berth in the New Orleans Bowl. Hudspeth is expected to be in the mix at Ole Miss, so Illinois will have competition if it is interested.
Butch Jones, head coach, Cincinnati – With the uncertainty surrounding the Big East, Jones could be looking to land with a job with more stability. Before an injury to quarterback Zach Collaros this year, the Bearcats were in complete control of the conference and an automatic spot into a BCS bowl. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas hired Jones from Central Michigan to Cincinnati, so there is certainly plenty of familiarity between these two.
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – There’s some baggage with Leach, but he’s a proven winner. During his 10 seasons at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders recorded an 84-43 record and made 10 bowl appearances. Leach’s offense wouldn’t fit well with the current personnel at Illinois, but would be a difficult matchup once he gets the right pieces in place. Leach is also expected to be targeted by Arizona State and Kansas for its openings.
Jim McElwain, offensive coordinator, Alabama – Nick Saban assistants have not fared tremendously well – Derek Dooley, Tennessee, Will Muschamp, Florida and Jimbo Fisher, Florida State – but McElwain should get consideration in coaching searches. He has done a good job during his tenure with Alabama, helping to coordinate the Crimson Tide’s offense over the last four seasons. Despite having a first-year starter at quarterback, Alabama finished third in the SEC in scoring offense this season. And the Crimson Tide won the national title with a first-year starter in 2009. McElwain has never been a head coach, but is a proven coordinator with some NFL experience – 2006 with the Oakland Raiders.
Garrick McGee, offensive coordinator, Arkansas – While Bobby Petrino calls the plays, McGee is a highly-regarded assistant. He nearly landed the job at Tulsa last offseason, but withdrew his name from consideration. McGee has also made stops at Northwestern, Toledo and UNLV. He is a longshot to earn the job, but is someone that is due for a shot as a head coach.
Paul Rhoads, head coach, Iowa State – Rhoads has arguably one of the toughest jobs in the Big 12 at Iowa State. However, he has led the Cyclones to an 18-18 record in three years and will likely make a bowl trip this season. Before taking the job in Ames, Rhoads coached as the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Auburn. He also spent one season as a graduate assistant at Ohio State (1991). Rhoads wouldn’t be the flashiest of hires, but is a proven winner and his results at Iowa State are impressive.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Sumlin has done a terrific job in four years at Houston, leading the Cougars to an undefeated 2011 regular season and two previous bowl appearances in 2008-09. Despite his recent ties to Texas and Oklahoma, Sumlin actually has a Big Ten background. He played at Purdue from 1983-86 and coached in the Big Ten at Minnesota from 1993-97 and at Purdue from 1998-00. In addition to his Big Ten ties, Sumlin coached under Bob Stoops from 2003-07 at Oklahoma. There are few (if any) holes in Sumlin’s resume, and he will be one of the most-sought after coaches this offseason.
Willie Taggart, head coach, Western Kentucky – Taggart inherited a difficult situation at Western Kentucky, a program that had only won two games in the two years prior to his arrival. After a 2-10 record in his first season, Taggart led the Hilltoppers to a 7-5 record and a likely bowl appearance this year. He does not have any experience coaching in the Big Ten, but coached under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-09.
Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Venables is regarded as one of the top assistants in the nation. He does not have any head coaching experience, but has worked under two of the best in college football: Bill Snyder (Kansas State) and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma). While Venables is likely to come up in this search, he could be more interested in the opening at Kansas.
Kirby Wilson, running backs coach, Pittsburgh Steelers – Wilson is a wildcard to watch in the coaching search. He played at Illinois from 1980-81, but has no head coaching experience. Wilson has spent a majority of his career in the NFL, with his last collegiate experience coming in 2001 as an assistant at USC. Although Wilson is a former Illinois player, not having head coaching experience could hurt his chances of landing the job.