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Illinois Coaching Candidates: Who’s the Leader?


The rollercoaster tenure of Ron Zook has ended after seven seasons at Illinois, and athletic director Mike Thomas is conducting a search that has a wide array of candidates. Houston coach Kevin Sumlin’s name seems to come up in every coaching search, and he did play (Purdue) and has been an assistant coach (Minnesota and Purdue) in the Big Ten. When Thomas was the athletic director at Cincinnati, he hired current Bearcats boss Butch Jones. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi are two popular names in the Illini search, although neither has head coaching experience. Former Illinois player Kirby Wilson, currently the running backs coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, will also get a strong look. Big Ten Leaders opponents Ohio State (Urban Meyer) and Penn State will have new coaches, and the Illini will need a solid hire to try and compete in a tough division.

Who is your favorite to be Illinois’ next coach?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven
This is really a wide-open coaching search, and I’m not sure there is a clear favorite. Illinois’ first call should be to Houston’s Kevin Sumlin. He has Big Ten experience, playing at Purdue and later coaching at Minnesota. Sumlin may be more interested in Kansas or Arizona State, but it’s at least worth a phone call. If Sumlin turns down an offer, my next calls would be to Eastern Michigan’s Ron English or Arkansas State’s Hugh Freeze. English has Big Ten coaching experience, coaching at Michigan under Lloyd Carr. While English’s 8-28 record may not seem impressive, Eastern Michigan might be one of the most difficult jobs in college football. After going 2-22 through the first two seasons, the Eagles finished 6-6 this year, which was only their second season of at least six victories since 1988. Freeze has been a winner at each of his stops, including a 9-2 record at Arkansas State and a share of the Sun Belt title this season.

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Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden
Houston's Kevin Sumlin will be on every short list for every opening in college football. And rightly so, he is a quality option with a winning track record. However, if I was Illinois AD Mike Thomas, I am going after Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. The UW graduate is the architect of the best Badgers offenses in the history of the program and has been mentioned for bigger jobs at places like Texas. He has remained at Wisconsin for a reason: He is waiting for the right job at the right time. Illinois has rebuilt its facilities over the last decade, has loads quality talent returning in 2012 and Chryst has intimate knowledge of the midwestern recruiting territory. Anytime you follow a Ron Zook coaching tenure you are bound to find the ingredients for success minus quality leadership and intelligent game-planning — which Chryst brings with him in droves from Madison.

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch
My choice at Illinois would Hugh Freeze from Arkansas State. I realize Kevin Sumlin from Houston might have more experience as a head coach and has some ties to the Big Ten — he played at Purdue — but I believe Freeze is destined to be a great head coach at the major conference level. With one game remaining in his first season at Arkansas State, Freeze has an overall record of 9–2 and a perfect 7–0 mark in the Sun Belt. The Red Wolves’ only two losses came in September, at Illinois (33–15) and at Virginia Tech (26–7). Last year, ASU went 4–8 overall and 4–4 in league play — due to a defense that was among the worst in the nation. With Freeze as the offensive coordinator in 2010 — his first season on staff — Arkansas State improved from 328.8 yards and 22.7 points per game in ’09 to 403.4 yards and 30.0 points in ’10 — and this occurred despite the loss of a four-year starter at quarterback and a three-time 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield. Freeze also has previous success as a head coach. He was 20–5 in his two-year stint as the coach at Lambuth College, an NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn. Freeze might not be a household name in the Midwest, but the buy would be a big hit at Illinois.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman
I think it comes down to Cincinnati’s Butch Jones or Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, and Jones would have to be the slight leader because of his head coaching experience and past working relationship with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. After an injury-filled 2010 season, Jones looked to have the Bearcats set for a Big East title this season until losing star quarterback Zach Collaros against West Virginia. Thomas hired Jones at Cincinnati, and the new Illinois boss knows exactly what he would be getting in the current Bearcats’ boss. I think Chryst would be an excellent hire as well, and he will be a head coach somewhere soon. Kevin Sumlin of Houston seems like he may go to the spread/pass-happy world of the Big 12 or Pac-12, so I’ll take Jones as Illinois’ leader.

Nathan Rush
Follow my logic: Illinois football... Dick Butkus... Beer and Brats... Da Bears... Mike Ditka... Mustaches... Dave Wannstedt. That's the answer. The Fighting Illini need Wannstedt, a proven coach with a power 'stache and physical brand of old-school, Midwestern football. Wannstedt is an outside-the-box hire who may not get the base excited; but the 59-year-old would be a perfect fit in the Big Ten and especially at Illinois, a middling program that won't be able to land one of the top coaches on the open market. Wannstedt is only one year removed from coaching at Pittsburgh, where he went 42–31 over six seasons. He is a respected defensive mind whose offensive weapon of choice is an elite workhorse running back (a la LeSean McCoy and Dion Lewis), which happens to be the Illini's only recent recruiting strength (see: Mendenhall, Rashard; Leshoure, Mikel). Wannstedt has an impressive NFL resume — as a Super Bowl-winning assistant in Dallas and a Coach of the Year in Chicago — as well as recent college head-coaching experience. More than anything, I just want Dave Wannstedt back on the sideline, leading a college football team. Illinois should be that team.