CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - Illinois coach Ron Zook was fired Sunday after the Illini followed a 6-0 start to this season with a six-game losing streak.
Zook and the Illini finished off their collapse with a 27-7 defeat at Minnesota on Saturday.
“I believe we need new leadership to take the program to the level to compete for championships on a consistent basis,” Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas said in a statement released by the university. “This is an extremely competitive conference, and we are determined to go head-to-head with the very best.”
Zook wasn’t immediately available for comment but planned a press conference for late Sunday afternoon.
Zook finished 34-51 at Illinois. He took the 2007 team to the Rose Bowl and lost to USC. Last season’s squad beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
With six wins the Illini could still go to a bowl game. It would be their first back-to-back bowl appearances since 1991 and ‘92.
Zook came to Illinois in 2005 after being fired in his third season at Florida. He replaced Ron Turner, now an Indianapolis Colts assistant coach.
The 2007 season was Zook’s high point at Illinois. The Illini were Big Ten runners-up and upset an undefeated Ohio State team in Columbus that was shooting for a perfect season and a national title.
But only two of Zook’s Illinois teams finished with winning records, 2007’s 9-4 squad and last year’s 7-6 Texas Bowl team.
Thomas praised Zook for the elevating Illinois _ Zook took over after Turner produced four losing seasons in five years. But Thomas, who became AD just last summer, also alluded to Zook’s uneven tenure at Illinois.
“It is imperative that our program shows some consistency and competes for championships, and I think a change in coaches can help us get there sooner. I wasn’t here seven years ago when Ron Zook took over as coach, but it’s clear the program is in better shape than what he inherited.”
As word of his firing spread, some of Zook’s former players used social media to support their former coach.
“Zook was a good coach and Man,” former Illini quarterback and current Oakland Raiders receiver Eddie McGee wrote on Twitter. “Great person who believed in his players. Would do anything for them. If you played for him you know that.”
“I still love him as a coach and as a father figure,” current Illini tailback Jason Ford wrote.