UPDATED 12/31 @ 3:31 p.m. ET: As it turns out, it was much ado about nothing.
Instead of following through with their threats to boycott Illinois’ bowl game due to a contract dispute, four offensive assistants were on the field and taking part in pregame activities, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.
The assistant’s former boss, Ron Zook, said the coaches were just trying to make a point.
“They’re going to coach,” Zook told ESPN.com last night. “They’re frustrated. But they’re going to coach. They know it’s about the kids. But they were trying to make a point. They’ve got careers, family, all of those things. They’re class guys. And it’s important that everyone knows they’re really good people.”
Illinois already knew it would play in the Dec. 31 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl without its head coach and offensive coordinator. As it turns out, they may be without any assistants on the offensive side of the ball whatsoever.
Speaking to Stewart Mandel of SI.com, offensive line coach Joe Gilbert, one of the four remaining offensive assistants from Ron Zook‘s staff who are expected to coach in the bowl game, said all of the leftover offensive assistants may boycott the game vs. UCLA due to a contract dispute. Specifically, the coaches — Gilbert not being one of them — thought they had signed two-year contracts in the summer of 2010, but learned upon their termination that what they’d signed were in essence one-year deals.
So, instead of taking to task themselves or the agents who allowed them to sign off on a contract they believe wasn’t verbally agreed upon in January of 2010, the coaches are threatening to, in essence, allow the Illini players to twist in the game-day wind.
“We all have opportunities to go elsewhere,” Gilbert told Mandel. “So, if they want the bowl game to be coached, they better decide they want to treat us the right way.”
Vic Koenning, Zook’s defensive coordinator who will assume the same position at North Carolina after the bowl game, will serve as the interim head coach against the Bruins Saturday. At least publicly, he’s distancing himself from the contractual squabbles his interim offensive staff has with the Illini administration.
“I’m trying to stay out of it,” Koenning said according to the Chicago Tribune. “That’s their deal. Some things happened in the middle there and we didn’t realize we didn’t have two-year contracts until we were [fired]. …
“If they don’t [coach], we’ll figure out what the next thing is. I’m not going to worry about something that hasn’t happened yet.”
How exactly the 51-year-old Koenning, a life-long defensive assistant, would handle having zero offensive assistants at his disposal remains unclear. It’s also unclear how Illini athletic director Mike Thomas could tell the Chicago Sun-Times Friday that he’s unaware of any boycott being contemplated by Gilbert, interim offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm, tight ends/fullbacks coach Chip Long and running backs coach DeAndre Smith.
From this vantage point, it just seems that suspect contractual judgment — whether by shady institutional practices or negligent representation or both — should not negatively impact the players in Saturday’s bowl game, some of whom will be playing their final game at the collegiate level and deserve better than this.
Then again, given the current state of the big business of college football, the student-athlete is more times than not far down on the list of considerations for the “adults” in charge.