Jay Christensen covered college football, among other sports, for the Los Angeles Times and produces the popular college football blog TheWizofOdds.com.
Each fall throughout Latin America, there is a gathering of family and friends who visit the graves of loved ones, bringing their spirits’ gifts and celebrating their lives. The holiday is called Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
A similar celebration takes place in Las Vegas, but it has nothing to do with family or friends. It can start at any point during the college football season, often lasts for weeks and is greeted with merriment by bettors.
It’s the day a team decides to quit on its coach.
Usually a team figures out that it’s quitting time after one of the players has sneaked into the football office late one night to use the copying machine, oftentimes as part of some academic cheating scandal — news sure to break in the coming months. The player flips open the machine’s lid and resting innocently on the glass is the embattled coach’s resume, mistakenly left there hours earlier.
Word, of course, spreads like a California wildfire, and within days the situation has spiraled out of control.
The next game, the bloodletting starts.
Which brings us to Ron Zook, coach of the Fighting Illini of Illinois. The Zooker, as he’s affectionately known by headhunters, is a master of getting hired and fired. Weeks after getting run out of Gainesville in 2004 following a failed gig as Florida coach, the Zooker somehow landed on his feet in Champaign.
Now in his fifth season at Illinois, the cycle is about to start again. The Illini have lost all fight and are a horrific 1-5, the victory coming against something called Illinois State. Against the spread, the team is even worse — 0-5.
Football historians will trace the origin of the team’s decline to Week 1 of the season. Illinois, a 6.5-point favorite against Missouri, won the coin flip and bravely marched 29 yards in seven plays before having to punt. Missouri got possession, and that was basically it. Final: Missouri 37, Illinois 9.
But the Zooker talks a good game, even if his team can’t play one, and he still had the betting public fooled as recently as last week, when the Illini were favored by 3.5 points at Indiana. Illinois lost, 27-15, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates.
The oddsmakers are finally onto it, throwing bushels of points the Illini’s way like a record harvest of corn in Central Illinois. Illinois opened as an 11-point underdog for Saturday’s game at two-win Purdue, and you’ll likely see the team getting double-digit points the rest of the season.
Illinois and Zook certainly don’t have the market cornered when it comes to quitting. Mike Sherman of Texas A&M briefly fooled the betting public when the Aggies opened the season with three victories against cupcake opponents.
Then came an Oct. 3 game against Arkansas. The Aggies, only two-point underdogs, were routed, 47-19.
It was clear at that point that A&M’s defense was among the worst in the land. Oklahoma State, in its first game without playmaking receiver Dez Bryant, scored 36 on the Aggies, and last week hapless Kansas State, a five-point underdog playing at home, scored 62.
To put it into perspective, Kansas State had scored a total of 62 points all season against Division I-A opponents.
Texas A&M, it would appear, is close to the tipping point.
We move west to lovely Las Vegas, where the Mike Sanford era at UNLV has been circling the drain for weeks, ever since an Oct. 3 trip to rival Nevada.
Sanford’s team was 2-2 when they teed it up against the Wolf Pack, whose coach, Chris Ault, was feeling the heat after a 0-3 start. Oddsmakers