Ron Zook on The Rose Bowl, Being Relaxed and Martez Wilson at Media Day


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Perhaps the fate of University of Illinois football coach Ron Zook DOES lie in this year’s performance. He’s not feeling the pressure to win now, however, either way.

“No, I don’t, to be honest with you,” Zook said at Monday’s media day press conferences. “I think everyone that stands up here today has got pressure.  Obviously some of us have more than others.  I think the thing that you try to do is you do the best you can do.”

The problem with that statement is that over the last couple of seasons, Zook’s best hasn’t nearly been good enough.

By Paul Schmidt

Two seasons after the Rose Bowl successes of the 2007-2008 campaign, denizens of Champaign-Urbana are left with basically nothing to look forward to. The roster is young.  The roster is unproven.  Where there are veterans, questions abound.

And this is the roster that Zook needs to make a bowl with this season.

All along, Ron Zook was viewed as a master recruiter, a guy who might not exactly be a tactician on the football field, but that would certainly bring in top talent to Central Illinois.

He put up 8-5 records at Florida — That’s something that you can’t do in Gainesville, but if you do it in Champaign, they erect statues for you in front of Memorial Stadium.

However, the talent well has dried up, as Zook’s classes get worse and worse as we go into his tenure, including this past season where he rated as one of the bottom two or three (depending what scouting mags you read) classes in the Big Ten.

So it’s even more mystifying that he would drop this gem at the beginning of his presser:

“And the way the players, the way they responded, I think it’s a tribute to both the coaches and players, the type of young men we have,” Zook said. “And our guys, they feel like they have something to prove, which I think is exciting to be around that kind of attitude. It’s kind of like the attitude we had a couple of years when we were fortunate enough to go to the Rose Bowl.  I think on paper we’re probably every bit if not better a football team than we were that year. But still there’s so many things that enter into it.”

You read that correctly — Ron Zook believes that this football team is every bit as good as the 2008 Rose Bowl team, a team that featured 10 players on offense and defense that have been or are still in the NFL. It makes it difficult to take anything that Zook says seriously after a statement like that.

The larger problem is that Zook actually believes he can win. Actually, it’s ok that the head coach of a major college football team thinks his team can win — what the actual problem is is that he believes the methods he has employed so far have actually worked.

The one good thing this season is the new coordinators actually appear capable of doing their jobs. Vic Koenning on defense and Paul Petrino on offense both signed multi-year contracts and appear set to totally revamp the game-plans on both sides of the ball (more on that tomorrow). These won’t be your Daddy’s Illini, that’s for sure.  Hell, this won’t be last year’s Illini, for that matter.

The question remains though, do either of the coordinators have the personnel to do what they want and need to be successful?

One good piece of news coming from the Zook press conference, and something that wasn’t just owed to the delusions or hubris of the head coach, was on the health of middle linebacker Martez Wilson.

“He had a great, great spring. He had a great camp. He was playing as well as any Mike linebacker I’ve been around probably anywhere,” Zook said. “In fact, actually he went through spring, he didn’t go through the contact. It was hard to keep him out of it because he was always trying to stick his face where he shouldn’t stick it. Just got his final checkup last week, and got 100 percent clean bill of health and ready to go.”

Wilson’s health means that the defense will automatically be more athletic and dangerous than they were last season. Will it actually matter, though?

In Ron Zook’s world, it might just make them National Championship contenders.

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  1. O-town Gator says

    Ron Zook will be damn lucky if he still has a job before the upcoming season comes to a close.

    As far as that season the Fighting Zookers went to the Rose Bowl, that was nothing more or less than a fluke. If it wasn’t, you’d see Zook post winning records on a consistent basis. The Zooker can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

    “Zook the master recruiter” is a load of crap. Based on what he did at Florida, he seemed to be more concerned with how many stars a recruit had as opposed to addressing crucial roster needs, as evident by the fact that Urban Meyer was forced to re-assign some player positions once he took over our football program once Zook was fired. Not to mention that the Zooker is probably one of the biggest wasters of talent in college football. As much as he likes to think he’s a jack of all trades, he’s a master of none.

    Before anybody goes thtowing that “Meyer won with Zook’;s players” BS back at me, let me remind you that around 40 or so of the players on that 2006 team were either recruited by Urban Meyer or Steve Spurrier. Given Urban Meyer’s track record with recruiting and his winning percentage, he can easily sweep Zook under the rug.

    Let’s face it, the Zooker isn’t head coaching material for a BCS-division school. Illinois would be best served by doing what Florida did back on 10/25/04 by canning his sorry ass and replacing him with somebody more competent in every aspect.

  2. Gator Jim says

    Harsh, O-Town, but very true. I agree with everything you said. I lived the Zooker’s time at Florida as did every other alum and fan of the Gators.

    I would add that Zook is a very likable and nice guy. A very hard worker. As you mentioned, he focused on the number of stars a potential recruit had, but not on where the holes were on the team’s roster. Great coaches will let four and five players go to make sure that they have a complete offense and defense. This is one of the things that RZ does very poorly.

    Another thing he does poorly is preparing players to play. At Florida, the top-rated quarterback he inherited from Spurrier’s recruiting, Chris Leak, was never schooled in what was needed to improve his terrible mechanics. On top of that, Leak never received a play or called an audible under RZ. All play calls came in from the bench to the center, and the center made all the decisions.

    RZ also tends to be a friend to the players, not a coach. These are young men approaching adulthood and they need guidance. Again, look at the great coaches of the past (and present).

    There is no need to discuss play calling, that has become evident to everybody.

    Illinois needs to cut its losses while their is still money to keep the program alive. When you can’t fill the stands and ticket prices get down to $2 or $3, the program is in big trouble. The alumni will quit supporting the program, then what will you have? I know for a fact that many Florida alums told petitioners for contributions to the University’s General Fund and various colleges, that they would not contribute another penny to the U of F until Zook was fired.

    I have many Illini friends, and believe me, I am sympathetic to your situation. Are you going to let the program bleed out? Your choice.

  3. Hey Gator guys, thanks for the comments. Gainesville is one of my favorite college towns I’ve ever visited — I followed Less Than Jake around Florida in 2001, and partying with the coeds on campus was awesome.

    There are a couple things I disagree with — the first being that that Rose Bowl team was a fluke. There are currently 10 players off that team in the NFL, and at least 2 others that were on practice squads or been invited to camps (best as I could find there were 2, perhaps more. If Josh Brent lands somewhere other than a bar, for instance, that number increases). There was a TON of talent on that team. If you’re saying it was a fluke they were invited to the Rose Bowl, well, there we might agree, but it’s only because the Rose Bowl went out of their way to make sure it was a Big Ten/Pac Ten game…Illinois represented fairly well. If Fred Sykes manages to not bobble a ball on the three yard line, it’s a 3 point game in the third quarter. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way…

    The other thing I wanted to address is the idea he won’t coach through the season. I think it’s highly likely that not only will he finish this season, he’ll be around at least one more year if not until the end of his contract. The reason? The state of Illinois is broke. Zook’s buyout is basically the balance of the money left on the contract — there’s no discount (Thanks, Illinois AD Ron Guenther!!). And since they extended him out further last season, that means he’s due 1.5 million dollars per season until after the 2014 season.

    This matters because when I say Illinois is broke, they are REALLY REALLY BROKE. They have the second largest unbalanced budget of all the 50 states. They are leaking money like a sieve. The Board of Trustees and the President of the University — someone who just started their job like a month ago, no less — are somehow going to have to justify to the state Congress that they need 6 million more dollars on top of the 1.5 they just paid him this season to get him out of dodge. And I don’t think they’re gonna do it.

    What do I think they should do? Demote him. Say they’ll pay him that money. He’ll be the D Coordinator. He’ll be the head recruiter (because while you guys say he is terrible, he’s brought in talent here — he just can’t get it to perform, which is a separate issue in my mind from recruiting). He’ll have to report to someone and won’t be in charge of everything.

    Would he do it? I doubt it seriously…but it would be interesting to see what his response was. We may as well get something for the ridiculous amount of money that, one way or another, we’ll be paying him.

  4. paulmbanks says

    Paul is right, wow how little do I say those words…hey hey!!!

    But seriously, Gator Dudes, I love you guys, thanks for stopping by I appreciate it. Please spread the word about the site, but Paul is right our state is so deep in the red there’s NOTHING we can do. NOTHING. The bigger villain here could be Guenther because he extended him, and acted so short-sightedly.

    Was 07 a fluke, yes and no. It’s a fluke if you look at the records since then and before. But then you’d have to say the same thing about 2001 under Ron Turner.

    And that 01 team has 4 NFL WRs, and kind of like the 07 team, had double figure guys play in the NFL (most of them had cups of coffee but it was the NFL nonetheless)

    any good Illinois season seems like a fluke, but it’s. Zook built something, he had a plan, and it came to fruition in 07. then everything turned to shit since then.

  5. paulmbanks says

    Zook is a great recruiter. it’s just that his last couple classes have been bad because word is out that Xs and Os are not in his vocab. But the Gator guys are right, it’s not worth discussing anymore.

    To build along Paul’s idea. I think the reason we have two new HIGHLY PAID, flashy coordinators is that they’ll take over much of Zook’s responsibilities, and some of the Zooker’s power was taken from him this offseason.

    It’s the only thing that makes sense.

    And yes, he recruits only namebrand, not for need. Unlike Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerlad, who recruits to a system, and thats why they’ve had a much better overall 2000s than the Illini, even though the Cats have bagged just two 4star recruits this decade.

  6. Dave Wischnowsky says

    Thought I’d weigh in here with a few thoughts …

    Ron Zook is plenty nice. I’ve met him a number of times and had one brief one-on-one conversation. He’s also plenty dumb. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is. And reporters I know who cover the team on a regular basis concur with it. But Zook’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t think he’s dumb. I believe he thinks quite the opposite, in fact, which isn’t a good thing when you’re running a Big Ten football program. He isn’t honest with himself about what he is and what he isn’t. I don’t imagine he ever will be. Really, it’s quite remarkable that he’s risen to the levels he has within the big-time football ranks.

    Last spring I was at an Illini Meet & Greet event in Oak Brook and Zook was the “emcee” of the evening affair, which had about 100 alums in attendance. To kick things off, Zook stood behind the podium and said “It’s great to be here with the University of Flori..Illinois.”

    Five years after he had left Gainesville.

    Zook tried to claim they were discussing SEC football at Big Ten meetings earlier that day (whatever). Most people laughed it off, but I groaned and thought it was oh-so-telltale of the guy. He’s far too scatterbrained to be a head coach. I think at any level, to be honest.

    That said, there is almost no way he gets fired this season. If Illinois wins four games, I almost guarantee he’s back. I think he’ll be back even with three wins. He might — might — get fired if he forces Guenther’s hand with a two-win season or worse. But with the dire financial situation of the university, it’s highly unlikely that they buy out Zook’s contract as well as the new coordinators, who both were given two-year deals.

    Here’s my worst-case (and, frighteningly, most likely) scenario for Zook: Illinois goes 4-8 or 3-9 this season and Zook returns. Then Illinois goes 6-6 next year because we have eight flippin’ home games and we make some crummy bowl. That means Zook is back again for 2012, at which point we tumble back to 3-9 or 4-8. So, unfortunately, I think we’re likely stuck with the Zooker for three more years … at least. It’s not a good situation. And Illinois will go nowhere until it has a new head coach — and, hopefully, a real head coach. Not a defensive coordinator (Lou Tepper), an offensive coordinator (Ron Turner) or not a “recruiter” (Zook). A. Head. Coach.

    But following Zook, we’ll probably take what we can get.

    As for Zook’s recruiting prowess, I think it’s greatly exaggerated. 1.) It’s not very difficult to recruit to Gainesville, 2.) Zook’s recruiting “legend” at Illinois was based largely off three players: Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson, of which all three have been disappointments to varying degrees (and showed little to no progress development-wise during their careers — We’ll see about Martez, but I think he should be Simeon Rice and put on the edge to chase the QB, not slotted at MLB. He’s not bright enough for that position — I know people who know him. Yet, that’s where is.)

    Besides those three players, Zook hasn’t really brought in any guys who are more highly touted or more talented than any other Big Ten program. And last year all he did was lose our top recruits at the last minute to Iowa and Nebraska. His recruiting pitch at Illinois has also become quite stale. When you go to a Rose Bowl and stumble to 3-9 two seasons later with essentially the same guys, people are going to tune you out.

    Unfortunately, there is not enough football fervor in Champaign-Urbana to force a change. Illinois is a basketball school, always has been and always will be. But it’s also the most underachieving football program in America. Perhaps some day someone will take over the reigns and make the program what it could be (there’s no reason it can’t be as good as Wisconsin’s. None. Yet it’s nowhere near.) Perhaps.

    Alas, until then, we’ll continue to Zook ‘Em.


  7. paulmbanks says

    hahaha I love it when the comments are longer than the article itslef, and we;ve had a few of those here.

    I would concur 100% there is no reason ILL can have a fb program on par with Wisc, or even Michigan St for that matter. we have the facilties, the access, the conf, the recruiting ground…but right now we’re like Indiana or Syracuse.

  8. paulmbanks says

    And good pt about how our last 3 coaches have been specialists, not actual coaches. unless you define “coach” as someone on par with Vinny Del Negro, or below.

    and yes both zook and martez will not be awarded any Rhodes scholarships anytime soon

  9. O-town Gator says

    As things have turned out, we Florida fans were right about Zook all along when we tried to give the Illini faithful a heads-up after you had hired him to replace Ron Turner, but we were brushed off and scorned over having fired him back in ’04. Several variables were considered when the decision was made, but the bottom line was that Zook wasn’t UF material. When he was a part of Steve Spurrier’s staff in the mid-90’s, he was demoted for not meeting expectations and the blase performance of his defensive charges at that time.

    Santayana once said that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Zook didn’t learn from the mistakes he made at UF, repeated them again at Illinois, and those same mistakes have his current job in jeopardy – micromanaging his assistants, not developing the talent he brings into the program to its full potential, poor gameday strategy, and poor clock management.

    Yes Dave, Zook is an idiot – an idiot and a loser.

  10. paulmbanks says

    All-time WORST, and highest in unintentional comedy moment in Ron Zook history:

    2006, 32-31 home loss to Indiana, largely due to Zooker’s inexplicable decision to go for 2 (and missing) instead of kicking the extra point with the game tied in the 3rd quarter.

    Then he answers a reporter’s question about this decision and I quote “it really didn’t matter that much” WHAT??? You lost by one pt.

    then the very next day Eric “Basketball Judas” Gordon defects from Illinois to Indiana..probably coincidence, I doubt he made his decision based on that football game, but congrats Zook for screwing up both programs in the same weekend

  11. O-town Gator says

    Zook the Schnook also made one of his biggest bonehead calls back on 1/1/03 in the Outback Bowl in trying to salvage the Gators playing against Michigan (which we had no business losing; as usual, Zook goes into his “prevent” mode in the second half of the game) with that trick play that was botched; his excuse was “Rex was open”.

    There was absolutely no excuse why we had to squander a lead against Miami in ’03 and wind up losing that one, either. Again due to Zook’s prevent-defense, we blew that one. Man, that really pissed me off.

    His usual excuses? “It is correctable, and we’re getting better and better.” Yeah, and I suppose the moon is really made of green cheese, too. Never taking accountability for what went wrong, and no clue how to resolve the many issues we had.

    The “Fratgate” episode pretty much started the demise of Zook in September ’04, and the loss to Mississippi State in October of that year was the final coffin nail, thank God. He was fired two days after that fiasco. Enough was enough.

  12. paulmbanks says

    Oh I forgot about that. Zooker and Train Rex together on the same team for a couple of years…wow! What a pairing from hell that is. I’m shocked you guys got 8 wins out of a team that had such serious deficiencies at head coach and QB. rather important positions.

  13. O-town Gator says

    Steve Spurrier could handle Rex Grossman; moRon Zook didn’t have a clue as to how to do it. Sexy Rexy just missed out on the Heisman in 2001 (which, IMHO, he should have won – NOT Eric Crouch) and, had it not been for the events of 9/11 disrupting our season, could have led us to a National Championship that year.

    As I see it, Zook shouldn’t be allowed to get near quarterbacks. He damn near let Chris Leak’s talent go to waste; had it not been for Urban Meyer coaxing him out of his comfort zone and bringing out the best in him, Chris wouldn’t even be on a CFL roster right now. The Zooker didn’t do squat for Juice Williams, either.

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