Zook brings energy, new expectations to Illinois

Ron Zook always looked good in orange and blue, and though he won't be wearing the orange and blue of the University of Florida next year, he will still stay with that color scheme as he leads the University of Illinois of the Big Ten Conference. Zook confirmed to Gator Country.com Monday that he's been hired as the new coach for the Fighting Illini who have won only four games in the past two years and shared a few thoughts with us.

He will start off with great expectations of the future and his continued passion and excitement for football that he has always displayed.

"It is an exciting opportunity," he said via phone Monday evening. "It is an opportunity for me to remain a head football coach. It is an opportunity to go to the Big Ten Conference. It is a very prestigious school. It is a program that we are looking forward to try and take to another level."

It is expected that Zook is going to make more than departing Illini Head Coach Ron Turner's 1.1 million dollars a year. This combined with the 1 million dollar plus buyout from the University of Florida, should leave him better financially than he was at the University of Florida.

It is currently expected that as many as five current assistants on the Florida staff may follow Zook to Illinois. New Florida Coach Urban Meyer will certainly bring some of his assistants to Gainesville in January. It is not known at this time which assistants may be retained or wish to be retained. The Florida staff is regarded as very tight group. Zook speaks well of the most recent version of the Gator staff.

"Obviously, I think that where this program has gone in the last three years, speaks a lot for the staff that we had," he said. "You are only going to be as good as your staff. Our staff has done a great job, not only in recruiting but coaching. One of the things this staff did not get a lot of credit for was how good of a job they did at coaching.

"Last year we had a true freshman quarterback in the SEC, and that is a feat in itself. We were able to improve all three years. We were a team that was improving this year. There is no question that we had a good staff and when you have one, everyone is going to try and hire them. I would be foolish not to hire them just as anyone else."

Zook had hoped to coach the Gators in the Peach Bowl against the University of Miami, but it was decided by Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley that it would be best for UF if defensive coordinator Charlie Strong handles the Gators for the bowl game in Atlanta. Zook had been in a bit of a quandary about coaching the bowl with the chance to avenge the fourth quarter meltdown against Miami in 2003 weighed against a legacy of leaving on top after beating Florida State in Tallahassee in the last game of the 2004 season. While he will not coach the Gators for the bowl, he says the players know his heart will be with them on that day.

"Our players understand that I am behind them 100%," he said. "We have a great coaching staff. They will be fine."

With his usual burst of non-stop energy, Zook is already burning up the telephone lines to potential assistant coaches and recruits. He's had an incredible amount of calls from coaches who want to join him at Illinois, and he will be going after the same blue chippers he pursued so heavily when he was the head coach at Florida.

"After the announcement (at Illinois), I will be back here (Gainesville) and get some things cleaned out," he said. "Obviously I work for the University of Illinois. They won't need me in that game (Peach Bowl), it will be a great game that the whole state of Florida will enjoy watching.

"I said when that team (Miami) came out of the tunnel (at The Swamp, 2002) the first time, in three years our team was going to look like that. When they (the Gators at the Peach Bowl) come running out of the tunnel, I think you will see our team does look like that."

Though he's no longer Florida's coach, to him the Gators are always going to be "our team." Just because he will be coaching somewhere else, he has a love and passion for the University of Florida and for Gainesville that just won't stop. He will make Illinois his team and the Illini faithful will get a first hand look at how he throws himself full force into the job, but no matter where he is or what he does, Florida will always own a piece of his heart.

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