Putting the lie in Illini

One of the biggest stories of the first half of this college football season is the resurgence of Illinois football in year three under former Florida head coach Ron Zook. But is the media being completely honest about Zook's Florida performance?

Naturally, stories about Zook's newfound success will touch on his previous punchline status at Florida and early struggles with the Illini. If all of them are as sloppily researched as this one just published by CBS Sportsline's Dennis Dodd, this is going to be a really irritating month for Gator fans.

Let's be clear here. Zook deserves plenty of credit for the job he's done with Illinois. His hiring was a perfect match of a proven top recruiter with some familiarity with the Big Ten from his assistant coaching days and a school with an enormous talent deficit compared to others in its conference. Common sense also indicates that thanks to more experience Zook's a better head coach during his sixth year in that role than he was as a rookie. None of those things mean Florida made a mistake by dismissing Zook in 2004 midway through his third year. It was clearly the right move, and if national media figures like Dodd decide to put a revisionist spin on it they're doing their readers and the facts a disservice. Let's take a look at a few of Dodd's assertions in this article that simply aren't factually accurate.

"Zook landed that No. 20 recruiting class in February, but he'd done better than that at Florida, and look what it got him. A pink slip. Not even a thank-you for providing a core group of players who helped Urban Meyer win a national championship."

Last December, Urban Meyer said this after Florida qualified for the BCS Championship game.

"It's a great tribute to Coach Zook and his staff that we have the Ray McDonalds and Jarvis Mosses and Chris Leaks and Dallas Bakers and Jemalle Corneliuses running around. This coaching gig is overrated. You can't get it done without great players."

That's one of many times Meyer publicly thanked Zook for his work at Florida. But hey, why let facts get in the way of the spin?

"Zook was never a bad coach. He made the 'mistake' of being the guy to follow the guy. No one could measure up to Steve Spurrier even though more than one person, Zook included, has said that the OBC didn't exactly leave the cupboard stocked."

Zook lost six games at home in two and a half years - find me a coach anywhere whose fans won't be upset with that whether he's following Steve Spurrier or Steve Sloan. He lost twice to Ole Miss and to a Mississippi State team that had lost earlier in the year to MAINE. Does Dodd seriously want to assert UF lacked sufficient talent to win against the Mississippi schools because Spurrier didn't do a good enough job of recruiting? Zook's first UF team had more players drafted from it after that season than any other team in college football. That was insufficient talent, Dennis?

Really?

"Locksley (at Maryland) and Zook (Florida) met on the recruiting trail. When Zook got the Illinois job in 2005, he wanted Locksley to be his offensive coordinator and ace recruiter."

Actually, no. Zook hired Larry Fedora from his Florida staff to be his offensive coordinator at Illinois. Mike Locksley would have been welcome to join him as running backs coach, the same role he held on Zook's Florida staff, but was not given consideration for the offensive coordinator spot. Locksley was one of just two Zook assistants who had been retained at Florida by Urban Meyer. When Fedora got an offer for more money from Oklahoma State, he bailed out on Zook a month after accepting the job. Only then did Zook decide to offer the job to Locksley, because he knew giving Locksley the chance to be an offensive coordinator was the only way he could land his recruiting skills. It's unclear from the way this piece is written if Dodd even realizes Locksley was a part of Zook's Florida staff at all.

I shouldn't be surprised at this kind of sloppiness from Dodd. As this 2001 gem claiming Eric Crouch being conversational at Nebraska's media interviews weekly was a great reason to give him the Heisman Trophy shows, Dodd's never been real big on logic and details. (By the way, Dennis, Rex Grossman's 35 of 51, 362 yard, two TD pass, TD run and one interception performance against Tennessee was "tanking"?!)

But this is just the start of what's going to be a steadily bigger wave of pro-Zook publicity if Illinois's success continues. Hopefully some of the reporters will actually consider the facts as they assess Zook's Florida legacy rather than singing Dodd's ridiculous "poor Ron" tune.

The Heath Cline Show airs daily in Gainesville from 11-1 on The Star 99.5 FM


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