Ron Zook Departs Fighting Illini With Class

Ron Zook, now the former head coach at the University of Illinois, ended his tenure at Illinois the way he began it, with dignity and class. He took the Sunday morning news from athletic director Mike Thomas like a man and proceeded to meet the media formally one last time Sunday afternoon surrounded by family, friends and many of his football players.

Ron Zook read from a prepared statement at his final Illinois press conference Sunday. He was emotional, especially when he mentioned his wife and his players. He accepted the firing gracefully.

"I'd like to take the time to thank some people that really made this last seven years special for Denise, myself and my family. First I want to thank my family. Denise, you've been my best friend for more than 30 years. The tougher things get, the stronger you are. I appreciate that.

"I'm grateful for my daughters Jacqueline and Casey and their husbands. They're a great support system. Casey and Scott are here, both of them are Illinois graduates. I know they're very proud of that, and I'm proud of that.

"I want to thank Coach Ron Guenther, the former athletic director. He gave us a chance here and stood behind us in some of the most difficult of times. I truly appreciate Coach Guenther.

"To our current athletic director Mike Thomas and President (Mike) Hogan, I understand you have a job to do, and sometimes that involves difficult decisions. I respect that.

"I want to thank our coaches. This staff, and the ones before them, have worked so hard. It's difficult sometimes to spend so much time in the office and out recruiting. You can't do that without great support at home, and our coaches have had that.

"I really want to thank the Illini fans. You welcomed us here, supported us, particularly so many of you here in Champaign. We feel like we're a part of this community. It means a lot. We'll be Illini fans forever.

"I even want to thank my friends in the media. We haven't always seen eye to eye on everything. That's probably the nature of the coach/media relationship. But you've been a fair group, and I appreciate that. Over the years, I've gotten to know a lot of you very well. I've enjoyed those relationships.

"I'm also proud of what we've accomplished. I see our facilities, the team, the foundation of our place. Two terrific bowl trips and hopefully a third this year. If it falls right, our fifth year seniors will make their third bowl trip. And the players can become the first at our school with two straight bowl victories.

"I think our program is very close, I really do. We just didn't quite finish a few games here or there, but I'm proud of how close we are.

"Finally, I want to thank our players. They know how I feel about them. I think you all know how I feel about them. They've come here, they've worked so hard, tried hard to do what we've asked of them. I have a great appreciation for our players and the relationships that we've shared. It is a family, it truly is.

"It's a difficult time. First and foremost, I want to make sure our players are okay. For that reason, it's not the time to entertain questions until I've had some time to digest and reflect. I think there will be a better time for that. I hope you all understand. Thank you."

With that, Zook walked out of the players' meeting room, his head held high. It was a difficult situation for him, but he handled it as well as anyone could under the circumstances.

A number of his players sat and watched, concerned for their fallen leader and wondering about their futures. Tavon Wilson graciously shared his thoughts.

"It's tough, you know. Coach Zook gave all he had for this university. It just didn't work out the way we planned. I know he would want us to go and win the bowl game, and that's what we're gonna try to do. Everyone wants to do it for himself, but we want to do it for him also."

It was especially tough for the players knowing how close they were to a special season.

"Yeah, we were real close. I'm confident that these guys will turn it around next year and continue to do the best they can. I wish those guys luck. We've got to finish strong, finish on a good note."

Trulon Henry also submitted to media inquiries. He was told his injuries would take 12 weeks to heal, but he's still hoping to be able to play in the likely bowl game. He was asked his impressions of the morning meeting Zook had with his team.

"He was all class; he wasn't too emotional. He addressed the issue and left it at that. He wasn't walking out of our lives, so he wasn't crying like it was a funeral."

Will the team respond to Vic Koenning as the interim coach as it prepares for the bowl game?

"The defense knows Coach Vic; we love him to death. The offensive side is gonna have to embrace him and learn to love him."

It was a difficult day for Ron Zook and Illinois. But it was handled as well as any of these situations can be handled.

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