Through the Trifocals

From Zup to Zook, it took only 10 coaches and 63 years to return us to a football team coached by a "Z" man. Maybe that is a good omen. Illinisports discusses the hiring of Ron Zook as head football coach at Illinois, with special emphasis on his recruiting prowess, in this column.

To quote a friend with connections to the University of Illinois Division of Athletics, "A dark cloud has finally been lifted from our football program." This writer concurs. The hiring of Ron Zook as Illinois' 22nd head football coach feels right, as if the Illini may finally be getting out of the quagmire of recent seasons for a return to the respectability it used to enjoy.

Ron Zook gives the Illini instant credibility on a national level because everyone follows the University of Florida in football and knows him by name from his years coaching there. Most of our players and potential recruits know of him and are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. His willingness to see Illinois as a program worthy of his consideration encourages others to respect us as well. His enthusiasm for Illinois may become contagious.

Illini football fans, leery and occasionally absent from Memorial Stadium in recent years, have a new reason for optimism. It wouldn't surprise this viewer if we witness a new groundswell of support for Illini football comparable to the early Mike White years. Ron Guenther has attracted a big name coach, so there is no doubt the UI administration is committed to winning. Zook's enthusiasm, high energy, aggressiveness, style of play, and recruiting prowess should all encourage fans to return to the fold in a big way.

Sure, there will be some who question the hiring of a coach who was just fired from another school. They believe a coach surrounded by such great athleticism within his state should do better than consecutive seasons of 8-5, 8-5, and 7-4. Illinois would have LOVED those records the past three years. As strong as the Big 10 has been recently, it still cannot compare favorably with the tremendous athleticism throughout the entire Southeastern Conference. Having a winning record in that conference is a tremendous accomplishment no matter what the circumstances. Of course, a few fans would have been unhappy with anyone other than Pete Carroll or Bobby Stoopes, the two coaches entrenched at schools playing soon for the National Championship.

And there will be some who remain bitter, at least for awhile, because their "hometown hero" Tim Brewster did not get the job. The University of Illinois has produced only a handful of quality major college and pro coaches over the years, but Brewster is likely the most qualified among them. While Brewster's enthusiasm for his alma mater and known recruiting prowess are attractive attributes, his lack of head coaching experience placed him at a disadvantage. Just like with fans of Jimmy Collins and Rob Judson in basketball, some Brewster loyalists will have difficulty transferring their allegiance to Zook. Ron Guenther probably felt he couldn't take a chance on an unproven commodity when someone with head coaching experience and comparable enthusiasm and recruiting ability was available.

The number of fans who are lost as fallout from this hire will likely be outnumbered several times over by those previously disgruntled fans who now wish to return to the fold. Illini fans are too discerning to accept mediocrity; most won't follow just anyone blindly. This new hire gives fans renewed hope that better days are soon to follow. If they see the improvement on the field, most fans will embrace our new coach with open arms. Illinois can yet fill Memorial Stadium and prove to the nation that it is both a football school and a basketball school.

Ron Zook's background will be discussed at length in other columns. But anyone who follows a legend such as Steve Spurrier is in for difficulties. And since Zook was in his first head coaching job, he likely had some growing pains. Any decisions he made in his first years were compared immediately with constrasting decisions Spurrier made at the height of his success. Who can compete with that without creating doubters?

Still, Zook is a highly respected coach who brings many years of experience working at both the college and pro levels with top athletes. He is a "player's coach" who earns the respect of his players and inspires them to play their best. His 3-1 record and remarkable victory at Florida State after being fired at midseason shows his dedication to his players and his ability to inspire despite many pressures against him.

Illini fans will likely look forward to Coach Zook's offensive and defensive philosophies, a product of his high-energy personality. He likes to spread the defense with a wide-open offensive attack. And all indications are that he loves a highly aggressive defensive style that will likely be a fan preference over the "bend but don't break" philosophy of some of his predecessors. He will go to war for the Illini on both offense and defense.

It is Zook's love of recruiting that has this writer the most excited. This is a person who supposedly requested a water-proof cellphone for his shower so he could have more time to recruit. He develops close relationships with young men at the highest level of athleticism and is dogged in his persistence at securing their commitments. He is willing to wait until signing day in early February to get commitments from top players instead of grabbing lesser talent earlier in the process. This proves he is not afraid to fail, the mark of a winner.

It has been said that Steve Spurrier left the cupboard bare of talent when he left Florida for the NFL three years ago. Of course, this is relative since Illinois would have taken the remaining players sight unseen. But Coach Zook uplifted Florida recruiting and signed 10 Parade All-Americans in the last 3 years. When was the last time Illinois had one Parade All-American, let alone 10? He was on the verge of having a team capable of competing for a National Championship in the next year or two, and his Florida replacement Urban Meyer will be the beneficiary of talent that is several notches beyond what Zook started with three years ago.

Ron Zook will have to do some rebuilding at Illinois, but when he gets things going, it will be his program and his team. Neither the ghost of Steve Spurrier nor any previous Illinois coach will be looking over his shoulder. There won't be all those spoiled fat cat alumni wishing to find fault for imperfections and looking for the first chance to make a change. All he has to do is get us to a bowl game in the near future and we will be ecstatic. And if he can keep us in a position of prominence, where we used to be, we will consider him a hero.

So the question now is, can he do the job? Only time will tell, but it is possible to make some inferences by examining his recruiting record while at Florida. Granted, there are quality athletes all over the country who would like to play in a warm climate, and Florida has built a national reputation that attracts front-runners. But much of Coach Zook's recruiting philosophy can work at any school.

Coach Zook and his staff literally canvass the whole country for athletes. And they are ambitious and aggressive enough to go after the superstars no matter where they are located. A look at his recruiting map on his own official website shows how his assistants divide up the country for recruiting purposes. While their main emphasis has been Florida and Georgia, two states with a vast quantity of athleticism, no part of the country is left untouched. Yes, this costs money and requires coaches with tremendous work ethic and commitment, but it is obvious they leave no stone unturned to find top players at each position. If they need a top quarterback or tight end, two achilles heels at Illinois, they don't have to limit themselves to the state of Illinois or the Midwest.

A study of recruiting expert Tom Lemming's "Prep Football Report", summer 2004 edition, is revealing as to the effectiveness of Zook's approach. This writer did only a limited analysis because of too many variables. After all, the evaluations in that report are one person's opinion, and they were made based on football players' performance in their junior years, long before their final football season. In addition, some athletes list a school like Florida among their favorites just because of its national reputation and may not reflect reciprocal interest. But a comparison of recruiting prospects between the University of Florida and the University of Illinois is still worthwhile.

There were a total of 1438 athletes listed with descriptions and school preferences in that magazine. Of that total, 458 received ratings of four stars or five stars, with five being the highest rating. Among those with four or five stars, 111 listed Florida among their favorite schools, which is 24.2% of the total. In contrast, Illinois was listed among 25 athletes or 5.5% of the total. And this was long before Illinois suffered through another difficult season which caused a number of top athletes to drop us from consideration.

Among the University of Illinois' 25 top player listings, 11 were from Illinois and five from Missouri. In addition, there were two each from Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan, and one each from Colorado, Tennessee and South Carolina. Only one of these athletes, running back Rashard Mendenhall, is presently committed to Illinois. Of the seven other commitments rounded up by Ron Turner and his staff before their departure, only quarterback Paul Blalock and defensive end Doug Pilcher were listed among Lemming's 1438 players, and they were both given 3 stars.

In contrast, Florida boasted athletes from 27 states among those with four or five stars. There were 19 from Florida; 12 each from Georgia and Texas; 9 from Tennessee; 5 each from New Jersey, Alabama, Virginia, and Louisiana; 4 each from California, Kentucky and North Carolina; 3 each from Arizona, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Mississippi; 2 each from Oklahoma, Missouri, and Ohio; and one each from Illinois, Utah, Washington, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Arkansas and Maryland. Wouldn't we love to have so many outstanding options for recruits?

There were 107 athletes from the state of Florida listed in Lemming's report, with all but two of them having at least three stars. Of the 105 total players listed from Illinois high schools (Lemming's home state), 30 were given only two stars, the lowest rating. So Florida had 105 athletes with three stars or better compared with 75 for Illinois. There were 38 with four or five stars in Florida compared to 23 in Illinois, and it was considered an above average year in Illinois.

The University of Illinois was only listed among 124 athletes in the entire nation, which is 8.6% of the total, and 85 of those were from the two states of Illinois and Missouri. Among the 64 athletes from Illinois listing the Illini, 12 of them received only 2 stars. The total number of athletes of all rankings listing Florida was too numerous to count. And if one were to rate all these players on a scale of 1-10 instead of 2-5, there is no doubt many Florida athletes would be at the top. The difference in athleticism is major and quantifiable despite comparable ratings in Lemming's report.

Obviously, Ron Zook and his staff are capable of making a good impression with the best athletes and have a national reputation. Of course, until Illinois returns to national prominence, we cannot expect the same level of recruiting success by Zook at Illinois. But it is clear he has developed relationships with viable contacts in many locales, and he can use all this previous experience to good effect at Illinois. It is also clear that he is ambitious enough to believe he can attract great athletes from anywhere in the country.

In contrast, it has been frustrating for Illini fans to study recruiting reviews like those put out by Tom Lemming in recent times. The number of athletes listing Illinois has dwindled in the past few years, and the total amount of interest we have generated has paled when compared to our Big 10 brethren. It is hard to remain optimistic of future success when your opponents are beating you at the recruiting game every year. But maybe that is about to change.

Many questions remain unanswered. Will Zook be able to salvage this recruiting season? Will any of these new prospects be able to upgrade our 2005 team? Will Zook and his staff be able to teach their playbook to our present team quickly enough to see improved results on the field his first year? How good will Zook and his staff be at actual day-by-day and game day coaching? How many years of recruiting improvement will it take to produce consistent bowl teams? When, if ever, can we hope to compete for a National Championship?

From observing Illinois' high and low cycles over many years, this writer trusts Illini fans to support our new coach in his efforts. Most of us will keep an open mind and allow him a honeymoon to prove himself. Deep inside ourselves, we are chomping at the bit to open our hearts to Illini football. We are just waiting for the right person to show us the way and lead us to the promised land.

Seven weeks ago, this writer asked Ron Guenther to find us a coach with special qualities in an open letter on this website. How close does this hire come to satisfying that request?

1. Do a nationwide search...check.
2. The new coach needs to be energetic and inspirational...check.
3. He needs to be media friendly...check.
4. He needs to excite fans and alumni...check.
5. He needs to be a tireless worker, coach and fund raiser...check.
6. He needs to have a wide open offense...check.
7. He needs to have a strong, aggressive defense...check.
8. He needs to be able to restore player confidence...likely a check.
9. He needs the reputation of having a high-powered assistant coaching staff composed of great coaches and recruiters...check.
10. He needs to be a great recruiter...triple check!!!
11. Hold out for a hero...pretty close to it from these eyes.

Ron Guenther wants more than anything for football at Illinois to be nationally prominent. He believes Ron Zook is the man to make this happen. If Guenther is right, and if we are willing to show some short-term patience, we may all eventually be extremely pleased. Even the doubters.

And on a personal note, this writer can't wait for next summer's 2005 edition of the different recruiting reports to see how many athletes are listing the Illini. Maybe, just maybe, happy days are here again!

Go Illini!

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