Zook Now Getting Props He Always Deserved

It was sort of funny when I talked to Ron Zook yesterday. Seemed like the same guy. I recognized his voice, his thoughts, his wit. For some reason, I expected someone different, now that is a good coach and all, not just a good recruiter. That is what everyone is telling us, right? In fact, it was sort of fun seeing how he is handling his newfound fame.

Mostly, it was funny to see that he is, well, not really handling any differently. But, Ron, aren't you now a good coach AND a good recruiter?

"Yeah, that part is sort of funny," Zook said through a chuckle. "We go for it on fourth down and make it and now I'm a good coach. Well, you know what happens if we go for it not make it, don't you? And they come back and win."

You're a bad coach?

"Absolutely." And more laughs."Still a bad coach."

Give Zook credit. He's never lost his sense of humor about all of this. He knows the real truth -- that making a fourth down doesn't determine whether you are good coach. So what does?

How about taking a moribund program dearth of talent and confidence and, in three short years, turning it into one of the elite teams in the Big Ten, full of confidence and toughness, a team that is far better conditioned, a team that plays with swagger yet efficiency, that maintains an element of self-esteem. How about that?

And about that self-esteem, have you been on the Illinois campus lately? Have you seen the look in the students' eyes? The confidence. The happiness. Have you been in the tailgating parking lots and seen fans and boosters who have been doing this 20 and 30 and 40 years and have you seen how they feel about their team now? That is much-awaited self-esteem.

Part of that, of course, is getting great players to come to Illinois. Nobody thought the Illini would be landing the likes of five-star recruits Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson. But it also is recognizing that Vontae Davis and Will Davis and Daniel Dufrene and Brian Gamble and Miami Thomas would be big-timers even without the stars.

And it is getting Vontae and Benn and Juice Williams ready before their time because the Illini badly needed them as true sophomores. It is developing players quickly.

It is finding the right position for players like J. Leman and Xavier Fulton and Ryan McDonald and Russ Weil. It is instilling confidence back in Jason Reda and Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell.

Overall, it is in taking the entire package and turning it into something truly special, truly memorable. And doing it after just two tough seasons.

"You know what I'm most proud of?" Zook asked me last night. "I'm proud of our players. How they are handling this. Man they are great kids. I'm so happy for them, that they are getting to enjoy this.

"And I'm happy for the Illini nation. They have accepted us from day one. We're not there yet, got a long way to go. Got a huge game Saturday with Northwestern. But we're getting there. These fans deserve that, they deserve this journey, because right now, that is what this is."

Still, because he went for it, and made it, his media plate is full today. Mike North of Chicago in the morning. And the national shows -- Mike and Mike; Mike Tirico and Kirk Herbstreit; Tim Brando. ESPN's First Take, which used to be Cold Pizza or Warm Pizza or Somne Pizza. National websites and publications. All on Monday.

Good thing Juice made that inch.

The truth is, Ron Zook always has been a terrific coach. His first two years at Florida were his first ever as a head coach after 25 plus years as an assistant. It takes a little time to make that transition and you make some mistakes. But that apparently was enough to convince some folks that he couldn't coach.

People apparently didn't notice that at Florida, he didn't inherit one player who went on to become a fulltime NFL starter? Not one. At Florida? Yet he still got to two Outback Bowls and finished 6-2 in the SEC both of his full years. Then he rebuilt that program into one with a national championship roster. Plenty of those guys, by the way, already are starting in the NFL. And there are more to come.

Zook's SEC record at Florida -- despite that it was his first head gig, despite what he inherited and being fired midway through his third season -- was 16-8. Urban Meyer's three-year SEC record is 17-7, one game better.

Zook is like every other coach. He is going to make some coaching decisions that turn out very good and he is going to take some chances that don't work. And some will decide how good he is by which ones turn out.

"Look, I have an awful lot of friends in this business, and we all know the score," he said. "When it works out, you're a genius. When it doesn't, you aren't very smart. And that's OK. That comes with the territory. We're all fine with that.

"What matters most is our players, who have worked so hard, are experiencing some success. And that is so rewarding. And our fans get to feel this way. And I feel so good about that. That is what matters."

Sure sounds like the same guy to me.

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