The Final Chapter of a Season to Remember

A long, long day -- for that matter -- a long season, had wound down. Earlier in the day, Illinois had just beaten Northwestern 41-22 to cap a magical turnaround season that even the most optimistic diehards didn't see coming. Now, late Saturday night, Ron Zook was at home, most of the throng of visitors had left. With the few that remained, he looked back on a day, a season, of magic.

"You know, this is pretty neat," he said. "The way the Illini people embraced us, the way they feel, the way we all feel, now, it's pretty neat. This feels like home to us now. It feels good feeling that is, feeling like you are at home. That is pretty neat."

And with that, the Illinois football coach who perhaps changed the self-esteem of Illini football fans for a long, long time, reminisced about a whirlwind weekend. A whirlwind season.

All that remained was family and a friend or two. The night had grown quiet. The food was gone. The drinks were dwindling. Everyone was tired. Even the head coach, who is never tired. But not too tired to tell the story.

"I wish you could have seen J. (Leman) with those guys last night, talking about what it has been like, these last years," he told me. "To hear him tell it, and to tell those guys what opportunity they had, I'm telling you if we had played last night, it would have been over fast."

As it turned out, it was over pretty fast any way. Illinois led 21-7 at the half, 28-7 early in the second and cruised to an easy win. Over a Northwestern team they hadn't beaten in four years. A team the Zook Illini had never beaten. Just like they never before had beaten Indiana or Penn State or Wisconsin or Minnesota or Ohio State.

That last one is the one that got people's attention, taking down the undefeated top team in the nation. After that win, Zook was interviewed by countless papers and TV stations, radio stations, and national shows such as Jim Rome, Tim Brando, Mike Tirico, Kirk Herbstreit, Mike and Mike, and on and on.

He received texts, e-mails and other correspondence from boosters, friends, well-wishers, peers. Even a few voicemails from the less technically-inclined, like what has become almost his weekly voicemail from his old boss Steve Spurrier. I was in Zook's office Friday and he was still talking about the message from Spurrier.

"Good job, Zooker," the high-pitched voice on the other end of the voicemail said. "Just keep it going. Think I'm gonna go get me one of them running quarterbacks. Yours is pretty good. OK. Good job."


"Coach Spurrier calls a lot," Zook said chuckling. "He really does. He has been great. Mark Richt always texts. Bunch of other guys. Everyone has been great."

Still, that game was over. Now it was on to Northwestern. And so much rode on this one. Lose it, and you lose the luster of the Ohio State win. You also lose the opportunity to play on New Year's Day and definitely lose the outside shot at the BCS.

By Friday afternoon, Zook was getting antsy.

"Everyone keeps telling me they are going to play hard," Zook said, his face looking agitated. "Well, you think maybe we are going to play hard, too? Our guys are ready. I can tell. You usually can tell. I looked into their eyes.

"I told them last (Thursday) night, hey, 8-4 is fine. Good record. Great turnaround. Nothing to be ashamed of. But, 9-3 is better. So if you want to be 9-3, it's up to you. You decide if you want one more win."

He told me he then watched them, to gauge their response. Some nodded. Some grinned. Some pounded the table. He knew.

"We're ready," he said Friday afternoon as he completed the story. "Our team is ready."

Before the game on Saturday, it was business as usual. Warmups on a beautiful day. Jason Reda making everything. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley working with Juice Williams on mechanics.

"Left shoulder too high," Locksley said. "Right one too low. Get parallel. Balance. Gotta have balance."

"Right coach."

And the balanced quarterback threw dart after dart. Has any quarterback's mechanics improved so dramatically so quickly?

In the locker room before the game, the usual suspects did their work, getting their team ready. Defensive line coach Tom Sims got 'em going, as always.

"It's been four years," Sims yelled at the top of his lungs. "Four years. Four years. Four years!!"

Message clear. It was time to end this. The team played hard. And Juice, with his new mechanics, again was sharp as a tack, throwing and running the Illini to victory. Although he did miss two wide open receivers for touchdowns -- Brian Gamble early in the game and DaJuan Warren later.

After the second one, running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, knowing the game was in hand, couldn't keep his dry wit to himself on the sideline.

"Juice," he said to the quarterback, not cracking a bit of a smile. "You're still rooting for us, right?"

Straight face the whole time. Juice grinned, shook his head. At long last, these are loose times on the Illini bench.

After the game, after Zook and Leman and others had been interviewed, all had reconvened in the locker room. There were smiles and tears and laughs and high fives. A post-game prayer. The retrieval of the tomahawk the two teams play for, that Northwestern has had for four years.

And finally, words from the coach.

"Guys, you now have a whole week off," he said to a throng of cheers. "Now, be smart. Don't do anything you know you aren't supposed to do. Represent Illinois the right way. We come back a week from Monday to start getting ready for a bowl." More cheers.

"And, one other thing," he said, as the room got quiet, everyone, players, coaches, invited friends, sensing the seriousness in his voice. "Always remember what you did today, this season. What you accomplished. Look around at these seniors, who have led us to this. Look at the bar they have set for you. Seniors, thank you. You'll have this, this season, this feeling, the rest of your life.

Then another long pause. The longest yet. The most silent the locker room has been. The most silent I have ever heard it. It was only about 10 seconds of silence, but it seemed like an eternity.

It was a time for players to think, for Ron Zook to realize where he has been through his coaching career, the depths he thought he never would hit at his previous job. The ecstacy he feels now.

"You've been through a lot, guys, we all have," Zook said, choking back the emotion as best he could, pausing again. "I love all you guys. I really, really do."

And it was over. The game. The regular season. This fabulous, fabulous season to remember.

Back at his house, hours later, almost everyone gone, all of us tired. I was tired of the day, tired of the emotion. Hell, I was tired of drinking Zook's beer.

But I couldn't help myself. I had to ask.

"There is about to be a coaching carousel like none other this year, Dude. You're about to start getting calls. Whatcha thinkin?"

"What am I thinking?" Zook said, repeating the question. "They can call all they want. I think I'm already home."

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