Exclusive Interview: Disch on Why He Stayed

At long last, Dan Disch could relax. The Illinois co-defensive coordinator had spent a whirlwind five days, traveling to Tampa, visiting the University of South Florida and mulling an enticing offer to come home to Florida and run the Bulls' defense. Only after agreeing to stay with the Illini could Disch finally relax and reflect in this first interview since he made the decision.

"Whew," Disch said last night by phone with a chuckle. "Stressful. Real stressful. But I feel good about this. I feel very good right now."

Truth is, Disch had two very good options. From the time he arrived in Tampa Monday afternoon, was wined and dined by USF brass, he knew the decision wasn't going to be easy. Coach Jim Leavitt made it known the minute Disch got off the plane how badly he wanted him.

"It was a really good offer, really good," Disch said. "And I really respect Coach Leavitt, the job he has done there, the way he handled it. I really liked him. That is an impressive program. And it was close. I went back and forth. But in the end, this (Illinois) is where my heart is.

It also had something to do with unfinished business.

"I really wanted to see this through. I came in with Coach (Ron) Zook and we've got this thing closer to where it needs to be. But we're not there yet. I didn't want to leave before we were finished."

That theme resonated with Disch throughout, even though he was most intrigued with the opportunity in Tampa. He was impressed with everything he saw at USF, impressed with the way they handled the interview. And impressed with the offer.

Disch didn't get into specifics, but said the offer was very generous. A source at USF said he would be by far the highest paid assistant at USF. The offer was significantly more than he was making at Illinois.

Disch arrived in Tampa early Monday afternoon from Chicago Midway Airport and spent that day and night there and much of Tuesday morning. He spent time with Leavitt, assistant coaches, others involved in the USF program. He was impressed by all.

By the time he boarded his flight back to Chicago at 1 p.m., his head was spinning. Illinois was still in his heart, but returning to Florida, regaining years on his State of Florida retirement, but at a much higher rate, getting a significant pay raise and the chance to be the sole architect of the defense was enticing.

He called Zook and said it went well, but he hadn't decided anything. They would talk later that night.

"I wanted to talk to my wife, to talk to coach, to talk to people I trust," Disch said. "It was a big decision."

Meanwhile, Zook was driving to Mattoon for a speaking engagement and function, thinking about the conversation and about his next move.

"I was really concerned," Zook said. "Because so many people were calling interested in the job that I thought maybe he had taken it. I didn't think Dan would ever do that without telling me, but so many had called. There seemed to be a rumor he took it."

But the depth of the long friendship between the two might have been one of the most important factors. Disch returned close to the time Zook was driving back in from Mattoon, around 9 Tuesday night. Disch called him and said we need to talk. Zook said come on over.

"He came over to the house last night and we had a great visit," Zook said. "Talked about everything. He spoke very highly of USF and everything there. But it was clear that he wanted to be part of this."

Zook said the other thing -- maybe the main thing -- that impressed him about the conversation was that Disch never leveraged him. Typically, in this industry and others, the coach comes back with, "This is what they offered, what can you do?"

Zook asked how much USF was willing to pay and Disch said, 'Coach, it's not about that.' Still, Disch told him and Zook said he would take it from there.

That night, Disch told Zook he was leaning toward staying. But he still wasn't sure. He called him the next morning to make sure he was solid -- Disch indicated that he had had further conversations with Leavitt but, again, his heart was in Illinois. He was going to call Leavitt and decline. He made the call moments later.

"I'm real excited," Zook said. "I was excited that I knew how much being here meant to him."

In the meantime, Zook and athletic director Ron Guenther met to discuss the situation, the assistant coaches contracts, etc. Both were impressed that Disch decided to stay without a guarantee of more money, just trust that Illinois was the right place and that the powers that be would make it right.

At the end, neither Zook nor Disch were discussing dollar figures, but you got the impression Illinois came to the table, even after the fact.

So how does the entire episode affect Disch?

"It really doesn't," he said. "It's nice to be wanted, to really be pursued, and I sure have respect for Coach Leavitt and South Florida. But I appreciate how Coach (Zook) handled it the entire time. Never told me not to go interview, certainly understood that I needed to check it out.

"Now, it's time to get back to work. We've got work to do, exciting work."

And Zook?

"I think everyone knows how I feel about Dan," Zook said. "But I appreciated how he handled the entire thing. I think a lot of people around here gained a lot of respect for him."

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