Ron Zook has had a long and distinguished career as coach at all levels of football. He served as an assistant at Murray State, Cincinnati, Kansas, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Ohio State and Florida. He also worked for three pro teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints. He was defensive coordinator with the Saints.
He came to Illinois after serving three seasons as head coach at the University of Florida. He inherited a team at the absolute depths of its storied history and has worked feverishly to return the U of I to national prominence.
Zook took time out from his busy schedule for a lengthy and exclusive interview for Scout. Since his good friend Frank Frangie is the publisher of the Illinois Scout website, the first question pertained to their relationship.
Frangie reports frequently on the Illini boss, so it seemed only fair to give Zook a chance to return the favor. As it turns out, Zook has never read any of Frangie's material.
"I don't read Scout. A lot of times people have asked me if I read what Frank wrote, but I don't even know how to get on that."
Their friendship is unique.
"My relationship with Frank goes back a long way, 1991. Frank in a lot of ways corrects me. He tells me what I should be saying or how I should be saying it.
"He knows I'm an emotional guy. I'm a person who wants to say what I feel. I don't try some politically correct way to say it maybe. I bounce things off of Frank because he's gonna tell me, maybe not what I want to hear but the way it is perceived out there."
Some journalists find fault in their subjects and sensationalize apparent discrepancies to grab more readers. Through experience, Zook has learned he can trust Frangie more than most journalists.
"I have. When you go through some tough times...Frank was at Florida when I went through some of the things there.
"Like I said, very seldom does he tell me what I want to hear. He tells me what I need to hear. I think that's probably the biggest thing. He understands the profession.
"He doesn't tell me who to start at quarterback or what the quarterback should be doing. And I don't tell him how to do his business."
Zook realizes the Internet is here to stay. While there are some solid journalists working for websites, every individual reader can express his own opinions and try to influence others whether credible or not. It makes coaches leery of the medium.
"I don't get on the internet. I don't get caught up reading that stuff. You can't, quite frankly. People may say it's a good story, but if you start reading the good ones you start reading the bad ones.
"In this profession, and it's one of the things that makes college football such a great profession, whether you like football or not it gives people an opportunity to give their opinion and be right. It's their opinion, so they're right."
Unfortunately, coaches don't have time to respond to every accusation. And everything they say in response might be used as fodder for additional criticism. If the individual respondent gets the last word, gullible readers may tend to believe him instead of the truth.
"You can't go around disputing everyone's opinion. You've got to know the direction you're going and your course."
Sadly many beliefs rise up, especially during bad times, that have no basis in fact. For instance, some believe Zook isn't smart enough to be a head coach. Nothing could be further from the truth, as his college background attests.
"My college major was Comprehensive Science. I was gonna be a dentist. I took all the stuff pre-med students took. They made me pick up my education degree along with it to be certified, so that's why I was in the field of Comprehensive Science.
"I was certified to teach anything in science. My first two years out of college I taught Biology and Chemistry and coached (at Orrville High School)."
Few college coaches could survive such a rigorous curriculum and play football at the same time. But that is what Zook did at Miami of Ohio.
Zook has an active mind, one that travels a mile a minute. He tries to state aloud everything that crosses his mind, but his mouth can't keep up. Since he sometimes switches thoughts in mid sentence, some use that as proof he lacks intelligence. In actuality the opposite is true.
"A lot of times, you're thinking so much further ahead than the normal person, that it may come across that way sometimes. It's easy to criticize people if they really don't know what's going on."
This is the first of a nine part series. In part two, Zook talks about what he found when he took over the Illinois job, the Rose Bowl season and why he still feels the UI is a good place for winning football games.