The Illinois football program was at low ebb when Ron Zook was named head coach. After a glorious 2001 season when Ron Turner led the Illini to a Big 10 Championship and Sugar Bowl berth, the team fell on hard times. In Turner's last two seasons, the Illini were 1-11 and 3-8. And the depth of talent was extremely low.
Did Zook know how bad it was when he accepted the job?
"No I didn't. I didn't look at it that way. I had some other opportunities at the time. First of all, I took this job because of Ron Guenther. It's important you work for a man who understands the profession and understands what goes on."
Zook prides himself on his ability to recruit, so he felt he could upgrade the talent level. He saw things at Illinois that led him to believe the school was capable of sustaining a winning program.
"Obviously, I knew it was in the Big 10 and was a great academic institution. But on the same token, they hadn't had a lot of success in the previous years.
"One of the questions I asked Coach Guenther in the interview was, 'What is your reason for Illinois not being able to maintain success?' We have everything everyone else has. We have a good academic institution. We have great facilities.
"We have 13 and 1/2 million people in a three hour radius of us, so we have a great recruiting base. We've got money. What is the reason why we haven't maintained the success that we should?"
While these questions are always difficult to answer, Guenther alleviated Zook's concerns enough to accept responsibility for turning around the program. The first thing he did was emphasize the word "Believe." After all, after years of failure the players and fan base lacked confidence. They needed to believe they could win before they could do so.
"That's the challenge. People don't understand, it's hard to win a game. Just like it's hard to win a game in the NFL, it's hard to win a game in college as well. John Gruden and I spent a lot of time talking about that (recently).
"John Gruden's a Superbowl coach and got fired with Tampa Bay. In a year, he went from being a genius to not knowing anything. You don't just get dumb as a football coach. You don't forget what you learned."
Illini fans didn't expect instant miracles, with good reason. Zook's first two teams were 2-9 and 2-10, although the scores were much closer the second season. They lost to #1 Ohio State only 17-10 and had their chances against strong Penn State and Wisconsin teams. And that was with a freshman quarterback at the helm.
By 2007, the Illini had a large number of seniors who were tired of losing and dedicated themselves to reversing their fortunes. There was plentiful, competent leadership throughout the team, with fifth year seniors accepting second team roles to provide excellent depth.
In addition, running back Rashard Mendenhall came into his own his junior year, giving opposing defenses a major headache every game. Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams began to relax and gain confidence, running the option to perfection and passing effectively when needed most. Rookie Arrelious Benn gave the Illini a deep threat.
No one expected a Rose Bowl season. Games with Missouri in St. Louis and at Syracuse early in the season raised concerns, as did early home dates with ranked Penn State and Wisconsin squads. But the Illini won five of their first six games and gained the momentum necessary to sustain quality effort the whole year.
"Winning is a habit, and unfortunately so is losing," Zook stated. "That's all we talked about in the first three seasons. We were much better in the second year, but the record didn't show it. And then third year we got on a little bit of a roll and guys started believing. It's hard to maintain that success in any program."
Looking back, the Illini had many ingredients necessary for success. But they also had good fortune. For instance, senior middle linebacker J Leman made two great plays to thwart Penn State touchdowns. First, he slapped the ball from the hands of tight end Andrew Quarless as he was entering the end zone. Then, he intercepted a pass intended for Quarless to stop another threat.
Scribes bragged about Leman's exceptional plays, but he said afterward he was beaten on both plays. In the first instance, the ball was caught over his head but held out where he could slap it away. On the interception, the ball was underthrown. He made the plays, but he also had good fortune that might not have occurred on another day.
"An inch difference. Those things happen."
If anything, the Rose Bowl opportunity occurred much earlier than anyone had a right to expect. Not even Zook expected it.
"No, of course not. That's why I say the '08 and '09 seasons on paper were better football teams. It comes down to guys making plays."
Leman might have been fortunate, but his great plays may have given Illini players the extra boost of confidence needed for the rest of the season.
"J Leman making the plays in the Penn State game. What happens is you get a little bit of confidence and get rolling, and then things start happening."
That level of good fortune hasn't followed the Illini since. In the last two seasons, balls have bounced up into the arms of opponents who returned them for touchdowns. An offensive lineman caught a deflected pass for a two point conversion to give Fresno State a victory in the 2009 finale. Injuries to key personnel prevented continuity.
"Who'd have said that last year, the second and third plays of the season we lose two key players? That's a hard bolt right there."
When the Illini went 5-7 and 3-9 the last two seasons, every aspect of Zook's program was questioned. In part 3 of this series, Zook talks about decision-making and accountability.