Ron Zook the football coach is not the same as Ron Zook the person. The leader of the Illinois program must accept full responsibility for everything that happens. It is a pressure-filled responsibility. It prevents people from understanding what Zook is like off the field.
"I think if the people would sit down and talk with me as a person and not a football coach, they would see a completely different side of me. On the same token, it's easy to criticize about things you don't really know. It's like I tell the players, you don't know what you don't know. You may think you know."
That is a revealing statement. Zook is an honest person who would prefer to provide a complete and accurate description of events. But he has principles which take precedence at times.
"I'm never gonna throw a player under the bus. I never would. This is not the NFL, and these are young people. When I recruit them, I tell their parents I'm gonna treat them like I do my own children.
"It doesn't mean it's gonna be easy, it doesn't mean they're gonna like everything I say. But it still comes down to integrity, treating them like you would want your own children treated.
"Sometimes it's hard without throwing somebody under the bus. Maybe sometimes you're dancing around the answer. The critics, if they had children I'm sure they would want their children treated that way as well."
The media and general public are left to pass judgment on their own in these cases. And Zook might appear confused and uncertain, as if he's struggling with leadership. In reality, he is simply trying to protect a player or coach by deflecting blame. He serves as a lightning rod for all attacks on the program.
"The doctors tell me this is the way it's gonna be, and I don't question them because they're the doctors. That's their job. But it's easy to criticize a coach and what his decisions are because they don't know all the information."
There simply isn't time after a game to explain every decision. Most media queries pertain to those that backfired, and Zook can provide a short synopsis at best. If it involves personnel, he simply leaves out certain details. One way or the other, much thought goes into most decisions.
"In the course of a football game, there's not many decisions, when you're making them a million miles an hour in a very short period of time, without a lot of information and a lot of thought going into them. Obviously, there are some during the course of the game you've got to make by the seat of your pants. That's the way it is.
"But most of the time, particularly big decisions, there's a lot of thought and a lot of give-and-take put into it. At times there are decisions made that people don't like. The President of the United States makes decisions people don't like, but I'm sure he made them because it was what was best for the country. We make decisions that are best for the program."
A good example was Zook's decision during the 2007 season to accept an Iowa holding penalty on third and short at the 20 yard line. On third and long, Iowa completed a pass into the end zone to give them the winning margin in a 10-6 Illini loss at Iowa City.
Iowa had been running the ball effectively against a porous Illinois defense that lacked emotion after two giant home upsets of Penn State and Wisconsin. Because it appeared to be the most significant decision of the game, the media jumped on it afterward. Zook's explanation was ignored in the confusion of the moment.
In actuality, the decision was based on accumulated knowledge of Iowa's tendencies. It was a good decision that might have worked had a safety not blown his coverage. Zook explains the situation.
"The decision was based on the fact that in the previous 5-6 games, they had been in a very similar situation and had gone for it on 4th and one or 4th and two. Almost 95% of the time, when they were in that situation they went for it. They were going to go for it anyway.
"Well, what you want to do is play percentages. Had we stopped them, it would have been a great decision. Once again, these decisions are not made on the seat of your pants. It's made of film study and a lot of other things. It is information that I have that the normal fan doesn't have."
That decision, one of the few that backfired in the outstanding 2007 season, is used repeatedly as an example of Zook's incompetence as a coach.
As another example from that year, the Illini had built a 17-0 lead at Syracuse. The Illini kicked off to start the second half. Noticing the Orangemen dropped back their front five on kickoff returns, Zook called an onside kick. Mike Cklamovski, who had practiced the kick to perfection, missed the ball and Syracuse recovered.
Former Illinois coach Mike White did the exact same thing to begin the second half of a game when he coached in the 1980's. It worked, and he was revered for his creativity.
White went for the jugular. Getting the ball back and adding another score demoralized the opposition. Zook tried the same thing, but he was lambasted for missing it. Was it a bad decision or bad luck?
Zook defends the right of fans to criticize.
"We have great fans, there's no question."
Zook openly admits he makes mistakes. But in reality there are some things Zook can't divulge, things that might exonerate him if known. He must take all blame and leave it up to peoples' imaginations in those cases.
"That's all you can do. I'll be the first to tell you, the last two seasons we've not played up to our potential. There's a lot of things in a football game you don't have control over. But there are things you do have control over, and we didn't manage that. That's our responsibility.
"Is it totally everything I do? No, but everything falls under my responsibilities. I accept that. We've made changes to correct that. Hopefully that's gonna take place."
Every coach makes good decisions and bad decisions, both during games and in the normal course of managing their football programs. They all make far more correct decisions than incorrect ones. They are rarely credited for their good ones but blamed for every one of their bad ones.
"It's easy to criticize the decisions that don't work. But that's the nature of it."
In part four of this 9 part series, Zook talks about recruiting and special teams.