Column: We’re a basketball school? Don’t tell that to Ron Zook

By Steve Contorno

Three years ago, you could’ve filled Memorial Stadium with the people that wanted to go to Illini basketball games. As fans were perennially being turned away from sold-out Assembly Halls, football was lacking town and campus support. And deservedly so. Since Lou Henson’s Flyin’ Illini, Illinois basketball has been decidedly more successful, and more entertaining, than almost anything put on the field by John Mackovic, Lou Tepper or Ron Turner.

Enter Ron Zook.

We all know what happened once Zook got here, and it would be beyond redundant to list all of the statistics associated with the turnaround. Quite simply, the team played better. That’s really all there is to it. When you bring in better players and coach them better, the end result is going to be a better team. Complicated? It must be, because no Illinois coach has been able to do that beyond a few fluke seasons between 1983 and 2004.

But Zook did more than recruit players like Juice Williams, Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn: He recruited a campus. Whatever smooth talking he used to get top athletes to come to Illinois was just as effective on the Champaign-Urbana population. He wooed us through intense marketing campaigns that made everyone remember Illinois had a football team, too.

Maybe it started out simple. Certainly creating coachronzook.com and airing Ron Zook television and radio shows gave a dead program a personality. In 2006, he showed the Illinois-Michigan State basketball game in Memorial Stadium, giving away pizza and prizes and previewing his top-25 recruiting class.

During halftime of the game he ran highlights of the high schoolers he was bringing in, and when Williams came up on the big screen, cheers erupted in the crowd – ironically, and most likely comically, it was Tim Brasic cheering the loudest. Brasic knew he was out of a job. He knew Zook was bringing in players that didn’t equate to most of what Turner had brought in, and it would only be a matter of time before he was going to become a fan on the sidelines.

As it turned out, we all started becoming bigger Illinois football fans.

Though a seating change angered some of the fans, the overall renovation signified a changing culture. Football wasn’t going to take a backseat in the athletic department – not even to basketball. Even after coming off the greatest basketball season in the history of the program, Illinois fans were already embracing Zook as the savior of Illinois football. Students with “ZOOK” painted across their chest were a staple. Despite Illinois having a reputation for being a “basketball school,” Zook inspired a marketing campaign that attracted fans to the stadium and put a product on the field to keep them there. He promised the fans, as much as the players, that Illinois’ day would come. And it has.

The Rose Bowl is something this campus and this town are ready for. Watching fans prepare for this season, witnessing the sellout stadiums, seeing the riot on Green Street following the Ohio State game and observing Illini faithful line up in the freezing cold for bowl tickets, you would never know Illinois is a basketball school.

Maybe it’s not.

It’s been three years and it’s Assembly Hall that’s only partially filled now. Maybe Illinois has always been a football school with just a really good basketball team and an awful football team. Maybe all it needed was a coach with a knack for sweeping fans and recruits off their feet.

Whatever it was, Champaign doesn’t look much like a basketball town anymore.

Steve Contorno is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]