The difference maker

Illinois head coach Ron Zook yells at players during the game agaist Ball State at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Oct. 27. Erica Magda

John Zich

Illinois head coach Ron Zook yells at players during the game agaist Ball State at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Oct. 27. Erica Magda

By Mike Theodore

Ron Zook said it best during his press conference following the BCS announcement that sent Illinois, a team that went a combined 4-19 the previous two seasons, to the Rose Bowl.

“What a difference three years makes,” the coach said, as his quarterback – his prized recruit from Chicago – sat smelling his rose, and his senior middle linebacker sat a few feet away with his red rose clenched between his teeth.

It was just three years ago that Zook, an outcast in Florida, took over one of the worst college football programs in the nation. The Gators fired Zook and his staff midseason after losing to Mississippi State, but Zook stayed on and coached Florida for the remaining four regular-season games, three of which the Gators won, including an upset at Florida State in the regular season finale.

“It just didn’t appear to be working,” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley told the New York Daily News at the time.

“It certainly wasn’t working the way I thought it would when I hired Ron Zook three years ago. I take full responsibility for that.”

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Weeks later on Dec. 7, 2004, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther named Zook the 22nd head coach in Illinois history. At his introduction, Zook pronounced the ‘s’ in Illinois.

But the lowly state of the program dwarfed the new coach’s mistake.

Zook made a splash in his first game as head coach, when his Illini rallied and knocked off Rutgers in overtime. Illinois went on to lose 20 of its next 22 games. Despite the repeated losing, Zook, as he mentioned at the team’s annual banquet Saturday night, believed in his program. And he wanted everyone else to believe, too.

And in just three seasons, the coach’s belief has produced results. The Illini finished 6-2 in the conference and nine overall victories earned the school its first BCS bowl berth since the 2001 season. In November, the Illini traveled to Ohio, the state Zook grew up in, and upset the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. The victory put the Illini on the national stage and stamped a marquee win on their bowl resume.

The Illini not only found success on the field this year, but also in the recruiting races as well. Last February, Zook brought in a class that turned heads and spurred a negative New York Times article. Those that know Zook understood his recruiting success instead of making accusations.

“I think number one (recruits) know how genuine he is,” assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell said. “They know what you see is what you get; he’s a guy that truly cares about them.

“I think you can tell that about a person, so when you’re around him you know he’s a good person and a good man. On top of that he’s a relentless worker when it comes to recruiting and coaching. He just has the passion for it.”

Linebacker J Leman echoed Mitchell’s praise.

“From the moment the recruits come in they meet the whole team, it’s not just the host,” Leman said. “We go away to Camp Rantoul and that’s a bonding thing. More than anything he’s always there, like a dad, for these players. They can talk to him about anything.”

Already known for his relentless work attitude for coaching, Mitchell also stressed Zook’s strong commitment to family.

“The thing that he always talks about is families first, especially with the staff,” Mitchell said. “If you have a problem with your family and you can’t be there, go be with you’re family, and I think players know that.”

The University Board of Trustees extended Zook’s contract through January 2013 after a 3-1 start in conference play this season.

“He means everything,” J Leman said. “Without him this doesn’t happen: this turnaround, the excitement in this community right now. He’s instilling vision and belief in us, bringing in fresh young talent. And one of the biggest challenges of all is combing that talent, vision and belief with the veterans, and meshing it into a championship team.”

As it turns out, three years didn’t make the difference. Ron Zook did.