Zook comes out smelling like roses

Published 10:53 pm Sunday, December 30, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) — The coach walks through the hotel lobby toward the escalator. Suddenly, 50 fans dressed in orange and blue stand up and start cheering.

The coach? Ron Zook.

And no need to rub your eyes to make sure this is for real.

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The orange and blue at Illinois are almost identical to the colors Zook wore for his first fateful head-coaching job at Florida. His message is the same, too: He knows what he’s doing.

To prove it, he has taken one of the most downtrodden programs of the last

decade to the Rose Bowl. Need more proof? Remember, it was Zook who recruited all those players who won the national championship for the Gators last season.

The last 365 days have been good ones for ‘‘The Zooker,’’ the guy who used to be one of college football’s favorite punch lines but is now the subject of a remarkable comeback story.

‘‘He’ll never admit it, but it’s very satisfying,’’ says one of Zook’s assistants and longtime friends, Dan Disch.

Disch is right. Zook is not the type to say he told you so. Not with a tough game against 13 1/2-point favorite USC coming up Tuesday and an even tougher road ahead to make sure Illinois is more than a one-year wonder.

But getting fired hurt. ‘‘I was crushed,’’ Zook says. Going back to work was the only thing he could do to make the pain go away. And yes, Zook feels much better now.

‘‘These people, they’re appreciative,’’ he says of the Illinois fans who applaud him. ‘‘It’s unbelievable. I’m embarrassed. Here, I get that all the time.’’

At Florida, it was mostly heartache, and it started right away.

Zook tells a story about calling his wife, Denise, who was still back in New Orleans in the days after he took the Gators job. She was crying.

‘‘Can you believe what they’re saying about you?’’ Denise Zook said.

The infamous Web site, fireronzook.com, had been launched before the coach had even landed in Gainesville.

The new coach didn’t help himself, either. He lost too much — 14 times in three years. He bumbled through his share of PR blunders, most notably trying to resolve a fight between his players and fraternity members. He went to the fraternity house at the behest of athletic director Jeremy Foley. Four weeks later, when details of the confrontation came out at about the same time the Gators were embarrassed at Mississippi State, Foley fired Zook, saying ‘‘something’s not working here.’’

Zook says he was just defending his players, doing what any parent would have wanted him to do in that situation.

No crime there. But maybe his biggest mistake was putting a vanilla product in front of fans who had grown spoiled watching Steve Spurrier’s Fun ’n’ Gun for a dozen years. Bubble screens and 3-yard runs didn’t cut it at Florida.

Zook insists his fate was cast before he ever arrived.

‘‘From the very beginning, no one wanted me there,’’ Zook says. ‘‘Then you don’t win as many games as you’re supposed to and …’’

These days, there’s a new Web site. It’s coachronzook.com and it’s simple stuff, part of the Illinois Web site, filled with stats, pictures and interviews for alumni, fans and recruits to see.

It’s those recruits who will make or break Zook in the long run. Who would bet against him?

‘‘He’s the best in America when it comes to building a roster,’’ says Frank Frangie, a close friend of Zook’s and a talk-radio host in Jacksonville, Fla.

Legendary are the stories of Zook’s all-day drives across the Florida panhandle, the days without lunch or dinner, the 60-second roadside bathroom breaks and long stops at remote outposts to talk with high school coaches who may or may not have a great prospect on their current team.

‘‘He’s one of the few head coaches who doesn’t go in and big-time guys,’’ says Disch, who was a high school coach in Jacksonville before Zook hired him. ‘‘He doesn’t come across like he’s better than anybody. For high school coaches, he’s readily accepted because he’s a hardworking guy and he doesn’t treat you any differently than he treats anyone else.’’

Players buy it, too.

Quarterback Juice Williams had lots of choices, and when he decided on Illinois, a lot of people thought he was crazy.

‘‘Most of the other guys almost guaranteed me things that I knew weren’t true at that particular moment,’’ Williams says. ‘‘Coach Zook just told me I’d have the opportunity to be in the position I’m in now.’’

Zook insists there is no magic to his recruiting touch. He chafes at being called a great recruiter but not a great coach.

‘‘I think that would have ended a couple years ago had I been able to …,’’ he says, before letting that thought trail off and going in a different direction.

‘‘But I’m not a great recruiter,’’ he continues. ‘‘I don’t necessarily like to recruit. I just hate to lose. And the best chance you have of winning is getting good people in there who are good players.’’

He brought good players to Florida, though it wasn’t until after he left that Zook started getting credit. Much was made of the fact that he recruited 22 of the 24 starters on the national championship team coached by Urban Meyer.

‘‘The angst that was so prevalent, it kind of went away,’’ Frangie says. ‘‘By the time they won that title, I think everyone felt good about everything.’’

Building a championship team at one of the best programs in the country is one thing.

Turning Illinois into a contender is much different.

Some thought Zook was nuts when he took the job at a program that had averaged 4.2 wins over the previous 10 years. Realistically, this could be Zook’s last chance as a head coach if he doesn’t come through.

He took the job because he saw a school with resources, a patient athletic director in Ron Guenther and fans who were impressed, not disgusted, with his 23-14 record in three years at Florida. He went 4-19 over his first two years in Champaign, but nobody panicked.

‘‘When you’re one of the old players on a team and a new coach is coming in, there’s nothing you can do about it except for transfer, and that wasn’t the plan for me,’’ senior safety Kevin Mitchell says. ‘‘So I stayed, and he kept telling us there was a light at the end of the tunnel.’’

The light is shining brightly these days. Wins are starting to come. Recruits are, too.

‘‘Now it’s a big deal when Ron Zook, the great recruiter, calls you,’’ Frangie says.

Even some of the ice is starting to melt in Florida. A few months ago, Zook received a letter of congratulations from Foley, his one-time close friend, after Illinois beat No. 1 Ohio State. Zook wrote back to say ‘thanks.’

‘‘We were friends, yeah, but he did what he felt like he had to do,’’ Zook says. ‘‘The good thing of it is that everyone there is happy and I’m happy. So it was a win-win situation. They’ve done well and I’ve done well, and it was just one of those things that had to work out that way.’’