Zook: 'We're not there yet'
College football beat writer Bob Asmussen's Q&A with Ron Zook:
By 9 a.m. Friday, Ron Zook was into his third hour of work. The Illinois football coach had met with athletic director Ron Guenther, talked to his staff and put in some time on the treadmill.
Running is part of Zook's routine. He uses the time to catch up with Illinois strength coach Lou Hernandez, who gives him a progress report on the players. The runs are a time to relax and think about what's ahead.
During a 30-minute interview in his office, Zook wiped sweat off of his brow. Nothing new there. His first three seasons were a workout for the 53-year-old (No. 54 is Monday), who is trying to rebuild a program that was 4-19 the two years before he arrived.
Zook has spent the winter and spring months telling anybody who would listen that there is still plenty of heavy lifting left to do. And not just in the west stands. One BCS bid doesn't make a program, he says. Often.
In the coming months, Zook will recruit, spend some time on an aircraft carrier and start preparing for the 2008 season. He might even take a vacation. What he won't do is smile contentedly about the status of his program. There is always more work to be done, more miles to run.
What did you get accomplished in the spring that you felt was a must?
As a staff, we wanted to make sure our football team realized that we just didn't get there, that there was an awful lot of work involved, a lot of suffering. The freshman class, for example, they haven't gone through those two years that were awful, the tough times. They think going to college is you come in and go to the Rose Bowl. That's not the way it is. It was important to us that we maintained the work ethic that our guys had put forth to get us to that point. We pushed hard. I think that's something that was very, very important to us.
What's your biggest concern coming out of the spring?
I told them Tuesday that I really believe we're a better football team than we were a year ago, but that doesn't mean anything. You can be a better team and not win as many games. That's the thing we have to understand. The concerns I have are like they are always are at this time, you're going into the fourth phase of the year. It's the longest phase and we have the least contact with them. Lou and the strength staff have got them. We've got to worry about academics. We've got some guys who are going to have to make a late push here, like you always do.
How does Juice Williams look to you today as compared to the kid who showed up in 2006?
Juice is so much more mature. I don't want to say he looks weathered, but he looks like he's played a little football. Remember that picture you ran in the paper of him when he was here in camp and he looked like a little kid? Now, he looks like a guy who has a chance to be a good football player.
Were you ever tempted to let Arrelious Benn have some contact?
No. First of all, the doctors said no. The doctors make that call. Rejus was biting at the bit to go. I don't think you risk the season for something like that.
We hear you are going on an aircraft carrier at the end of May. How did that happen?
I was going to have an opportunity to go back on the Blue Angels. I found out that Congress enacted a law that the Blue Angels is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. The guy said, 'If you had a wish list, what would be the next thing you'd like to do?' I said, 'Well, if you're letting me pick what I want, it's take off and land on an aircraft carrier.' Then, we're going to come back and have a chance to spend a few hours with the Navy SEALS. It's a recruiting thing for the Navy. It's no secret that I love flying. I love the speed. The Blue Angel thing was one of the most awesome experiences. If you think what this country has to do for our protection, it's amazing.
Last year, you used the word "Believe" as the team's motto. What's it going to be this year?
It's still 'Believe.' You've got to keep on believing. We're not there yet. We've scratched the surface. We've all got a little taste of how nice it can be. The word out there is that Illinois will come back to earth. It's a challenge. If you're any kind of a competitor at all, you'll take the challenge and run with it.
Should we expect to hear Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " played at games?
I would say you'll hear that quite a few times.
Have you invited the band to Memorial Stadium?
I'm working on that. If you know anyone who has connections with them, we would love to do it.
You just went to the Rose Bowl and you have a bunch of guys back. Did you expect a bigger crowd for the spring game?
I thought for the weather, it was nice. If it had been a beautiful day like last year, I think it would have been a lot bigger. We still haven't done it. When we get to where we're supposed to be, I don't think there's any reason we can't fill the stadium for the spring game.
What's the difference in the reception you get from fans and recruits now as compared to a year ago?
I think the biggest difference is that they know who you are. The things you've been saying for three years now, they're coming true.
You mentioned after the spring game that this is the most nervous phase of the year for you because your contact with the players is limited. What would you do to make it better?
I don't think there really is a way. Everybody practices, everybody runs, everybody throws. You're out there by yourself. You wish you could be out there with them, but I understand why you can't. Coaches would take advantage of it. They've got some time on their own. Boys will be boys. You worry about them doing things that they're not supposed to be doing. I talk to them about that all the time. One good thing is we have good kids. We really do. They're not angels, but they are good kids. You hope that they're close enough that they stick together and keep each other out of any issues.
Speaking of rules, head coaches aren't allowed to go to high schools during the spring evaluation period. What's up with that?
No. 1, I've heard that other head coaches don't want guys going out because they say the head coaches are talking to the recruits. To me, no one is allowed to talk to the recruits. So, if a kid is talking to the head coach, he's talking to the assistants also. I don't really buy that. You're out and it's an evaluation period. To me, it's important that if I'm going to make a decision on a guy, I'd like to know everything I possibly can know about a guy. I said when I became a head coach that I didn't think coaches should be out on the weekends in the spring. A lot of head coaches went to those Nike things. I never went out on Saturday. I didn't care if they went. I didn't get nervous. I didn't go. I wanted to be with my family.
Have you allowed yourself a moment to look back at the 2007 season and say: "That was pretty cool"?
No. I probably need to. I realize that if we continue to do the things we've been doing, we can have a bunch of those.
Rashard Mendenhall went into the draft Saturday. What do you project for him careerwise?
Rashard is as talented as anybody. All of his football is in front of him. He'll continue to improve.
How about J Leman?
No question, J can play in the National Football League. I told the St. Louis coaches, 'When I was a defensive coordinator in the NFL, he would have been my MIKE linebacker.' He can do it.
Draft experts think Vontae Davis will go in the first round after his junior season. He was on your second team in the spring game. What does that say?
You have to have good players to win, but you have to be a team. The best chance of everyone reaching their individual goal is that everybody plays for one goal. We have to do what's best for the team. We're going to be all right. We've got some pretty good corners out there.
Did you figure you might lose a coach or two after last season?
I really didn't think it. This is as good a place as anywhere. Guys aren't going to leave just to leave. Coach Guenther has helped us make it so coaches want to stay here. There's no reason to leave.
You have said you plan to stay at Illinois "as long as they'll have me." In a perfect world, how long will that be?
I don't know. I always said retirement is something I fear. I can't imagine not working. There aren't going to be many guys like Coach (Joe) Paterno or Coach (Bobby) Bowden. It's hard to maintain winning year in and year out. Everybody's going to go through cycles.
Now that the coaching carousel has stopped, did you get any overtures from anybody after the season?
I had some sniffing around out there. I made it very clear that I wasn't interested. I'm in a great place. Coach Guenther and the University of Illinois have been awfully good to me.
Joe Paterno is in the final year of his contract and it sounds like there might be an effort by some to push him out. How does that make you feel?
It just kind of shows you how the profession is. It's 'What have you done for me lately?' Here's a guy who had all this success and done all this, now he's not going to be able to enjoy it?
Who is your best friend among the Big Ten coaches?
Probably Coach Paterno. I just respect not only what he's done, but how he's done it. He's a competitor, but he's a classy guy. Not that other coaches aren't. I think the Big Ten coaches get along well. It's very cordial.
Is there one coach who you would really like to talk shop with?
I don't know if there's one guy. I was at a high school clinic Wednesday night. You learn things from those guys. Any time you talk football, I think you have the opportunity to learn.
Could Ron Zook circa Miami, Ohio, 1970s play for Ron Zook circa 2008 Illinois?
Times have changed. I think I could. I probably wouldn't like everything just like (the current Illini) don't like everything.
Where is that Liberty Coach of the Year trophy?
Right there (pointing to a corner table in his office). Denise does all the decorating around here. The Big Ten's at home. I asked her why she didn't have that in here.
The stadium's going to be done in 2008. What do you need next?
There's no such thing as Utopia. Everybody has problems. We're in the process of getting our dorm situation fixed. Coach Guenther is well aware of it. He's all over it. Not that we're in bad shape. There are plans to redo the Six Pack. Everything else is in place.
You went to the Rose Bowl and got a big raise. Did you splurge on anything?
I'm pretty happy. I wear what's in my closet.
How do you stay in shape?
I run. I don't try to go miles, I try to go time. There are certain days I don't feel like running 3 miles. I don't want it to be drudgery. I enjoy working out. It's like shaving. If I don't shave in the morning or if I don't work out in the morning, I feel like I'm missing something.
I heard you told a church gathering that your wife Denise sends you scripture passages throughout the day.
There's tough times out there. You talk about believing. You talk about having faith to fight through the things when no one thinks you can do it. I didn't do this on my own.
Does she ever send you plays?
No. No. About the second month of our marriage, she figured out real quick that she was going to be wife and I was going to be the coach.
Do the accusations from a year and a half ago still sting?
My brother (Bob) always says, 'Integrity is something you either have it or you don't. It's not a sometimes thing.' When people question your integrity, I'm not going to lie and say it doesn't bother you. You've got to keep doing the things you know are right.
Ebertfest is this week. What movies would be shown at Zookfest?
My daughter told me about (Ebertfest). TV is not a big thing to me. Last night, I was flipping through the channels while I was eating. This movie came on and Denise told me what it was. I said, 'How do you remember all those movies?' She said, 'Well, we saw it.' I said, 'I don't remember seeing it.' We go to a movie every Friday before the game and I don't know the title half the time.
The words are kinder. Are you reading the newspapers these days?
No. You're only as good as your last game. Our last game wasn't very good. I keep my guard up from a standpoint of we're still not there. I know when they write something good they could just as easily write something bad. Overall, I think the media has been more than fair to us and me. That's all I've ever asked. As far as the media goes, I'm in the best situation I've ever been in.