Asmussen: Of Zook, Nebraska and a new No. 1

 

Longtime college football writer BOB ASMUSSEN checks in after another busy Saturday:

 

On Illinois

Of course he was watching Saturday night. You can take Ron Zook out of Illinois, but you can’t take Illinois, and his feelings for the place, out of the coach.

Now splitting his time between on-air work for CBS Sports and running a friend’s bank in Florida, Zook has paid special attention to his old school. There is pride there, knowing many of the key players were his recruits.

He has moved on. Back to Florida. With regular stops across the country.

“It’s going well,” Zook said. “I’ve got good guys I work with.“

Zook trips to New York every week for a studio show. On Tuesday, they talked about Illinois.

“I think Bill Cubit has done a great job,” Zook said.

Zook isn’t surprised by the start of Nathan Scheelhaase’s senior season. Earlier in his career, Scheelhaase led two Zook teams to the postseason.

“I’m glad they are having success,” Zook said. “That schedule is going to get tougher. I think they are making progress, particularly on offense.”

Zook said with Scheelhaase and Cubit running the offense, Illinois can continue to pull off surprises like the win against Cincinnati.

“Who knows what could happen?” Zook said.

Same could be said for Zook. He water skiis most days and is physically prepared to coach again. He keeps the mental part of his game sharp by spending time with Jon Gruden.

Zook has sold his house in Champaign, so he doesn’t get back to town often. He will be here later in the summer for a wedding.

“It’s all good,” Zook said.

— Consider yourselves officially teased. For Illinois football, it has happened before. A lot.

Heck, Zook did it his first year in C-U, winning his first two games and leading at halftime in the third. It all came crashing down in the second half at Cal and Illinois didn’t win again.

This isn’t going to be a repeat of that season. Too much talent at the skill positions. Too much know-how shown by Cubit. Too much poise from Scheelhaase.

Tim Beckman’s team will win more games. The next one, against Miami (Ohio), is close to a cinch. Purdue and Indiana look like good bets, too. That’s five wins, or about four more than Vegas counted on from the Illini before the season.

Not that any of this foreshadowing dissuades (had to look that one up) many of the fans from leaping off the wagon. It looked like a parade of Carl Lewsises late Saturday night. Fans are fickle. They love you when you win and act like you’ve got cooties after a loss. 

They find reasons to nitpick. Like the defense.

“I hope the defense can improve. At this point I don’t see it,” Peter from Chicago said during the WDWS postgame show.

Inevitably, the fans get over the disappointment. As far as you know. All it will take is another magical run to Pasadena. For the record, that has happened twice in 50 years.

 

— The legend made the rounds this week. It is way past time for Illinois to put up a Dick Butkus statue.

Interviewing the star linebacker can be intimidating. You realize how it must have felt to line up across the toughest guy in the history of football.

Butkus had a long interview earlier in the week with “BTN Live.” He played nice with host Mike Hall, tossed some jabs at former Buckeye Stanley Jackson and former Wolverine Jon Jansen. No questioning Butkus’ loyalty to his school. He made sure Jackson and Jansen knew it, too.

Butkus was eloquent in explaining his move from football into acting. A rift with the NFL forced him to find some work. And Hollywood liked him.

Turns out, he was once a candidate for “Monday Night Football” opposite Howard Cosell. That would have been fun.

The lone flaw this week with the Butkus celebration was it took place in the wrong building. No offense to Soldier Field.

Butkus needs to be honored at Memorial Stadium. Maybe soon. With a mean-looking statue that replicates his nasty on-field persona.

 

— Great to hear another former Illini linebacker in the broadcast booth. Ex-Champaign Central and Illinois star J Leman has made a smooth transition into the world of Jim Nantz and Verne Lundquist. After watching Saturday, Leman is more Nantz than Lundquist. Hope J takes that as a compliment.

Leman has the same level of excitement in the booth as he had during his playing days at Illinois.

Still, can’t forget that image of Leman after the Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal, crying his eyes out after the final game of his college career. You knew then that Leman cared and that his life after football would be a hit.

 

My new No. 1 team is ...

— Alabama is picking up at least one No. 1 vote in this week’s Top 25. As promised, if the Tide won at Texas A&M, Alabama is moving past Ohio State in my rankings this week. No knock on the Buckeyes, more a credit to Alabama. It won’t be a surprise if Ohio State plays in the title game against Nick Saban’s two-time defending champions.

Johnny Manziel had a Heisman-worthy game in College Station, except for the score. Unfortunately, he’ll be judged as much because of the loss.

Alabama still has all sorts of hills to climb this season, but Saturday was the toughie. Winning at Kyle Field and overcoming hot Manziel makes Alabama the team to beat. Again.

Think it ever gets boring to win all the time? Nah. Plus, what else is there to do?

 

 

On the Big Ten

— These are not your parents’ Nebraska Cornhuskers. That’s a good thing for Illinois, which visits Lincoln in October. Before the season, you would have given the Illini little chance to play a close game against Sellout U. The other Memorial Stadium was full again Saturday. Once again, we were reminded that talent on the field is better than a full house.

Nebraska dominated the first half against UCLA. Then, the stunned crowd watched in silence as UCLA rallied for a convincing win.

The UCLA doubters, who questioned the Bruins in The News-Gazette’s Top 25, need to send a letter of apology.

Brett Hundley and the Bruins will contend for the Pac-12 title. Jim Mora Jr. is looking like a genius hire. Not so sure about picking Steve Alford to run the basketball team, however. Maybe let Mora run the hoops team, too.

Mora’s team didn’t panic Saturday, even though that seemed appropriate.

Nebraska had everything going for it: Packed place, black jerseys, an in-control Taylor Martinez. Then it fell apart in the second half.

That noise you hear from the West is the sound of Nebraska fans turning restless with coach Bo Pelini. He is a defensive expert, but his team has shown over and over again that it can’t consistently stop teams. Opponents have run over the “Blackshirts,” a nickname the unit hasn’t lived up to for years. Somewhere, Ndamukong Suh is hanging his head in shame. That isn’t easy to do.

Will Nebraska be one of the teams looking for a coach after the season? It will if the team doesn’t rebound and contend for the Legends Division title.

 

— Nebraska wasn’t the only league school holding on Saturday. Michigan survived a scare from Akron. Unless we’re talking about tire tossing, the team from Zipsland should never play this close with the Wolverines.

 

On the rest

— Alabama is picking up at least one No. 1 vote in this week’s Top 25. As promised, if the Tide won at Texas A&M, Alabama is moving past Ohio State in my rankings this week. No knock on the Buckeyes, more a credit to Alabama. It won’t be a surprise if Ohio State plays in the title game against Nick Saban’s two-time defending champions.

Johnny Manziel had a Heisman-worthy game in College Station, except for the score. Unfortunately, he’ll be judged as much because of the loss.

Alabama still has all sorts of hills to climb this season, but Saturday was the toughie. Winning at Kyle Field and overcoming hot Manziel makes Alabama the team to beat. Again.

Think it ever gets boring to win all the time? Nah. Plus, what else is there to do?

 

— Some advice for college football powers: If the caller I.D. reads “Sports Illustrated” or “Yahoo! Sports,” let it go to voicemail. It probably isn’t good news.

The organizations are doing their jobs. Some of the colleges are making it too easy on them.

The summer of Manziel was only the start. As the allegations pile up, it makes you appreciate the people who are running their programs the right way. And there are many more of those than the kind that draw the scrutiny of Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! Sports.

The fans are going bonkers in Lincoln and College Station and Columbus. But is it worth it?

A friend said earlier in the week that maybe the Champaign-Urbana attitude on sports is the proper one. Sure, the fans want Illinois to win. But not at all costs. If you mess up on campus, it will be found out. And dealt with swiftly.

The football program always needs to aim higher, on and off the field. Lecture over.

Comments

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IlliniHimey wrote on September 15, 2013 at 10:09 am

Ron Zookeeper is not running a bank.  He works for a bank.  Huge difference.

ATLIllini wrote on September 15, 2013 at 10:09 am

Since when does a 'development officer' run a bank?

Moonpie wrote on September 15, 2013 at 11:09 am

Uh, Bob--since when is pointing out what Beckman himself admitted, that the Illini couldn't tackle, become fan nitpicking? Had the team been able to tackle instead of looking like Lovie Smith taught them tackling, they might have won the game. Goodness -- lay of the fans for once. The fans didn't lose this game.

Moonpie wrote on September 15, 2013 at 11:09 am

Oh, and Bob--now I see you ask for a letter of apology from fans over UCLA. How about apologizing to them for "nitpicking." I swear, at the Sleepy Gazoo you guys wake up hating fans.

jdstieg wrote on September 15, 2013 at 8:09 pm

And Magpie, you wake up being stupid.

had_enough_of_illinois wrote on September 16, 2013 at 1:09 am

How about who cares?  Just read the article and stop picking them apart.