Asmussen | It's all roses for Zook in his return to C-U

Asmussen | It's all roses for Zook in his return to C-U

Coming back to Champaign-Urbana isn't new for Ron Zook.

The former Illinois football coach was here in June for Jay Ramshaw's wedding.

It was a quick trip.

"We went to the wedding, got up early in the morning and left," Zook said Thursday.

When was the last time he was in Memorial Stadium?

"Probably when they fired me," Zook said.

Until today.

Zook and his wife, Denise, made the long drive to Champaign this week from their home in Florida. The 2008 Rose Bowl team is having a reunion and Zook wouldn't miss it.

"I'm excited to see the players and the coaches and all the support people," Zook said. "There were a lot of people that were responsible for us getting to the Rose Bowl, not just players, but the support people and the academic people and the trainers, Trent (Chesnut) and the equipment people, Coach (Ron) Guenther. Everybody.

"I'm honored and privileged to be able to come back and join them. I look forward to seeing everybody and hearing all the old stories."

He spent seven years at Illinois going 34-51.

The unexpected Rose Bowl season, coming off a 2-10 finish in 2006, was a high point.

The Illini went to Columbus and beat No. 1 Ohio State to help earn the trip to Pasadena.

"I'm proud of the players," Zook said. "This will mean more to them probably now than it did at the time. We went to the Rose Bowl, and we didn't have anybody on our team that had ever been to a bowl game. That was a unique experience for them. You don't just wake up and go to the Rose Bowl."

Growing up in Loudonville, Ohio, the Rose Bowl was always THE game for Zook. At age 53, he was able to coach in it.

"I grew up with it," Zook said. "That was the ultimate goal."

The game itself didn't go the way Zook wanted. Southern Cal took a 21-3 lead at halftime.

The Illini had a brief glimmer of hope in the third quarter when Rashard Mendenhall ran 79 yards for a touchdown to cut the gap to 11. But the Trojans scored 28 points in the second half of a 49-17 victory.

"The magnitude of that game is something you need to experience," Zook said.

While the Rose Bowl gave Illinois national exposure, there was a downside.

"It probably stalled our progress a little bit because everybody thought we were there," Zook said. "I was trying to tell everybody we weren't there. We had a long, long way to go. You have to develop a culture, and it takes time. Just because you're fortunate enough to win one year doesn't mean you're going to win the next year."

Illinois went a combined 8-16 in 2008 and '09, missing bowls both seasons.

Ups and downs

Led by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, the program bounced back.

Zook's final two teams both had winning records and bowl victories. It was the only time in school history that Illinois won consecutive bowl games.

The 2011 Illini started 6-0, including a home win against Top 25 Arizona State and Big Ten victories against Northwestern and Indiana.

Illinois was ranked No. 16 when Ohio State came to town, and the Buckeyes won a close game at Memorial Stadium but the Illini remained in the Top 25. For a week. The next game was a 21-14 loss at Purdue, followed by the snowball game at Penn State. Illinois lost 10-7 in Joe Paterno's final game as coach, missing a tying field goal in the final minute.

The young team couldn't recover, losing its final three regular-season games by a combined 48 points.

After a loss at Minnesota on Nov. 26, Zook got word that new athletic director Mike Thomas wanted to see him the following morning.

"I knew he wasn't inviting me over for breakfast," Zook said at the time.

Zook didn't want to leave. He reiterated that point on Thursday.

"The university had their opinion of what they needed to do, so they did," Zook said. "All of the negativism hurt everything."

He couldn't survive it. But the firing doesn't change his feelings about Illinois.

"It was a great place," Zook said. "I honestly wanted to finish out my career there. I knew it would be hard. That wasn't meant to be. That's the profession I'm in.

"There was no doubt in my mind we were going to be better."

On second thought

Illinois has had no winning seasons since Zook was fired. It is on its third coach, with Lovie Smith replacing Bill Cubit, who replaced Tim Beckman.

Some coaches would celebrate the lack of success at the place that showed them the door. Zook is not one of those coaches.

"It was a good run," Zook said.

He doesn't have much time to watch Smith's team. Zook is in his fifth year on the Green Bay Packers staff, serving as their special teams coordinator.

"It's a great, great organization," Zook said. "I've got an opportunity to run my own show."

Zook splits his time between Green Bay and Florida. The 64-year-old is fit and still water skiing whenever possible.

"I live on the water," Zook said. "I feel great. I couldn't be any better."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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