Ron Zook’s story behind exit from Illinois differs from AD’s
BY STEVE GREENBERG firstname.lastname@example.org July 13, 2013 12:40AM
Ron Zook went 34-51 in seven seasons at Illinois. | Sun-Times library
Updated: July 15, 2013 1:09PM
He’s still hard on the recruiting trail, still casting lines in hopes of reeling in the next big catch, still turning up the charm as he presses the flesh. Same as ever for a man who always had an undeniable gift for the glad-hand.
Only Ron Zook hasn’t coached a down of football since being fired by Illinois at the end of the 2011 regular season. These days, he can be found in and around Ocala, Fla., trying to drum up business for a local bank. Zook, 59, is a shareholder and the bank’s community relations/business development officer.
‘‘It keeps me busy,’’ he said.
Zook has a sweet side gig with CBS and a house on Lake Weir that he and wife Denise love. And don’t forget the approximately
$2.6 million buyout he received from Illinois. Life could be a whole lot worse.
You can bet he wishes he still were coaching, though. After three brutal seasons as the coach at Florida and seven up-and-down — OK, mostly down — seasons as the coach at Illinois, Zook is unsure when or where he’ll step back onto the football path.
‘‘Sometimes it’s good to sit back and evaluate everything,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m probably going to have to go back and reinvent myself.’’
It won’t undo the six-game slide that still eats at him. More than a year and a half after the Illini’s improbable 6-0 start gave way to an impossible 0-6 flame-out, Zook, who was 34-51 overall at Illinois, has his explanations for what went wrong during his final season and in previous ones.
Frankly, Zook’s detractors might accuse him of reinventing the truth about his own performance.
As the Illini — soaring in the polls — prepared to face a reeling Ohio State team in their seventh game of the 2011 season, things just didn’t ‘‘feel right,’’ according to Zook. Attendance at Memorial Stadium remained spotty. Zook’s job status remained shaky.
‘‘You just didn’t have that confident feeling,’’ Zook said.
On the other hand, Zook blames overconfidence for the failures that gripped the program soon after the 2007 Rose Bowl season. The Illini were a combined 8-16 in the next two seasons.
‘‘I really believe that going to the Rose Bowl in our third year probably retarded our progress a little bit,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t think we were close to being where we needed to go. You have that success, and then everybody thinks that you’re there — not only the players but the community and the supporters. As much as you tell them you’re not there, they don’t hear it. That’s why staying on top is harder than getting to the top.’’
Athletic director Mike Thomas, who was in Champaign for all of three months before firing Zook, isn’t buying it.
‘‘It’s about chipping away [until] you can sustain success,’’ Thomas said.
Thomas pointed to Iowa under Hayden Fry and Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez as examples of Big Ten programs that had sustained success after long periods of dormancy.
‘‘At some point,’’ Thomas said, ‘‘they do flip the switch.’’
Zook had seven seasons — more time than most get, by today’s coaching standards — to flip the switch.
Which brings us to Zook’s replacement, Tim Beckman. He went 2-10, matching Zook’s worst campaign, in his first season. But who’s counting yet?
‘‘I feel bad for the kids,’’ Zook said. ‘‘To see them not reach their goals was hard. They had some talent to be a pretty good football team.’’
Again, Thomas disagreed, citing the task Beckman faces to ‘‘put a Big Ten roster together, a team with some depth.’’
If that sounds like a shot at Zook, well, take it to the bank. It was.