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Zook drawing talent to Illini's side of the tracks

December 31, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — The stadium sits between a cemetery and railroad tracks where long chains of boxcars rattle past at midday.

A few nearby businesses -- but not too many -- put out signs wishing the team well. Only a scattering of orange-and-blue shirts can be seen among the crowds at the shopping mall off Interstate 74.

Though the people of Champaign are loyal fans of Illinois football, this is not a town in the manner of Lincoln or Baton Rouge where life revolves around Saturday afternoons. And the Fighting Illini do not exactly possess an illustrious history.

Winning seasons and bowl games have been interspersed by long stretches of losing.

But when Ron Zook interviewed for the head coaching job in 2005, he looked at the bigger picture. Bigger as in geography.

Chicago lies a couple of hours north. Indianapolis to the east. St. Louis to the southwest.

"I knew we had 13 million people within a three-hour radius," Zook said.

For a coach who ranks among the best recruiters in the game, that was enough to make him believe he could turn Illinois into the caliber of team that will face USC in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

"We had everything we needed," he said. "All we had to do was sell it."

The squad he inherited three years ago included offensive lineman Martin O'Donnell and linebacker J Leman, both All-Americans this season. Zook made a difference by quickly surrounding them with young talent.

On offense, the Illini stole quarterback Juice Williams from Ohio State and receiver Arrelious Benn, the Big Ten freshman of the year, from schools such as USC and Notre Dame.

On defense, they attracted Washington, D.C., native Vontae Davis to play cornerback and Martez Wilson, also courted by the Trojans, to augment the linebacking corps.

It might seem like magic luring blue-chip players to Champaign, but USC Coach Pete Carroll credits Zook's success to something more tangible.

Several years ago, Carroll and Zook -- then at Florida -- competed for linebacker Keith Rivers. USC won the battle, but Zook fought until the last minute, keeping Rivers on the phone for hours, trying to change his mind.

"In past times when we've bumped heads, he's been relentless," Carroll said of Zook. "I respect the way he works at it."

Last winter, both coaches went after Benn.

"Coach Zook reminds me so much of Pete Carroll," the Illinois receiver said. "They're both relaxed. They like to have fun."

As Williams put it: "Coach Zook can come down to your world. He can be a jokester."

The Illini try to exploit connections in their recruiting. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley works the D.C. area where he grew up. The assistants who came with Zook from Florida prowl that state.

"We call it 'Recruit friends and family,' " Zook said. "Areas where we're from and areas where we have the contacts."

An Ohio native, Zook plays off his Midwestern roots and straightforward style.

"He keeps it real with you," linebacker Wilson said. "When Coach Zook was recruiting me, he told me I wasn't going to start, that I had to earn a starting position."

The Illini's unexpected success has rivals whispering that they must be cheating. Former Michigan State coach John L. Smith told the New York Times: "Where there's smoke, there's probably fire."

The accusations bother Zook, but "there's nothing you can do about it," he said. Besides, he has endured controversy before, dating to his years as an assistant and head coach at Florida.

Before the Gators played Tennessee in 1991, it was discovered that a former Volunteers assistant -- and a former Zook colleague -- faxed him copies of Tennessee plays.

In 2004, after his players fought with fraternity members, Zook got into a verbal confrontation at the frat house. He subsequently apologized.

In retrospect, the Florida job was a mixed bag for Zook. A longtime college and NFL assistant, he took over in 2002.

"I didn't know if it was ever going to happen," he said. "That's when I got the job."

But his predecessor, Steve Spurrier, was a tough act to follow and Gainesville fans never really warmed to Zook. For all his recruiting prowess, critics said he wasn't a game coach.

A 23-14 record did not help.

"Obviously, that job didn't work out," he said. In the next breath he added: "Everything happens for a reason. It's probably the best thing that ever happened to me."

The Illinois opening looked like destiny to a child of Big Ten country. "Getting the head job is really just a matter of being in the right place at the right time," he said.

His first step at Illinois was unsteady. He pronounced it "Ili-noise," a serious faux pas in this part of the world. And the first two seasons at 2-9 and 2-10 hardly inspired confidence.

But a 9-3 season and a Rose Bowl berth cure many ills. No less than Illini legend Dick Butkus believes the team's nervy fourth-quarter performance in an upset victory over Ohio State last month enhanced Zook's game coaching reputation.

"I think it showed you that maybe he's learned a lot," Butkus said.

Playing well against heavily favored USC would be another plus, but Zook is still looking at the big picture.

"It's one thing to have a successful season," he said. "We have to continually prove ourselves until we get to a point like USC that does it year in and year out."

In Champaign, that would amount to a historic change of fortune. At the very least, Zook figures to keep attracting top-notch players to the farmland.

That's what made this job so attractive to him in the first place. All those nearby cities, all those people.

"I don't know why anyone else didn't see it," he said.

All he had to do was run the numbers.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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