Ill-gotten gains?

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsFebruary 8, 2007

Ron Zook is a salesman, no question about that. He can sell ice cubes to Eskimos, sand to Saudi Arabia and even, apparently, top recruits on Illinois football.

Once you get the Illinois coach revved up, he just keeps talking, and talking and talking, always with great passion, great inflection. Every sentence is spit out with a preacher's belief, in a singsong, earnest style.

You can see why one of his recruits, Martez Wilson, told the Chicago Tribune, "I like this dude. He wasn't an uptight white coach."

Wednesday, the "Not Uptight White Coach" introduced arguably the greatest recruiting class in Illinois history.

He called a defensive line recruit "way, way, way ahead of where Jevon [Kearse]" was when he signed at Florida. He claimed a current Illinois player could become "the best defensive back I've ever been around. [And] I've been around Rod Woodson." He compared this recruiting class favorably to any he had at Florida where as head coach he signed 20 of the 22 starters that just won the BCS title.

And he sounded convincing, no matter the hyperbole, no matter the contradictions. One minute, he'd claim he doesn't follow recruiting gurus; the next he'd cite them. One minute he'd swear he doesn't promise freshmen playing time; the next he'd talk about how much they were going to play.

He even sold those stories well.

About the only thing Zook hasn't been able to sell everyone on is that he got all those players without violating NCAA rules.

Wednesday the New York Times put to print what has long been gossiped in college football, that Illinois, a program with little tradition and a 4-19 record (1-15 in the Big Ten) under Zook, just doesn't beat Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame for recruits without something shady going on.

"If they had a winning program and all of that, it would be a different deal," John L. Smith, the recently fired Michigan State coach, told the Times. "If they had the greatest facilities in the world, then maybe they could sell them. But what are they selling?

"Where there's smoke, there's probably fire."

Now, in fairness to Zook bitter whisper campaigns are as common in college athletics as no-show summer jobs, tutors that write term papers and schools selling out to corporate sponsors. It happens every day, especially when an upstart arrives on the scene and screws with the natural pecking order.

There is little question that the historic powers of the Midwest, who have for decades feasted on Chicagoland talent, want no part of a fast-rising Illinois program keeping kids in-state.

But then again, Illinois having a No. 20 class nationally (third in the Big Ten), including two of Rivals.com's top 30 players, is one heck of an accomplishment. No matter how fast Ron Zook can talk.

"It became clear toward the end of recruiting where people were seeing it was going well for us, it looked like we were going to get a lot of pretty good players, there [were] some questions that maybe there were some improprieties going on," Zook said Wednesday. "There were some things that weren't exactly up to snuff.

"I've been doing this since 1978. Never has there been any accusations or any[thing] even brought up that there were any improprieties in recruiting. And for people to say those things, I mean, we're not going to do things."

Zook wasn't too happy and that says something because this guy is always happy. If it is possible to sign all these players on sheer force of positive willpower, Zook might be capable.

His explanation for some of the best players signing with one of the worst programs and, at least in terms of conventional wisdom, weakest coaches, is multifold. First, they attacked areas where his assistants had deep ties – Chicago, Washington, D.C., and North Florida.

"I call it 'friends and family recruiting,' " Zook said. "It's like selling Amway. You start with your family."

Then he talked about U of I's academics, faculty, just about everything. Believe me, you get him going about, say, the beauty of Champaign-Urbana – small cities surrounded by a giant cornfield – and you'd start to think it's a cruise-ship destination.

Then he got to his current players, who are so fired up about the direction of the program – despite the 2-10 season – that who wouldn't want to come to Illinois?

"[Recruits] feel the excitement level of this group of players," Zook said. "They feel what's going on. I can't explain that, I really can't. To feel it you have to be in it; you have to be a part of it. It's not a thing of, 'Gosh, can we?' It's a, 'We're going to.' "

You can say this much: Something is going to happen, and no one really knows what. Zook is going to build a power at U of I, or go down as a coach who can't win with even great talent, or get hammered by the NCAA. Even two out of three is possible.

In the meantime, a lot of football coaches in the Midwest are suspicious of Ron Zook. And Zook is suspicious of a lot of football coaches in the Midwest.

"We know for the most part where it is coming from," he said. "It is a shame in my opinion for people to throw things out there and try to take away from [us]."

He's right about that much. If people have information, they should either step up or shut up. They should either turn it over to the NCAA or let Illinois move forward.

In the meantime, Zook, despite apparently having the next Jevon Kearse and Rod Woodson on his defense, despite spending a half hour all but enshrining his recruits in Canton was, at times, busy lowering expectations about actual on-field success.

"Everybody gets excited [like] 'now here we go, it's off to the races,' " Zook said. "Let me just say this – I don't want to put too much pressure too early."

He said it like he meant that, too.