Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Perhaps no school has been a bigger surprise this season than Illinois, and that's good news for Ron Zook, who many felt entered 2011 on a hot seat.
Going into this season, Zook had a 28-45 mark, including a 16-32 mark in the Big Ten, in six years, with just two bowl appearances. Adding more doubt about his future was that the athletic director who hired him, Ron Guenther, retired over the summer and was replaced by Mike Thomas, who had been AD at Cincinnati.
Zook has forged ahead and is in the midst of one of the best seasons in school history.
Coming off a 41-20 drubbing of Indiana, the Fighting Illini are off to a 6-0 start, the school's best since 1951. Saturday, Illinois welcomes a struggling Ohio State program that is 3-3 and has lost two in a row following a colossal collapse at Nebraska. After that are trips to Purdue and Penn State, which means the Fighting Illini could be 9-0 entering their bye week.
The good times weren't rolling for Zook in 2009. Coming off a 3-9 season, his fourth losing record in five seasons, Zook looked to be in trouble. But he made some bold moves in overhauling his staff, hiring Paul Petrino to coordinate the offense and Vic Koenning to oversee the defense. The moves have paid off.
Illinois went 7-6 last season, capping the campaign with a victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. And this season has been even better.
Zook spoke to Rivals.com about a number of subjects in the midst of Illinois' stunning success.
Did you expect the team to be this good?
"I thought we had a chance to be a lot better. I think anytime you have a quarterback like Nathan Scheelhaase -- the type of person he is, who has worked as hard as he has -- you knew you had a chance. You liked the schedule and how it opened with five home games. But the big thing is the players are letting the coaches coach them. They are working as hard as they can to be the best they can be."
What's the most surprising aspect of the team?
"I don't know if it's surprising, but one of the biggest questions was everyone was concerned about the defense. We thought as a staff that we still were going to be OK. We knew we needed to get some experience, and those guys have played hard. We've won some games that were completely team efforts. The biggest concern was our punting game. It's still not where we need it to be with a true freshman punter. We have worked hard and these guys have found ways to win. And the coaches have done a good job putting them in position to win."
Does this team have a chance to be as good as the 2007 squad that played in the Rose Bowl?
"I think there are a lot of similarities. No. 1, just like in '07, the players let the coaches coach them. There is no question we are coaching hard and pushing hard and demanding, and these guys are buying in. It's really a player-driven team. And that's the thing that's exciting. To be a good team, it has to come from within. The coaches can lead and try to do all the things that they do, but it has to come from within and our players are doing that. The leadership has been great. And we just have to continue to do the things we have done."
Could Scheelhaase be the best quarterback you have had at Illinois?
"He has a chance to be special. For a guy who is in just his second season, he does stuff that -- I don't want to say amazes you; you come to expect stuff. And the other thing is he's one of those guys who will do whatever it is you ask him to do, even run down on a kickoff. He doesn't care. He just wants to win. Our players understand that and they are going to play as hard as they can for him. It has been a lot of fun to be around these guys and to watch them become so close and play for each other."
Looking back, how important was your staff shakeup after the 2009 season?
"I knew at the time that we had to do something. I told Ron Guenther, who was the athletic director at the time, that if we are going to make a change, you need to make it now. I didn't think that there was any question that we had some good players and that the program was in good shape, but we weren't playing the way we needed to play. He said he didn't want to make a change. Then I said that I was going to have to make a change. The thing he did was he allowed us to bring some quality guys in here. Not that the other guys weren't, because they were. But these guys have come in and done a great job on both sides of the ball."
With a new athletic director, do you feel like you are auditioning for your job?
"Not really. In a coach's life, you have to win regardless of who is the AD. I felt halfway through last year that we had a chance to be pretty good. So many things have to happen to be successful. I just thought that if we got a few breaks, we were going to be a good team. We had a majority of our guys back, playing in the same system for a second year. You got to win regardless if it's a new boss or old boss. We don't pay a lot of attention to it. We are just trying to get better."
How important is the Big Ten Network to your recruiting?
"It's big. And I also think the Big Ten Network is probably single-handedly the reason for all of this conference realignment. People see the money involved. It all started last year when Nebraska came into the Big Ten. I think everyone felt the Big Ten Network was going to be a great thing. But I don't think they realized it was going to be this great this soon. ... We can go anywhere in the country and walk into a home and tell a young man that everyone who ever has seen you play a game is going to see you play every single game. I don't know if there's anyone else who can really do that."
Do you like the breakdown of the Big Ten divisions?
"I think it will turn out to be an exciting thing. I think as you get into it and the years pass, fans are really going to be excited about it. Everyone kind of has an eye on the other division, who's winning. ... I think it will make for a lot more excitement. And the championship game is going to be a big deal. I was fortunate enough to coach in the first SEC championship game [as an assistant at Florida] in 1992. I think the payout was $8, 9 10 million. This one probably will be much more. There's just so much money involved. It's good for everyone in the Big Ten."
You often are labeled a good recruiter. Do you like that label or does it bother you?
"I'm not a better recruiter than anyone else. Recruiting is about people. The last two years, our staff has done a great job of evaluating and getting guys who can help our program. The biggest thing in recruiting to me is knowing who you have a chance to get. A lot of times, guys spin their wheels maybe going after guys they really don't have a chance to get and maybe they'd have a better time spending their time elsewhere. I have been fortunate to be in some great places and had great things to sell. It's about people. That's our philosophy and it hasn't changed. When people come to Illinois, they feel the family atmosphere and realize that they are going to be taken care of. I tell kids that no matter where they go, there are going to be tough days. You want to be somewhere that when you have those tough days, you have people around to help you."
You have the rare perspective of having coached in the SEC and the Big Ten. Do you think the SEC really is faster than the Big Ten?
"I don't know if there is as much of a speed differential as people down there like to say. I think the SEC may have more big guys who can run, but there are teams in the Big Ten that can play with any in the SEC. But, once again, we have to go play and do it."
How do you feel about the Big Ten finally extending its schedule into Thanksgiving weekend and December with the league title game?
"I think the thing that's going to help the Big Ten -- and I've been arguing about this since I've been here -- is we had to play into December. I thought it was important to play into December. I think the championship game will help. For the most part in recent years, the Big Ten is done playing before Thanksgiving. And there's an awful lot of football going on after Thanksgiving, and the Big Ten wasn't part of that. Out of sight, out of mind.
"And we have to win our bowl games. There is no question. We didn't do our part in the Rose Bowl in '08. We have to win our bowls, and playing later in the year will help the conference."