Team preview: Illinois

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(All information as of June 20, 2007)


To quote the great Mr. T, "No more jibba-jabba."

Ron Zook has seen enough losses to last him the rest of his career. In the last four years, Illinois has gone 8-38, causing the end of Ron Turner's era and the hiring of Zook. Time to turn the corner.
"We got to the point last year where when we went on the field, our guys thought we could win," Zook said. "The next step is we have to go win. That's why they have a scoreboard. To really see the progress, you're going to have to see it in the win-loss column."

There are reasons for a sense of urgency in rebuilding the program, starting with the work being done at Memorial Stadium. The north end of the majestic stadium was torn up and had new, permanent stands put in.
The west side of the stadium is being completely renovated, with luxury suites and club levels added without disrupting the historic exterior of the place where Red Grange and Dick Butkus once roamed.
The Illinois administration is hoping for the perfect timing of a winning program in a rebuilt stadium. Most of the luxury suites are sold, but the school desperately wants to fill a building that hasn't had a sellout since 2002.

Zook is doing his part. Off the field, Zook has been a whiz, bringing in recruiting classes that don't normally sign with two-win programs. The most recent group was ranked among the top 20 by recruiting experts and caused one major daily newspaper ("The New York Times") to question Zook's recruiting methods. The charges were baseless and brought a loud national response in Zook's defense. In a long, successful coaching career, Zook's recruiting was always considered within the rules. This was the first finger pointing ever done at Zook, and though it hurt, the incident motivated him even more to put the Illinois program on a winning track.

The scary part will be how well Zook is able to recruit if he starts winning. He will tell you that recruiting from 10-2 is a whole lot easier than recruiting from 2-10. Already, most of the top players are listening to the Illini. If the program starts winning, more players will come with Zook to Champaign-Urbana.

On the field, Illinois followed the usual pattern of rebuilding programs. Coaches talk about losing big the first year and losing close the second. Which is exactly what the Illini did. A year after losing by 38 points to Ohio State, the Illini stayed within a touchdown of the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes. A year after losing to Penn State by 53, the Illini led in the second half before falling by 14. Maybe the best sign for the Illini was turning a 61-14 loss to Michigan State in 2005 into a 23-20 win at East Lansing in 2006.

"Are we a better football team? No question," Zook said. "We should be.
"Football being the kind of game it is, sometimes you've got to make them do more than they think they can do."