Team preview: Illinois

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(All information as of June 20, 2008)


No coach in the history of Illinois football had a better third year than Ron Zook. After consecutive two-win seasons, Zook pulled off a turnaround for the ages, his team going 9-4, earning a Rose Bowl berth and beating No. 1-ranked Ohio State in Columbus.

Going into the year, Zook would have been thrilled with a 7-5 record and a minor bowl bid. Instead, he earned the school's fifth trip to Pasadena.

Never mind that the game itself was a USC blowout win. The game provided Zook with plenty of ways to motivate his players in future seasons. When practices aren't going well or the players don't feel like running that extra lap, Zook can simply say, "Remember what happened January 1, 2008."

Zook's bosses rewarded him for the successful season, giving him a three-year contract extension and a $450,000 raise. His assistants are being treated well, too, with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley receiving $500,000 per season in a multiyear contract.

Zook's staff is talented and stable. Mike Woodford joined the Illini last summer and helped to improve the special teams. Eric Wolford, who is going into his second season, has been a hit as offensive line coach.

Despite the success, Zook won't allow it to go his head or the heads of his players. Zook spent the spring preaching one single notion: "We aren't there yet." Illinois has struggled putting together back-to-back successful seasons. The school has never gone to consecutive BCS games and only once in history, during the John Mackovic era, has it earned back-to-back Jan. 1 bids. Zook doesn't want his 2008 team to follow the Illinois up-and-down pattern.

"Patience is not my strongest personality trait," Zook said. "That's why we've pushed so hard. As a coaching staff, we realize we have a chance to be a much-improved football team. What does that mean? We were better our second year than we were our first year, but we had the same record."