A quick look back at the first nine months

Sept. 7, 2005

by Joe Pinter, Illinois Athletic Public Relations

On December 7, 2004, Ron Zook was hired as the 22nd head football coach in Illinois history. It was a new beginning for a football program that had struggled since winning the Big Ten Championship in 2001, and also for Zook, who came to Champaign-Urbana after three seasons coaching at the University of Florida.

But what about the players? Gone was the coaching staff who recuited them and the system they worked as many as four years to learn and perfect. They now faced a new beginning as well, but what would be expected of them under Zook? How would things change with the new coaching staff in place?

As the spring and summer of 2005 rolled around, the Illini faced a daunting challenge: rebuilding the program into Big Ten and postseason contenders while at the same time learning to work with a completely overhauled coaching staff.

"There were a lot of question marks," said fullback Jason Davis. "It was scary. A lot of rumors went around about position changes, but Coach Zook talked to us as soon as he got here and set everything straight." It was clear from day one that Guenther picked the right man for the job. Known not only as a first-class coach and recruiter but also a first-class person throughout the world of college football, Zook did everything in his power to make the transition as painless as possible for his new players.

"Coach Zook and the rest of his staff let us know that their doors were open and we could come in and talk to them," said defensive tackle Ryan Matha. "We got off on the right foot with the coaches, and it's been great so far."

A supportive relationship quickly developed between the staff and players.

"We've definitely become a family," sophomore linebacker J Leman said. "Especially over the summer and camp. We've had the whole summer to figure out the coaches and we've definitely come together in that period."

With a new bond established, Zook's staff and the Illini hit the ground running. Zook took summer practices as an opportunity to establish his way of football in the program, a style unfamiliar to the Illini.

"He won't accept anything but 100 percent," Leman said. "If we don't have a good practice in his eyes, he makes us start all over again. If you don't get it done, he'll keep you out there until you get it done."

One of the biggest adjustments for the Illini dealt with the tempo that Zook used on the field.


"There were a lot of question marks. It was scary. A lot of rumors went around about position changes, but Coach Zook talked to us as soon as he got here and set everything straight."
Fullback Jason Davis


"Coach Zook makes you go fast," Davis said. "It's fun with him because he's always upbeat and excited to be at practice."

The players have fed off Zook's enthusiasm since his arrival in Champaign and have found a new excitement in practice. He is able to connect with players at a different level than many other coaches in college football.

"One thing that we heard about Coach Zook before he came here was that he was a player's coach," running back E.B. Halsey explained. "We really didn't understand what that meant, but now that he's here, we see what that means. He's constantly around the guys, playing and joking or just hanging out."

At times, Zook is more of a big brother to his players rather than a coach. Leman said there is a big part of Zook's personality that much of the public doesn't see.

"The fans may see him as a serious or intimidating guy when he's coaching, but he definitely knows how to have fun," Leman said. "Coach Zook is really a wild guy at heart. When he's coaching you only see the intense side, but he's a really funny guy."

The new energy and excitement Zook projects has provided the Illini football program with a much-needed breath of fresh air. The players have a new outlook on practice and have developed a hungry appetite to learn.

"Every day is different," Leman said. "Coach Zook won't allow it to be like the movie 'Groundhog Day.' He won't let it stay the same from day-to-day or week-to-week. He always says that 'we have to keep climbing because we're not where we need to be.' We have a goal and we believe in Illinois football."

While Zook and his staff are keeping the Illini on their toes, as the 2005 season kicks-off, there is one thing both the coaches and players hope becomes constant: wins.