Illini football fans have suffered the last few years. When your favorite team is in a low cycle, it can seem like an eternity before it recovers and begins to prosper again. For many, this suffering began in the post-Sugar Bowl 2002 season despite taking National Champion Ohio State down to the wire in a game lost by a blown call in the endzone. And things got much worse from there. Hopefully this upcoming season or at least by next season, the Illini will begin winning more than losing and the emotional drought for fans will finally end.
However, those of us who understand the importance of recruiting have been in a longer slump. Beginning at least with the last three years of the Lou Tepper regime and continuing through all eight Ron Turner years, Illinois has suffered with recruiting that can be described as mediocre at best. This led to the destruction of both Tepper and Turner, with only the unique 2001 Big Ten Championship to counter the downfall. But even that success didn't propel Illinois into the fast lane of college recruiting. Indeed, it has seemed forever since recruiting nuts like this writer have been excited about Illini football.
That is, until Ron Zook arrived on campus. It has never been our purpose to attack either Lou Tepper or Ron Turner, and Turner made such prospect especially distasteful since he left the University of Illinois with class and maturity. But having more than a year to compare Ron Zook with his predecessors, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Zook has traits more ideally suited for recruiting. Yes, it now appears the long recruiting drought is finally at an end.
Zook didn't have much time to recruit when he first arrived, and yet he still pulled in some excellent prospects, many of whom played as raw freshmen last fall. They will be a stronger part of our team's fortunes this fall as they relax into the system.
But it is the incoming freshman class that has the fandom especially excited. We have only seen the seven who arrived in the spring in person. But three of those seven have earned starting spots, and the others have shown considerable promise. The rumors coming from informal summer practices regarding the remaining newcomers is extremely encouraging. Varsity members see the enormous potential of the rookies and have integrated them into their informal workouts with the intent of preparing them to play this fall.
There is speed, bulk, explosiveness and strength in abundance among the newcomers. There is also a confidence they will be a big part in turning around Illini fortunes, and soon. They are winners who have no memory of recent painful fall days with the Illini varsity, so they are ready to win at the college level without reservation or fear. This positive, confident energy will be a big influence on the varsity members who need the emotional uplift desperately. If they can learn the system quickly and play with abandon without muscle tightening, many of them will boost the Illini cause this fall.
How is Ron Zook able to recruit these top athletes when others have failed? We are not privy to all the innerworkings of Illini football so cannot provide a firsthand report. But some factors have been learned that hindered Tepper and Turner over the years, factors that have been eliminated or greatly reduced under Coach Zook.
Ron Zook is comfortable around all types of people from all walks of life. He is equally at home in both a ghetto and an affluent suburb. He cares about everyone he meets and treats them as equals. He doesn't put himself on a pedestal as some head coaches love to do but approaches athletes as someone who will care about their needs throughout their careers. Athletes know he is telling them the truth and can be trusted.
Zook understands the importance of recruiting players with extreme confidence levels since they can become the clutch stars who make great plays on the field when the game is on the line. He is comfortable around them, meaning he has at least as much personal confidence as those players. This is no small feat if the experience of watching recent Illini coaches restrict their recruiting is any comparison.
Coach Tepper ultimately limited his recruiting and reduced his potential recruit pool. He seemed especially uncomfortable with any player who spoke his mind or made independent decisions. Tepper' reluctance to recruit great but cocky quarterbacks, who often must be confident enough to make instant decisions on the field, is one example. His frustration with Dana Howard's insistence on posing for the Playboy All-American team is another. Tepper also emphasized his religious beliefs with recruits, which attracted some but repulsed others.
Ron Turner also seemed to have trouble accepting certain personality types. He maintained a certain distance from others, even with some of his friends. This alone caused some potential recruits to feel uncertain or unenthused about him. Turner was notorious for his volatility, and even his secretaries and assistant coaches had occasional difficulty coping with his fiery outbursts. Perhaps he was too quick to react, too quick to judge to accept certain top players as recruits. And perhaps this lack of approachability turned off potential recruits to him as well. Certainly, the level of trust recruits seem to have in Coach Zook is clearly superior to that shared with Coach Turner.
Kurt Kittner knew how to handle Turner and was a breath of fresh air for him. Kittner could ignore the occasional outbursts and not take them personally while finding ways to joke with Turner and ease his frustration levels. As much as Coach Turner helped Kittner become an outstanding quarterback, Kittner helped bring out Turner's best qualities as well. Unfortunately, Turner recruited too few Kittners. He could be rather dour without someone to lighten his load, and this had to hurt him in recruiting as well as coaching.
Turner lost trust in his players quickly and then had trouble reestablishing trust afterward. Once he believed a player couldn't be counted on, he removed him for several games at a time. In recruiting, if a player didn't show a degree of early interest in the Illini, he appeared to drop them from his plans. Perhaps this saved much wasted time, energy and money, but top players need more leeway than that. If you give up efforts to recruit the best players, they most certainly will be playing against you in the near future. And you will only have your 2nd list alternatives to compete against them.
Coach Zook eventually moves on from recruits who are obviously attracted to other schools. But he doesn't take competition as reason to give up. He constantly recruits players who are considering the top schools. He knows he won't get many of them, but one out of ten or twenty is still better than none at all. He doesn't let any frustrations with the fickle minds of teenagers keep him from persisting up to the last minute. That is the action of a winner, but it is not the way Tepper and Turner seemed to operate.
Another way of comparing Zook with Tepper and Turner is his approace to his assistant coaches. First of all, Zook has made many friends in his many years of coaching, including high school and junior college coaches who know he can be trusted to take care of their players. These friends help him not only with recruiting but with making recommendations for assistant coaching openings. In the game of college football, the more people who know and trust you, the better off you are.
Tepper and especially Turner seemed to have some difficulty developing positive relationships. Tepper had close friends, but primarily these people shared his personal and religious philosophies. Like a species with a limited gene pool or a politician with no contrarians to consult, a coach who has only like-minded people as friends has limitations. Survival of the fittest requires a balance between extremes. Staying at one end of the spectrum without balance ultimately causes extinction despite occasional success because sometimes one must do the exact opposite of normal to survive. Inflexibility is counterproductive.
Lou Tepper fired offensive coordinator Greg Landry after only two years and believed he had sufficient reason to do so. But in part, this firing stemmed from Tepper's dislike of personalities different from his own. Landry's replacements were close friends of Tepper, but they were incapable of creating the quality of offensive diversity necessary for winning in the Big Ten. They would do exactly what Tepper wanted, but they offered nothing new, no creative alternative, to the mix. Too much homogeneity destroyed Tepper's career at Illinois.
Ron Turner seemed to have few true friends. Perhaps he preferred those he could trust completely over having many casual acquaintences who call themselves friends. This is no indictment of his personality, but Turner's lack of trusted friends in the coaching industry may have prevented him from creating a talented assistant coaching staff. He had some good people over the years, but he seemed to have some he knew little about and who he discovered couldn't be trusted once hired. Perhaps it was this distrust that led him to hiring his own relatives into important positions. Unfortunately, these relatives may not have been best suited for their positions and lacked experience if not ability.
More than that, many of Turner's assistants appeared content to be assistant coaches all their lives. They would submit to Turner, but many appeared to lack the motivation to excel in order to get head coaching jobs. How much incentive is there for a coach to bring in top recruits to a program if he is not ambitious enough to use his recruiting as a springboard upward? How hard will a person work, how many hours will he log, if he is content in his current position? Some people assume they can get other jobs if fired from one program as long as they maintain friendships with influential people in the coaching industry. For them, it is who they know rather than what they have done that determines their future.
In contrast, Ron Zook has hired ambitious assistants who are working hard to become head coaches. These coaches hunger for the competition, even to the point of arguing with each other and their head coach over whose recruiting targets are best suited for the Illini program. After all, they WANT to bring in the best recruits possible to win games and pad their resumes. There are a couple whose age may preclude them from becoming head coaches at major universities, but they have to be self-motivated, competitive workers or they aren't hired.
Zook has no fear of ambitious assistants but encourages them in their efforts. This is a big contrast to many so-called leaders, people in charge of football programs, governments, organizations and corporations. They hire only submissives, "yes-men" who will not make waves or question authority. But Ron Zook has enough self-confidence he isn't threatened by dominant ambition but encourages it.
In other words, he has hired a number of future Ron Zooks as assistants, will help them get head coaching jobs, and will replace them with others of similar quality once they get the jobs they covet. And given his extensive network of friends and helpers, Zook will have a large pool of outstanding prospects from which to choose when that day arrives. The system can therefore become self-perpetuating.
Illini assistant coaches are chosen in part by what areas of the country they have recruited successfully. They must have viable contacts who can help them get involved with top players, and their areas of influence must complement the other coaches. Coach Zook tries to recruit as large a part of the country as feasible, areas with high concentrations of top players. In this way, there will be a large number of prospective prospects at all positions from which our recruits can be drawn each year.
Lou Tepper at times encouraged assistants to expand into new recruiting territories if there was a specific position need, although that occurred less when rule changes eliminated a full-time recruiting coordinator. Assistant Greg McMahon was successful recruiting running backs Robert Holcombe out of Arizona and George McDonald and Will Smith from California one year. McMahon enjoyed recruiting enough to make inroads in areas where he had little previous recruiting experience. But most coaches need two or more years recruiting a new territory before they can gain the trust of high school coaches and their top players.
Most of the time, Tepper and especially Ron Turner were limited to territories their assistant coaches already recruited. If their assistants couldn't find a top prospect in their areas, then they had to do without. A good example was the year Turner enticed Mark Kornfeld to decommit from Iowa State to be the only quarterback in his recruiting class.
Kornfeld eventually became a sure-handed possession receiver for the Illini, but he was no solution to Illini quarterback needs. He was recruited after the Illini found themselves with no quarterback to recruit. Only two quarterbacks were invited to campus for official visits that year. Both were so unimpressive on their visits that Turner couldn't offer then a scholarship. One became a tight end in college and the other may not have played much college ball. Nothing was more disheartening for this recruiting student than watching this major recruiting fiasco.
Zook rarely if ever gets caught in the position of having no options for an important position such as quarterback. He sends his assistants anywhere they need to go to find prospects. In most cases, his assistants or he have enough contacts to make inroads throughout the country. Absense of a quality quarterback after Kittner was one of Turner's biggest downfalls, and Turner's inability or unwillingness to use his reputation as a quarterback guru to attract top players from all over the country spoke volumes about his recruiting problems.
There are too many factors to consider when comparing Zook with his predecessors for us to do justice to the discussion. But whatever those reasons are, the recruiting results are obvious. Coach Zook can recruit with anyone, and he has some of the best recruiting assistants in the business to help him. If he can recruit the quality of stars within this year's freshman class after a dismal 2-9 season, imagine what he can do when he starts winning.
Illinois has two known commitments for the 2007 recruiting class, and already one can see a difference from previous regimes. Batavia's Mike Garrity is an athletic defensive end who will likely play offensive tackle in college. He is quick enough and good enough that, had he been recruited by Lou Tepper or Ron Turner, he would be considered a breakthrough recruit for the defensive line. But top programs take players like Garrity, with above-average speed for a defensive lineman, and make them into outstanding offensive linemen with great speed for their positions.
Garrity might have attended Illinois under Tepper or Turner as he has numerous connections to the university. But he would have likely stayed on defense through most or all of his career because there would be few other defensive line alternatives. He may get a chance to practice there when he arrives on campus, but he may not be needed on defense.
One reason for that is the recent commitment of defensive tackle Daryle Ballew from Cincinnati, Ohio (Withrow). Ballew is the type of quality interior defender who can take on a double team and still get penetration, the kind rarely if ever corralled by Tepper or Turner. Ron Zook is also involved with numerous other star defensive linemen and has a decent chance of recruiting several of them. What a wonderful change from the last dozen or so years! Illinois now has a chance to create the quality defense it has desperately needed to balance with the offense and help it win big games.
Often, the fun experienced by fans of recruiting is directly related to the fun and excitement generated by the head coach and his assistants. Coach Tepper enjoyed recruiting, but some of his assistants did not. Perhaps Tepper thought he could make up for his assistants' limitations by his personal abilities. Coach Turner never had a flair for recruiting, and he tended to rest on his laurels rather than use the Sugar Bowl as motivation to expand his recruiting efforts. He didn't have fun recruiting, and it showed.
Without question, Coach Zook has unbounded energy and enthusiasm that is contagious. It gives one renewed hope just listening to him talk about all the great reasons why top players should attend Illinois. If it makes us want to follow his recruiting, it also likely makes top players wish to follow Zook to Illinois.
Yes, football recruiting is fun again. It is exciting and no longer frustrating to check out the top players and the schools they are considering. We know we will lose some top ones to other schools, but we know we will battle those schools all the way to signing day. We are back in the recruiting game, which likely means the victory drought will end in the near future, so keep the faith.