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On the Trail: Zook Sells Zook on Gumption, Gonads

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This is totally cheating, cribbing from the comments Monday at Every Day Should Be Saturday while Orson Swindle readies for his no doubt Borat-esque debut on the bull ridin' circuit. SMQ's not sure he would read Mark Schlabach otherwise, though he is on the record defending the columnist's paycheck from the Worldwide Leader. In the words of Ric Flair, to be the best, you have to steal from the best.

Or something like that. WOO!
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But one of the topics SMQ has found "discussed," as it were, on message board after message board - especially in the state of Florida, whether or not actually Gator-based - while checking residual hits for Arrelious Benn's shocking mea culpa is wonder and confusion in the wake of Ron Zook's recruiting success at Illinois. The reigning Big Ten doormat has reeled in commitments from two players (Benn and Martez Wilson) rated five-star and second at their respective positions by Scout, five four-star prospects and five other players ranked nationally in the top 50 at their position. That's good for a top 20 class to date, and many times better than any school off a comparable stretch of futility - the Illini are 6-34 in the Big Ten since winning it in 2001 under Ron Turner, and 2-30 over the last four years with an average margin of defeat just shy of three touchdowns. Unlike, say, North Carolina with Butch Davis, there's no apparent systematic change (unless you count the mascot costume).

Part of it is that the Illini improved in Year Two under Zook in terms of competitiveness, if not actual victories, its last six league losses all coming by less than 11 points. The answer, according to Schlabach, is an old-fashioned combination of salesmanship, delusions of grandeur and a slavedriver's penchant for exploiting labor for the sake of efficiency:

Zook makes the most of his limited opportunities to recruit. Last May, during an early evaluation period in which coaches could visit high schools to scout players, Zook traveled to 71 schools in nine states during a four-week period. One day two weeks ago, Zook visited six high schools and made two in-home visits in the same day.

"The thing with Coach Zook is you better get up and eat breakfast because that's going to be your last meal of the day when you're recruiting with him," Illinois recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell said. "He does not stop unless you stop for gas."

Mitchell said he often packs a sandwich or candy in his briefcase when he goes recruiting with Zook because he knows he'll never eat. During a recent visit to Thornton Township High School on the South Side of Chicago, Zook caught Mitchell nearly inhaling a sandwich in the cafeteria line.

"He says eating and sleeping are a waste of time," Mitchell said. "He says if you sleep fast, you can sleep less. I still don't understand that one."

If basic functions required for the sustenance of human life aren't allowed to stand in the way of sweet, sweet recruiting bliss, then what chance stands a humble perspective that admits and learns from the realities of past experience and gives credit where credit is due? Not much chance:

As far as Zook is concerned, he's never had a chance to prove himself as a coach.

Zook is confident he would have guided the Gators to their second national championship if he had been allowed the chance to stay at Florida longer. And Zook believes he might have accomplished the feat sooner than Meyer, who won the BCS title in his second season at Florida.

"Absolutely, maybe a year earlier," Zook said. "Chris Leak was a sophomore and we led the Southeastern Conference in every offensive category. As a player, you're going to be better in your second year than you are in your first, and you're going to be better in your third year than you were in your second. By your fourth year, you're going to be better than you were in all the others. It was a young football team that made mistakes and you can't buy experience. Before somebody makes a statement that I can't coach, let me coach those players for four years."

Zook believes the Gators were well on their way to becoming a national championship contender when he was fired.

"We had a blueprint and we put it in motion, and they made sure it came to fruition," Zook said.

First, players do not always improve; Chris Leak, in fact, specifically mentioned here, was statistically his best as a sophomore under Zook, when he had career highs in yards, touchdowns, touchdown/interception ratio and quarterback rating and was sacked fewer times than in any of his other three seasons. So, reasonably, Chris Leak would have continued to improve and perhaps would have been better, statistically speaking, in the Zook system than he was in Urban Meyer's. Zook is a groomer of quarterbacks - Sell it!

But Florida went 7-5 that year. A dozen years before Zook, the Gators were 122-23-1 (.836), finished in the top 12 every year and won six SEC titles and one mythical title. Three years under Zook, they were 23-15 (.605), did not have a poll finish higher than 24th and won zero SEC or SEC East championships. Two years after Zook, UF is 22-4 (.846) and has won both the SEC and the mythical championship. When an individual has the guts to suggest, on the record, his successor in that situation is riding has coattails, that it was all part of his grand "blueprint," and a slow implementation of it at that, then that, friends, is evidence of an endless reserve of balls. That is confidence and optimism run absolutely amok, until it bubbles over into frothing madness. So Zook has guts, too, a huge, disgusting supply of effervescent, non-white, uptight guts - Sell it!

Still waiting for the blueprint he left in Urban Meyer's desk to come back encrusted with flecks of his championship ring and a thank you note. Recruits would totally dig that!
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Illinois' record two years before Zook - under a lame, one-time Big Ten championship coach last seen gimping it up in the Super Bowl - was 4-19 with one conference win. Illinois' record in two years under Zook is 4-19 with one conference win. Obviously, the guy is doing something right.