Illinois' Zook responds to Meyer's criticism

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Ron Zook is entering his fifth season at Illinois, but the coach simply can't get away from his ties to Florida.

Florida head coach Urban Meyer opened fire on his predecessor Friday, saying he inherited a program where freshmen were regularly mistreated by older players and exiled in a violent locker room. Meyer's response came after The Orlando Sentinel's Jeremy Fowler asked him how he treats fighting between players after an alleged incident at Miami that left Hurricanes defensive end Adewale Ojomo with a broken jaw.

The question had no mention of Zook or the previous regime, but Meyer, who never mentioned Zook by name, launched into this attack.

"When we first got here five years ago they had freshmen in a separate locker room and it was a bunch of tin lockers over there and they weren't allowed to walk [into the regular locker room]," Meyer told reporters Friday. "Think about this for a minute: this is a big-time college football program and we had some fights because they treat their freshman like they were non-people.

"'Don't walk through here, we'll kick your tail, we'll shave your eyebrows.' It took us awhile to break that great culture we had here. That was tremendous. You don't win many games, but you beat up freshman and shave eyebrows. Absolutely unbelievable."

Oh, wait, there's more.

"It's called a team, not some silly nonsense. That was five years ago, let's go beat up freshmen. Let's get our brains kicked in against our rival, but let's go beat up a freshman."

Zook issued the following statement Friday night in response to Meyer's comments.

"I was surprised to see that, once again, five years later, we're blamed for
something else at Florida. But by now I guess I shouldn't be. This one was
most disappointing because it implies we didn't look out for our players.
From someone who wasn't there at the time. I can assure you I've never, ever
been accused of that. I thought I was too much of a players' coach.

"The implication is incorrect -- there is no place for hazing in college
football and we've put a stop to that if we've ever seen it. I applaud
Florida for fostering what they say is a wonderful family atmosphere. I
would invite anyone to talk to any of our players here at Illinois and,
although we don't look for media opportunities to brag about it, it is a
wonderful family atmosphere."

Wow. Reading this exchange, I know what my colleague Chris Low goes through on a daily basis.

It's definitely surprising to see Meyer go after Zook like this, especially so long after the fact. Then again, Meyer has done it before.

Florida's locker rooms have undergone several renovations since Zook left, and there were separate rooms for key contributors and those well down the depth chart, who often times were freshmen. Illinois has a similar situation right now in its locker room, where the first ring belongs to starters and key reserves, while many of the younger players are toward the back. Having walked through Penn State's locker room this spring, it's a similar setup there and at a lot of other places.

I've heard of no hazing incidents at Illinois since Zook arrived. Aside from a fight last year between junior wide receiver Jeff Cumberland and freshman running back Mikel LeShoure, which left LeShoure with a broken jaw, infighting hasn't been a major issue.

When I visited with Zook last week at Rantoul, I asked him if he had mixed feelings since Florida went on to so much success after he was fired.

"I was happy for those guys," Zook said. "One of the greatest things for me was to be able to watch them reach their goal. I said it when I got fired. We didn't fail. We ran out of time a little bit. We were going in the right direction."

Zook likes the direction Illinois is headed, though he can never seem to distance himself far enough from Gainesville.