Zook recruits spark Fighting Illini revival

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- For three years, Illinois coach Ron Zook asked his players to believe in him, even after many others had cast him aside as a nice guy who was in over his head as a big-time college football coach.

Like a used car salesman or an eager entrepreneur trying to sell his dream, Zook advertised Illinois as an up-and-coming program, even when history suggested the Illini would never climb out of the Big Ten cellar. Coming into this season, Illinois had lost 30 of 32 games against Big Ten foes and had long been considered one of the country's biggest underachievers.

Yet many of the country's top blue-chip recruits followed Zook to Illinois anyway, his promises and dreams being their only guarantees of future success. The former Florida coach had long been regarded as an effective recruiter -- he signed most of the Gators players who won a national championship under Urban Meyer last season -- because of his tireless work ethic and likable personality.

But when Zook began signing top players for Illinois, which had never been much of a player in the race for top prospects, he was accused of being an unscrupulous recruiter. Rival coaches said he told more untruths than a snake oil salesman. Some coaches even accused Zook of cheating after he signed top players from as far away as Washington, D.C.

Now those coaches can call Zook a winner, too.

With a roster chock full of freshmen and sophomores Zook signed the past three years, Illinois took a big step toward Big Ten legitimacy Saturday with a surprising 31-26 upset of No. 5 Wisconsin in front of a crowd of 57,078 at Memorial Stadium. It was the Illini's first win over a top-five team since upsetting No. 5 USC on Sept. 4, 1989, and their first home victory over a top-five opponent in 22 years.

The Illini have won five games in a row, and they are 3-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 1990. The Badgers had their 14-game winning streak end and fell to 5-1, 2-1 in the Big Ten.

"It's a feeling of satisfaction," Zook said. "This is a special moment, whether we're used to winning or not."

More than anything, it's a feeling of redemption for Zook. He was the unlikely replacement for Steve Spurrier at Florida before the 2002 season, after the Ol' Ball Coach left his alma mater for the Washington Redskins. Spurrier led the Gators to six outright SEC titles in 12 seasons and the 1996 national championship.

Zook, who had worked as defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints before he was hired at Florida, came nowhere close to matching Spurrier's success. Zook went 8-5 in his first season as a head coach with the Gators in 2002. Florida had the same record the next year, then Zook was fired seven games into a 7-4 season in 2004.

Zook didn't stay unemployed for long. Less than six weeks after Zook was fired by Florida, Illinois hired him to replace Ron Turner, who lost 19 of his last 23 games as the Illini's coach.

"I always thought one of the greatest things to happen to me is what happened to me at Florida," said Zook, who had a 23-14 record in three seasons with the Gators. "If I hadn't been fired there, I wouldn't be here."

So far, hiring Zook seems like the best thing to happen to Illinois in quite a while. The Illini went 2-9 in Zook's first season in 2005 and 2-10 in his second. But Zook kept telling his players and anyone else who would listen that brighter days were on the way. And this time, his employer waited for success.

"The people have been so great here," Zook said. "The expectation here isn't the same. There, the expectation level is, well, whatever it is. Here, they want to win, but they see the positive side of it. After every game [in the first two seasons at Illinois], I just felt like saying, 'Hang tough,' and 'Hang in there.' I just always thought we'd be OK if we just stayed the course."

Zook immediately began to upgrade Illinois' talent. He hired Mike Locksley, his recruiting coordinator at Florida, who tapped into his connections in his native Washington, D.C. Locksley signed highly recruited players such as cornerback Vontae Davis, whose older brother, Vernon Davis, starred at Maryland and now plays for the San Francisco 49ers, and backup quarterback Eddie McGee, who is becoming a more and more important part of the Illinois offense.

"During my recruitment, [Zook] told me everything that was going to happen and I bought into it," Davis said. "It's paying off now. He told me to buy into it and everything would pay off in the end."

The cream of the D.C. crop is freshman Arrelious Benn, the country's No. 1 receiver prospect last year, who chose the Illini over schools such as Florida State, Maryland, Miami, Notre Dame and Southern California. Benn enrolled at Illinois last January and has become an instant star this season. Benn had five catches for 51 yards before injuring his shoulder in the second half against Wisconsin. Last week, he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass in a 27-20 upset of then-No. 21 Penn State.

In February, Illinois added highly regarded Martez Wilson, who spurned Florida, Michigan, Ohio State and USC to sign with the Illini. Wilson isn't yet starting, but he played three positions (linebacker, safety and nickelback) against Wisconsin. Defensive tackle Josh Brent was another blue-chip recruit who already is making an impact.

"This is definitely why I came to Illinois," Wilson said. "A lot of people underrate Illinois and asked me why I came here. This is the reason I came to Illinois -- to make a difference."

No recruit made as much of a difference for Zook as Rashard Mendenhall. He was one of the country's top running back prospects as a senior at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill. He was rated the No. 1 player in Illinois by most recruiting services in 2004 and signed with Illinois.

Mendenhall was one of the first big recruits to sign with Zook, and other top players soon followed. Mendenhall ran 19 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns against the Badgers.

"I committed to the university and program and saw it was one of the programs on the rise," Mendenhall said. "I knew our time was coming, and our time is now."

Getting Benn and Wilson, more than any other players, put the target on Zook from rival recruiters.

"I still think the reason we've had success in recruiting here is the people," Zook said. "It's a feeling people get when they come here. It's a feeling of closeness and family. I always tell people it's a family-run business."

And Zook said he had something to offer that college football's traditional powers don't have.

"I guess you could say that you're selling an opportunity to be part of something special," Zook said. "Being in a program that wins all the time is obviously very, very good. But being part of a team that takes a program to the top is really something special."

Finally, Zook can show players his dream instead of just telling them about it.

"I think one thing about this profession is if you believe in yourself and believe in what you're doing, it's always going to pan out," Zook said.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.