Zook, Illini expected to ink top-15 recruiting class

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The rap on Illinois football coach Ron Zook is that he could sell you a used car, but might not be able to teach you to drive it. Zook could sell you swamp land in Arizona, but couldn't find the state on a map.

Ever since Zook replaced Steve Spurrier as Florida's coach before the 2002 season, he has been regarded as a masterful recruiter but a lousy coach. His Gators teams lost five games in three straight seasons, and he was fired before his last squad finished 7-5 in 2004.

Zook first earned his reputation as a top-notch recruiter as a Florida assistant. He was credited with signing many of the players who helped the Gators win their first national championship under Spurrier in 1996. After replacing Spurrier as Florida's coach, Zook signed many of the players who last season won the BCS national title under Urban Meyer, who succeeded Zook two years ago.

As far as Zook is concerned, he has never been given an opportunity to prove himself as a coach.

"The rap is, 'Well, you can recruit but you can't coach,'" Zook said. "Well, give me a chance to coach guys for four years."

Zook is getting that chance at Illinois, which hired him to replace Ron Turner shortly after Zook was fired at Florida. The Illini, perhaps best known for producing rough-and-tough linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy, needed a salesman as much as a coach, because after struggling as one of college football's worst teams for more than a decade, there wasn't much about Illinois to sell.

Illinois finished with a winning record only twice in the last dozen seasons -- 8-4 in 1999 and 10-2 in 2001. The Illini haven't been to a bowl game since after the 2001 season and haven't played in the Rose Bowl since 1984. Illinois won three games or fewer seven times in the last 12 years and had only eight victories the last four seasons combined.

Zook hasn't changed the Illini's fortunes on the field, not yet anyway. His teams went 4-19 the past two seasons, including a woeful 1-15 against Big Ten Conference opponents. Zook won his first two games at Illinois, then promptly lost nine in a row to finish 2-9 in 2005. Last season, the Illini beat one Division I-A opponent -- Michigan State -- and finished with a seven-game losing streak and 2-10 record. Last season, Illinois played 16 true freshmen -- second-most in Division I-A -- and 27 first-year players.

Off the field, Zook is again playing Pied Piper as college football's national signing day nears, with blue-chip recruits flocking to Illinois like never before. Zook's recruiting haul is expected to rank among the top 15 nationally and includes verbal commitments from several of the country's top-rated players.

Arrelious Benn of Dunbar Senior High in Washington, D.C., ranked the No. 3 wide receiver in the country by Scouts Inc., already has enrolled at Illinois, after choosing the Illini over Florida State, Maryland, Miami and Notre Dame. Martez Wilson of Simeon High in Chicago, considered the No. 1 defensive end in the country by Scouts Inc., verbally committed to play at Illinois and is expected to sign a national letter of intent Wednesday. Wilson chose the Illini over traditional powers such as Florida, Miami, Michigan, Notre Dame and Southern California.

So how does Zook do it?

"I don't do anything more than anybody else," Zook said. "We go hard. When the schools are open, we try to make hay. But everybody works hard. If you don't work hard in this business, you won't be in it for long. People say I just love to recruit. I don't love to recruit. I just hate to lose.

"A coach once told me it's better to be a bad coach with good players than a good coach with bad players."

Zook has apparently taken that advice to heart, as he seemingly strives to outwork every other coach in recruiting. Under NCAA rules, head coaches are allowed only one off-campus face-to-face meeting with a potential prospect (assistant coaches are permitted to visit a prospect once per week and six times overall beginning in late November through signing day).

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."

Zook also sends text messages to recruits incessantly. He has sent more than 95 million kilobytes of text messages from his BlackBerry since the contact period began Nov. 26. Zook isn't sure exactly how many text messages have been sent, but he knows the handheld device rarely leaves his fingers. (The NCAA currently has no rules in place regulating coaches' text messaging; an NCAA committee is considering whether to ban text messaging to recruits altogether or restrict when messages can be sent.)

Illini tight end Jeff Cumberland, who started as a freshman last season, said Zook sent him text messages after he verbally committed to play for Illinois in 2005. Cumberland, from Columbus, Ohio, said Zook sent him messages of encouragement while the player worked to become academically eligible.

Cumberland recalled receiving messages from Zook such as, "Hey, heard about your grades. Keep up the good work," and "Keep focusing! Keep going to tutors and work hard. It will work out!"

Cumberland said Zook's motivational messages helped him stay focused on getting to Illinois. When he met the NCAA's requirements for freshman eligibility, Cumberland chose the Illini over West Virginia, Marshall and Akron.

"I thought he was a pretty cool dude," Cumberland said. "He was humble for a football coach."

Zook is confident he will have a chance to finish the job at Illinois, whatever that ending might be. He was fired by Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley before he finished compiling a 23-14 record in three seasons. Zook's Florida teams beat five top-10 opponents during his tenure, but also lost to Ole Miss in consecutive seasons. After the Gators fell at unranked Mississippi State 38-31 on Oct. 23, 2004, Zook was fired but coached the team's last four regular-season games.

He is credited with signing many of the players who helped Florida win the BCS national championship last season, including quarterback Chris Leak, linebackers Earl Everett and Brandon Siler, defensive ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss, safety Reggie Nelson and receiver Andre Caldwell. His first recruiting class at Florida was ranked in the top 20 nationally, and the second and third classes were among the top five.

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.

Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, a highly regarded recruiter whom Zook lured to Florida from the University of Maryland, said Zook has never been given a chance to prove himself as a coach.

"I really think that's an unfair assessment because when you look at his record at Florida, we were a top-25 program every year," Locksley said. "The plan was to get to year four and year five. He didn't get four or five years at Florida, so he didn't get the chance to finish the job."

Mitchell, who twice turned down Zook before taking a job on the Illini staff, said Zook has been unfairly cast as a poor coach, given his record as an assistant in the NFL and coach in college.

"I don't know how you can say that," Mitchell said. "How can you coach in the NFL and not be a great coach and teacher? There's no recruiting in the NFL. It's all strictly football. I don't know where that comes from. We don't believe that here. It's funny because sometimes guys get reputations of being geniuses and if you look at the programs where they've been, those teams are still successful after they're gone."

Illinois' football program has had only minor success -- the Illini have won only four Big Ten titles in the last 43 seasons -- despite being located in a heavily populated state with no powerful in-state rival. Although Illinois isn't as fertile a recruiting ground as Florida, Zook believes there are enough talented players within a 200-mile radius of the Illinois campus to be highly successful. Last year, only Ohio produced more football players who signed with Big Ten schools than Illinois. Large cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and St. Louis can each be reached within a three-hour drive.

The Illinois campus is about 135 miles from Chicago, a metropolitan area that traditionally produces dozens of Division I-A prospects, many of whom have attended schools other than Illinois in the past. In 2005, Illinois had 45 natives on NFL opening-day rosters, which was 12th-most among the 50 states. But the majority of the best players from the state didn't play college football at Illinois. Chicago native and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb attended Syracuse. Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott and Washington Redskins receiver Antwaan Randle El -- two more Chicago natives -- attended Purdue and Indiana, respectively.

Shortly after Zook was hired at Illinois, he made recruiting Chicago high schools a priority. He assigned an assistant coach to every high school in the metropolitan area. Mitchell, who also is the team's assistant head coach and running backs coach, previously worked as Michigan State's recruiting coordinator and had success signing players from Chicago.

"The thing about Chicago is that because you can fly in and out so easily, it's heavily recruited," Mitchell said. "When I was at Michigan State, I always felt if Illinois could just keep some of the players from Chicago, they'd be very successful."

Last year, Illinois signed quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams from Chicago Vocational High and highly regarded wide receiver Chris James from Chicago's Morgan Park High. Williams started nine games in 2006, throwing for nine touchdowns and running for two.

The Illini have had even more success in the city this year. Along with Wilson, the highly regarded defensive end, the Illini expect to sign three defensive backs from Chicago area high schools: safeties Anthony Morris and Darius Purcell and cornerback Marcus Thomas. Morris, from Thornton Township High, was offered scholarships by Michigan, West Virginia, Iowa and Wisconsin. Thomas, from Morgan Park High, is expected to turn down offers from Boston College, Purdue, Wisconsin and Hawaii.

Jesse Chick, who coached Wilson at Simeon High, said Zook made quite an impression on his star player.

"He's a gentleman like all the other coaches," Chick said. "He's animated. He gets excited. He's very excitable when he's talking about his program and what they're trying to do."

Wilson told the Chicago Tribune he chose the Illini in part because Zook "wasn't an uptight white coach."

Locksley, a Washington, D.C., native, continues to recruit the nation's capital. Nathan Bussey, Benn's teammate at Dunbar High School, has committed to Illinois, along with linebacker Ian Thomas of DeMatha Catholic. Last year, the Illini signed four players from the Washington area, including cornerback Vontae Davis from Dunbar High, the younger brother of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.

Illinois linebackers coach Dan Disch coached at a high school in Jacksonville, Fla., before Zook hired him to coach the Gators' secondary. Disch recruited D'Angelo McCray, ranked the No. 5 defensive tackle in the country by Scouts Inc., and running back Troy Pollard from Andrew Jackson High in Jacksonville. McCray chose the Illini over Florida, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Louisville.

"We call it 'Friends and Family Recruiting,'" Locksley said. "When you're not winning a lot of games, it's kind of like selling Mary Kay. You're selling it to friends and family. My aunt sells Mary Kay. Every year, I'm buying Skin So Soft to keep the mosquitos off."

But many salesmen are probably on the road less than Zook.

"I love to be home just like the next guy," Zook said. "I've got children, too. But my children are happier when we're winning."

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