So We Hired Another Zook December 9, 2011
Can this one organize, inspire, and lead a football team?
I know it’s totally unfair to be 13 minutes into the Tim Beckman era and already compare him to Zook. But watching the press conference just now, it was all I could think about. Intensity. Makes caffeine nervous. Raspy voice. Probably wants to smash the podium with his fist. If he had mentioned water skiing, my facial tic would have reappeared. Unfair, but it’s there. He has many of the same mannerisms and shares Ron Zook’s intensity.
Which means he’ll likely be a fantastic recruiter (yay!). It will be tough to scrape together this class in the next 6 weeks, but in the 2013 class, I absolutely expect a return to a top-25 recruiting class. It’s no secret that Ron Zook had lost his recruiting mojo. I think Tim Beckman recaptures that. And soon. Some have mentioned the 2013 class in Illinois to be one of the deeper classes in years. Matt Alviti, Ty Issac, Aaron Bailey, Kyle Bosch – all names you will be very familiar with by this time next year. Hopefully because several of them are committed to Tim Beckman and Illinois.
But can he organize, inspire, and lead a football team? That’s the 9 million dollar question. I wrote a long post about Ron Zook after he was fired, mentioning how, well, here, I’ll just quote me.
For the players, this is why they loved him. Fiercely loyal. Willing to go to a Florida fraternity house to stick up for his guys. Offended that Bob Asmussen would ask him about his job situation while Trulon Henry was still in the hospital. He recruited these guys, and he was going to stick by them until he gave them a hug on Senior Day and sent them off to life. I believe Ron Zook honestly saw himself as a mentor for youth first. To some kids, he was a father figure. To some kids, he was their biggest supporter.
But to very few kids was he a coach. He could solve an internal dispute and he could encourage a kid to get to class, but he couldn’t set up a competent punt return. He could sit at his desk and talk to a kid about the dangers of binge drinking, but he couldn’t decline a penalty and set up Iowa with a fourth down situation. It’s almost as if he thought of himself as a mentor and friend first and a coach second. And when that’s your structure, you’re set up to fail.
Which is why “good riddance” isn’t possible for me tonight. Talk to Eddie McGee and he’ll tell you Ron Zook changed his life. Not in a showy way like Lou Tepper, but in a tangible, real, father-figure way. Ron Zook has one of the more infectious personalities of anyone I’ve been around. Remember when Taylor Bell of the Sun Times wrote a hatchet job, Zook asked to meet with him, and he turned around and wrote a glowing follow-up? Only Ron Zook could pull that off. It’s the reason he got the Florida job and the reason he got the Illinois job.
But the flipside is the reason he lost the Florida job and the reason he was fired today: he’s just not very good at running a college program. It seems strange, doesn’t it? A coach with his record could put together 10 seasons as a BCS-conference head coach. And the reason that happened is even more strange: he’s good at everything but football.
That’s where I’m at after watching this press conference. Tim Beckman will either be good at the things Ron Zook was not and become the most wildly successful Illini coach since John Mackovic, or he will be Ron Zook 2.0.
Because Zook with a disciplined, organized team was the dream, right? At the end of the Tepper era right through the Turner era, save for Kittner to Lloyd, we just didn’t have the talent to compete. The roster that Ron Turner left for Ron Zook was one of the worst in major conference football. I think back on the 2003 season (or even the 1997 season) and all I can think about was the dread the night before a game. We knew that we knew that we didn’t have the talent to even keep the game close the next day.
And then along comes Zook with the best 4-year recruiting run in the history of Illini football. And suddenly we’re in the Rose Bowl. And suddenly there are 40-some thousand season ticket holders. We finally have the talent to compete, and that talent has led us to Pasadena. All hail the Zooker.
But then if fell apart. The discipline wasn’t there. The players were getting arrested. The game management was poor. Put simply, Ron Zook couldn’t go toe to toe with Bret Bielema or Mark Dantonio and win. Their recruits were more organized. Their teams were more focused. And eventually, it led to Zook’s firing.
Enter Tim Beckmann. Ron Zook II. An intense recruiter who loves throwing Life Savers at Woody Hayes and lasagna. Like Zook’s press conference 7 years ago, I was ready to strap on a helmet and hit the field. I know he’ll be a successful recruiter. I know he’ll graduate his players. I know he’ll eventually energize the fans.
But can he coach? Can he inspire? Can he lead? Can he organize? Can he win?
If he can, he’s our dream coach. A recruiter who wants to win in the Big Ten at Illinois. Watch out, Leaders Division, here we come.
If he can’t, he’s Zook.