Team preview: Illinois
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Illinois Fighting Illini.
Five years ago, Illinois sat at the top of the Big Ten. Ron Turner's sixth team went 10-2, won the league championship and went to its first BCS game. Since then, pfffft. The balloon not only lost all of its air, it was ripped to shreds by blowout losses, recruiting mistakes and ultimately, the firing of the same coach who took the Illini to the top.
The story goes that Turner didn't have a taste for recruiting. He wanted to be finished with his class by Christmas. He figured he could do more with less. That didn't cut it in the Big Ten.
Rival coaches snickered as Illinois took players who didn't belong in the league. Eventually, it caught up to Turner on the field, his final two teams going a combined 4-19. Needing a guy with a history of recruiting success, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther looked way south to a coach out of work: Ron Zook.
Recruiting hasn't been the same at Illinois since Zook's arrival. In late April, Zook's mom visited Champaign from her Florida home. On a Sunday night, Zook had to say an early goodbye. There was a plane to catch for Ohio, where potential recruits waited.
When his first Illinois season finished, as expected, at 2-9, Zook had a simple solution: Get better players. He brought in seven in January from junior colleges, prep schools and high schools. He tried hard to turn the prep coaches in Illinois toward the home-state school. He went to Florida, Maryland and Ohio, where the talent pool is deep and his assistants have connections.