I covered the University of Illinois football program in the waning years of the Ray Eliot regime and during the Pete Elliott era and had some interesting experiences with Mike White during his time in Champaign-Urbana. So what is Ron Zook doing wrong and what can be done to save the Illini program? Let me count the ways.
Let's use Mike White as a model. Sure, he wasn't a saint and he violated some rules that created another scandal and put the university in jail. But let's remember the positive things that helped to build an undefeated Big 10 champion and a Rose Bowl team and attract several big-time players to the campus.
At the same time, he changed the face of Big 10 football and high school football in Illinois. He brought in a new passing offense that influenced nearly every high school coach in the state, forever changing the dynamics of the game.
White hired good, young coaches who proved to be excellent teachers and smart and aggressive recruiters, including Bill Callahan, Brad Childress, Kevin Cosgrove and Shawn Watson. Childress currently is head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. Callahan coached the Oakland Raiders and at Nebraska. Cosgrove also has NFL experience.
He followed the game plan of Hayden Fry, whose coaching staff included Barry Alvarez, Kirk Ferentz, Dan McCarney, Dan Snyder and Chuck Long.
White brought in Jeff George, a transfer from Purdue, Jack Trudeau, Tony Eason, Tim Brewster, Jim Juriga, Don Thorp and Dave Williams.
Most of his top players were out-of-staters, many from California, and junior college products, not a good model for Illinois, but he wooed a lot of linemen from the Chicago area. He had roots at the University of California and turned down Elliott's invitation to join his first staff at Illinois in 1960.
Elliott, whose signature recruit was Dick Butkus, also had a talented staff (Bill Taylor, Bobby Herndon, Dee Andros) that blanketed Illinois and once had a dozen players on his roster who played on the 1963 Big 10 championship/Rose Bowl team and later played in the NFL.
"Elliott brought in more Illinois kids. But you can't rely on Chicago kids nowadays because nearly every major Division I program recruits in the Chicago area," recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said.
"You've got to hire good, aggressive recruiters who will be players (in the recruiting process) in Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Memphis and Detroit. At the same time, if you want to build an elite program, you must set your sights on California, Florida or Texas. Illinois was supposed to make its presence felt in Dallas/Fort Worth but it hasn't happened yet.
"Zook has roots in Florida and Illinois is on the list of a lot of prospects. But you need closers, coaches who can seal the deal. It isn't good enough to be one of five finalists on a kid's list. There are signs that the recruiting class of 2010 won't be very good, especially if Zook loses C.J. Fiedorowicz and Corey Cooper."
Whether Zook remains head coach, notwithstanding what happens during the remainder of this season, the game plan for the future is clear. Look what Ferentz is doing at Iowa, what Brewster is doing at Minnesota and what Danny Hope is doing at Purdue. They are doing what coaches are doing in the SEC, the hands-down best conference in college football. They are spending money to hire the best assistant coaches in the country, the ones who recruit the best players.
Illinois, take note.