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Illinois and Ron Zook Understand Each Other, How to Lose

Kristofer Green

CHAMPAIGN--Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was three years old when Illinois coach Ron Zook began his coaching career at Murray State, five years old when Zook left Murray State for Cincinnati, and 8 years old when Zook took over as defensive coordinator at Kansas.

Before Fitzgerald went on to be a two-time All-American linebacker for the Wildcats, Zook had also worked for Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, and Florida.

In 1997, when Fitzgerald was a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys and Zook was the special teams coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the two teams met at Three Rivers Stadium for the season opener.

Fitzgerald's team won that day too.

The two men have lived most of their lives on the football field and are the leaders of the two biggest college football programs in the state of Illinois, they approach the game with the same voracity and enthusiasm, and they both have excellent recruiting records.

Yet, the programs these men lead are heading in two different directions.

Further proof came on Saturday when Fitzgerald's Wildcats traveled to Champaign to take on the Illini in the first ever battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy.

Northwestern, despite employing an ultra-conservative gameplan and a less than impressive performance by usually solid kicker Stefan Demos, won the game with defense. Just the way Fitzgerald likes it.

The win moves Northwestern to 7-4 and leave the Wildcats celebrating the thought of spending the holidays in the sun in Orlando, San Antonio, or Tempe.

The Illini and their leader have lost their fight.

Trailing by five points with under a minute to play, the Illini set up on their own 21. After three passing plays resulted in nine yards, back up quarterback Jacob Charest threw a controversial interception to seal the victory for the Wildcats.

Zook, briefly argued the call on the sidelines and half- heartily chased after the officials as the game clock expired, but it was clearly a show for the 60,000 booing Illini fans.

''I don't know what it looked like to me,'' Zook said after the game. ''There's no use getting into it. I'm tired of people pointing fingers. There's only one person to point the finger at, and it's me.

''We shouldn't have been in that situation. Everybody has bad games. Players have bad games. Coaches have bad games. And obviously officials have bad games. That's the way it is.''

But bad games have become common place under Zook, whose teams have consistently underachieved.

Zook apologists will argue that his team beat No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus and went to the Rose Bowl in 2007, but that season has proved to be a fluke sandwiched between four losing seasons and a whopping 12 victories.

Fitzgerald on the other hand, has led the Wildcats to back to back bowls for the first time since the 1996-'97 seasons and only the second time in school history.

Fitzgerald has worked wonders with the Northwestern football program despite it being the Big Ten's smallest and only private university, despite having no real football identity until Gary Barnett's success, with Fitzgerald as a player, in the mid 1990's, and despite having an aging stadium that is more empty than full on gamedays.

The truth about Northwestern and it's major athletic programs is that they will never be able to compete on a year in, year out basis with schools like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The money generated by those schools in football alone is enough to sustain the school's other athletic programs.

The tradition is richer, the resources are more plentiful, the facilities are better, the fan bases are bigger, and the boosters all have deeper pockets.

It shouldn't be able to compete on a year in, year out basis with Illinois either.

Illinois' great football legacy includes names like Bob Zuppke, Red Grange, George Halas, Ray Nitschke, Bobby Mitchell, Jack Trudeau, and Dick Butkus.

The Illini play in a newly renovated stadium that is full more often than not, despite the product on the field and have the facilities to lure big-time recruits to Champaign.

But under Fitzgerald the 'Cats are 3-1 against their in-state "rival" and have reached bowl eligibilty more times in two seasons than Illinois has in eight.

Zook's response to Saturday's game, "If you want somebody to blame, blame me."

Illinois fans already do coach, the game on Saturday only added more ammunition.

Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther, who is to blame for giving a struggling Illinois team a seemingly endless schedule filled with teams that are fully capable of beating the Illini, has already announced that Zook will return for his sixth season as the Illini head coach.

"There will be some changes, but there won't be a change at the top," Guenther said three weeks ago. "There's a great deal of frustration obviously with the program at the moment. We're still going to evaluate (at the end of the season), but I think it's really unfair to start jumping at the end of the fifth year on a guy."

Guenther must be oblivious to Zook's 21-36 record with the Illini or his 12-27 record in Big Ten play or his 44-50 overall head coaching record.

"I'm not worried about me," Zook said. "I said this since (the) day I walked on this campus, (Guenther is) the best thing about this job because he understands."

That makes two of you.

So while Illinois' smaller and less attractive in-state, conference foe spends New Year's Day on the football field, in the sun and spotlight, Zook and Guenther will be at home in snowy Champaign, understanding each other.

Once again.



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