- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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Ron Zook cheats. That's what someone somewhere is saying about the Illinois football coach. Maybe they're not using that exact word, but whatever they're saying, it was enough to cause Zook to make the 137-mile trip from Champaign to downtown Chicago last week for a one-day "I Am Not A Crook" tour.
It was an aggressive, hyper-intense gesture by an aggressive, hyper-intense guy who can't afford to lose the talent-rich Chicagoland recruiting market. Then again, not too much is at stake, only his reputation, possibly his job, perhaps an NCAA investigator flying in to kick the tires you know, the Tums trifecta.
I don't know if Zook cheats. I know his latest recruiting class was given boffo reviews by the so-called recruiting experts, and that it included coveted wide receiver Arrelious Benn and defensive end Martez Wilson. I also know that if Zook knowingly and arrogantly broke significant recruiting rules, Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther will fire him faster than you can say, "NCAA sanctions."
But Guenther, much to Zook's initial dismay, already hired a law firm to check out the anonymous accusations. The firm found no wrongdoing. Now Guenther is conducting an investigation to determine who's responsible for the allegations. Nobody at Illinois will come right out and say it -- at least, not publicly -- but their negative recruiting leader in the clubhouse is none other than Notre Dame, which thought it had a commitment from Benn, but then didn't.
Adding to the nuttiness was former Michigan State coach John L. Smith, who basically said Zook had to be guilty of something, otherwise why would two blue-chip recruits want to play for a coach who has gone 4-19 in the last two seasons? "Where's there smoke, there's probably fire," Smith told the New York Times in a story that ran, much to Illinois' horror, on national signing day.
First of all, Smith always has been about a quart low when it comes to common sense, so consider the source. And if he has the goods on Illinois, he should say so. Instead, he hung Zook out to dry on a national clothesline, which helped prompt the emergency PR road trip to Chicago.
"That's preposterous," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops of Smith's comments. "That's John L. Then maybe he's done something."
If you want to grill bacon strips on a man's forehead, simply ask Stoops about negative recruiting. Last week at his national signing day news conference, Stoops called out Oregon, said the Ducks' coaching staff tried to "steal" a couple of his recruits a year ago, and then reminded everyone of Arizona's 37-10 victory at Eugene this past season. So when he hears about Zook's situation, you can feel the burn all the way from the Tucson.
"I don't see why he would have to defend himself," said Stoops, who played and coached at Iowa. "Why, because kids believed in him? He got some kids who believed in him and who are risk takers. You win with those kind of kids. I'm more in line that he did an unbelievable job. That's what it tells me. He outworked people."
At the very least, he out-BlackBerry'd them. ESPN's Mark Schlabach reported recently that Zook typed 95 million kilobytes' worth of text messages to recruits since Nov. 26. I'm surprised he has any thumbs left. The man is off-the-charts obsessive when it comes to recruiting, which is exactly why Guenther hired him.
Of course, when you reduce recruiting to its core, we're talking about grown adults (more than a few of them multi-millionaires) trying to convince teen-aged football players to accept a free college education. Except that the education part has to compete with the other talking points: TV exposure, conference strength, tradition, playing time as a true freshman, proximity to home, uniform number, weather, coeds, offensive or defensive system, grass or artificial turf, relationship with the assistant coach who's recruiting you. Sell, sell, sell.
In the process, national signing day has become college football's version of the NFL draft, but with a meaner, harder, more cynical edge. It is the culmination of a surreal, sometimes wretched, humiliating romance between coach and player. In fact, one head coach of a top 25 program told me of a recent conversation he had with another well-known coach.
"How's it going?" said the coach.
"Great," said the other coach. "I love being lied to by 17-year olds."
What happened to recruiting? How did we get to this place?
Here's how: Recruiting gurus with agendas happened. ESPN happened. The unquenchable football thirst of boosters and fans happened. "Soft" and "silent" commitments happened. Spiraling coaching pay scales happened. Three years-and-you're-fired contracts happened. The Internet happened. Backstabbing happened. Shoe companies happened. Overbearing parents and pompous high school players happened.
"It's so competitive, and now it's so public," said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who was the Badgers' head coach from 1990-2005. "Recruiting has turned into another season of competing."
Alvarez did at Wisconsin what Zook is trying to do at Illinois: turn a stagnant program into a national contender. The more he signed good players during those early years, the more often competing programs reported Alvarez and his staff to the NCAA.
"[The NCAA] had a folder on us 3 inches thick from people turning us in," said Alvarez. "They had a special meeting about us. But sometimes you have a program where guys are just outworking people."
The difference is the allegations never became public. John L. never popped off about Wisconsin. The NCAA made its inquiries, said Alvarez, and found nothing.
Zook, who was in Ohio on Monday for a football clinic, didn't respond to an interview request for this column. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is in Boston this week as his medical malpractice suit begins. Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White, through a university spokesperson, said he wasn't interested in discussing the ND-Illinois dynamic at this time. Guenther returned a call Tuesday morning, but only to say he'll comment at the conclusion of the school's investigation.
Not only are they not talking here, they're not talking to each other. As of Monday afternoon, there had been no contact between Zook and Weis, or Guenther and White.
"You better confront it and deal with it," said Stoops. "That's what I learned. And you better counter it, too."
What an absolute mess. Wouldn't it be nice to simply eliminate the recruiting process? Just get rid of it. No more 95 million kilobytes of text jibberish. No more insanity. Give each recruit 10 official visits. A coach, his staff, his players, his university have 36 hours to make an impression. Seriously, how many schools did you visit before picking a college? How many professors text messaged you? When you interviewed for your first full-time job, did it take longer than a day or so? And if you were lucky enough to have multiple job offers, did you attend a news conference holding baseball caps of the two corporate finalists?
It's a Gonzaga mushroom dream, I know. Football recruiting -- that other season Alvarez talked about -- isn't going anywhere. Nor is the negativity associated with it.
"No, I don't think this will go away," said Alvarez, delivering the bad news.
Meanwhile, Illinois searches for someone to blame. That's shouldn't be too hard. There's so much to go around.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
11hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler