Florida won't allow Zook to coach at Peach

Updated: December 7, 2004, 6:02 PM ET
Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Ron Zook took over Illinois' struggling football program Tuesday, returning to his roots and promising to turn around a team that has sunk to the bottom of the Big Ten since winning a league title in 2001.

Zook, who was fired by Florida earlier this season but led the team to a bowl, won't coach the Gators in the Peach Bowl.

Athletic director Jeremy Foley said Tuesday that he called Zook, who was fired in October, to tell him he has coached his last game for the Gators.

Foley said Strong will be named interim coach for Florida's Dec. 31 matchup against Miami. Urban Meyer wanted to coach Utah through its postseason game.

Zook, who is a native of Ohio and a former assistant coach at Ohio State, said taking the job was an easy decision.

"I was raised in the Midwest. I coached in the Big Ten," he said. "It's one of the finest athletic conferences in the land."

Athletic director Ron Guenther said he wanted to find a coach with integrity, who was committed to academics and with a strong ability to recruit. He called Zook "a perfect fit."

"He's a players' coach," Guenther said. "His players picked up on the passion and played extremely well for him."

Zook received a five-year deal, worth about $1 million a year, according to university spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

With Zook no longer tied to Florida, Meyer is clear to begin contacting recruits. Meyer will coach Utah in the Fiesta Bowl against Pittsburgh before fully assuming his duties with the Gators.

Zook and Guenther talked last Tuesday, but Illinois could not name a new coach until a two-week waiting period to comply with state guidelines passed. The deadline was Monday.

Florida fired Zook on Oct. 25, two days after the Gators lost at Mississippi State, satisfying a growing groundswell for his ouster that began two years earlier -- after he replaced Steve Spurrier.

Zook coached the Gators for the rest of the season and led them to a 3-1 record in their final four games and an invitation to the Peach Bowl. In his three seasons at Florida, he went 23-14 with impressive victories over eventual national champion LSU last season and an upset of Florida State on Nov. 20, the Gators' first win in Tallahassee since 1986.

Zook has 27 years of coaching experience, including six years in the NFL as an assistant for the Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints, where he was defensive coordinator for two seasons.

At Illinois, Zook will replace Ron Turner, who was fired Nov. 22, two days after finishing his third straight losing season. Turner's teams won only five Big Ten games after winning the conference championship in 2001 and going to the Sugar Bowl.

Illinois won only once in 2003 and lost 14 consecutive Big Ten games between Nov. 23, 2003, and a 26-22 win over Indiana on Nov. 6. Two of the Illini's four wins in the past two seasons have been against Division I-AA opponents, Illinois State and Florida A&M.

Guenther replaced Turner after determining that recruiting problems had "reached a point of no return," he said.

Zook has a reputation for being a tireless and effective recruiter.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press