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December 31, 2007

Ron Zook


GINA CHAPPIN: I'd like to welcome Head Coach Ron Zook. He'll have some opening comments and then we can turn it over for questions.
Good morning and welcome.
COACH RON ZOOK: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to be here. I was excited about the way we prepared, the way our players are focused, dialed in and, you know, I think you could really tell a couple days ago when our hotel, the buzz, the chaos, so to speak, begin to come into the hotel and our players could feel it.
They understand now when we talk about this is the granddaddy of them all, they're beginning to understand what we're talking about there. We're excited about the Illini being here for the game.
GINA CHAPPIN: Questions for coach.

Q. Hey, Coach, obviously winning makes a season a lot of fun, but your team as a whole whether it's J or Rashard or Juice, a lot personality-plus guys. How enjoyable has the locker room been this year, being around the team? Even if you were to take some of those wins away, it seems a very enjoyable team to be around.
COACH RON ZOOK: It really is. I told them last night after practice, I said, You know, we've got two days that this group will be together, and, no matter what, obviously we've got an awful lot of players coming back next year but the chemistry is going to be different. It's always different. Every football team is different. I think those guys, particularly the seniors, are beginning to understand just what we talk about and how precious time is and how fast it goes, and they're realizing that this is it. Yesterday was their last Thursday practice. Today will be their last Friday.
You know, I think you begin to see, as I said, particularly the older guys, because like you said, there has been a great chemistry with the older guys and the younger guys. They've kind of bonded, and they are friendships that they'll have forever.
Every year is a new year, and that's kind of -- the thing is the chemistry is going to change. It's the last time we'll be together.

Q. Ron, Pete was in here a few minutes ago speaking of the notion that maybe a college football playoff is still a good idea, it would be tough to pick the eighth, ninth, tenth team. Would you favor a playoff eventually, and if that did come to pass, what do you think it would do to this guy and what this game means to the Big Ten?
COACH RON ZOOK: I don't know that there will ever be a system that everyone is happy about. I think whatever -- if they had eight game, 16 game, whatever it was, whoever thinks they should be in the game would be upset. So I think it's always going to be a controversy, so to speak.
I've said in the past I've kind of been a proponent of the playoffs because of the experience I had in the NFL, but on the same token, I'm a proponent of the Bowl System. I grew up in Big Ten territory. I understood what the Rose Bowl meant to the people, and now having the opportunity to coach in it, I really understand what it's all about.
And I think whatever happens, whatever is going to happen, I think the fact that there is so much interest, there is so much conversation back and forth, pro and con, really just shows you that the game of college football is a pretty big thing in country and going to continue to grow, and, as I said, going to continue to be discussions one way or the other.

Q. What are you like the night before a game, and especially one that's this big and you only sleep four hours a night?
COACH RON ZOOK: What am I like the night before a game in usually the night before the game, I sleep well. It's the night after the game that sometimes I have trouble sleeping. But the night before the game, we get together with the staff, we talk about, you know, things during the game. We talk about player rotations. But that's kind of a time when you can relax a little bit and kind of -- it's like a little boy looking forward to Christmas, night before Christmas, and obviously this is an exciting time.
Like I told our football team -- none of them have been to a Bowl. Now that you have the opportunity to go to the Rose Bowl -- I myself have never come out -- I've been in big games, but I myself have never come out on that field. As I said many times this week, I've had coaches call me who have coached in the game and talk about just how big it really is and, of course, I want -- you want your players to enjoy it, to remember it. But on the same token, they know there's a job at hand.

Q. This game puts you back on a national stage as far as Illinois is concerned. Do you impress upon your players that this is the step, the next step in this program to go to that national elite level or let them enjoy the game and go from there?
COACH RON ZOOK: They understand the importance of the game, not only from the University of Illinois standpoint, USC Trojans, also the Big Ten standpoint and I think a lot -- we have to do the things that we've done to get to this point, and that is we have to take care of us. We can't worry about all the other things. But I think deep down in, they understand that the things that have happened to us this year, one step at a time, gets the program back, you know, to where we want it to be.

Q. Coach, we all know how things turned out here 24 years ago in the Rose Bowl and six years ago in the Sugar Bowl, the Illini were down a couple touchdowns before they knew what happened. How important is it to get out to a fast start and not have to play catchup against USC?
COACH RON ZOOK: Well, obviously it's important, but you know those -- one of the things that we've been able to do and I think I've been really, really proud of our coaches and our football team because I think it's a tribute to our coaches is that when bad things happen, which do in a football game, they've been able to maintain their poise. They don't panic. I would be very, very surprised if our guys do panic because they're so looking forward to this and they understand that it's a 60-minute game. And that kind goes back to what we talked about in terms of we got to do what we've been doing, and that's being prepared for everything and the emotional swings, the momentum changes. Any time you're in big game like this, you're going to have momentum change, you're going to have those things that can effect the outcome of the game.
As a player we talk about you have to be able to keep it -- keep your mind one play at a time, and they've done a pretty good job of that.

Q. Ron, could you go over the health, is Miller okay, and related to that, will Benn return punts?
COACH RON ZOOK: In terms of health of our football, we're probably as good -- we're better than we've been the entire year. We're as good as we possibly can be. Relious, there's a chance that he could return punts. He's caught an awful lot of punts this week. Again, we'll start with DaJuan back there, and as far as Relious's shoulder, it's the best it's ever been since it happened. He's played the whole year like that. The one thing about him, he only knows one speed, that's full speed. He doesn't know any other way.
So I mean I'm sure there's a chance that he could have a problem, but I don't think it's any more than anybody else on the field.

Q. How about Miller?
COACH RON ZOOK: Everybody is fine. No issues with injuries at all.

Q. Ron, the Big Ten has taken a little bit of a beating this year as far as perception goes. I want -- I was wondering what your take was on that and if you talked to your team about their role trying to shore up their reputation.
COACH RON ZOOK: We have a responsibility to the University of Illinois and a responsibility to the Big Ten conference, that's what I'm alluding to. Everybody -- if you have any pride about where you go to school or the conference that you're in, one of the things that attracted me to the University of Illinois was the fact that it is the Big Ten conference, and I know people kind of judge where the best football is played by the Bowl scenarios and that's why it is important. It's important that all the Big Ten teams play the best that they can. I think it really got -- got maybe exaggerated last year in the National Championship game.
And I know this, there's teams in this league that with play with anybody in the country and you can say that, but you have to go do it, and that's what's important that our guys, you know, understand that we have to go out there and play it to the best of our ability.

Q. Coach, what are you doing to try to keep this Friday as normal as possible? What's your schedule today? Because normally you wouldn't be here, you'd be traveling normally. How are you doing to keep it normal?
COACH RON ZOOK: I would be at the Quarterback Club right now. Other than we're -- the meetings are in the morning, but it would be like leaving -- if we traveled to the East Coast or something like that, our meetings are a little bit earlier. Our guys have really -- our schedules are really -- go by the day like today is Friday. They know what to expect.
As I explained to them, "Fellas, there's going to be enough new things. When you wake up and it's Monday practice or Tuesday practice, Wednesday practice, you know the routine." We've tried to keep it as much as we possibly can normal.
It's pretty hard to be completely normal when you're at the Rose Bowl, obviously, but the Rose Bowl has done an unbelievable job. They understand -- they understand how important that the preparation and the team has the time necessary, and they've done it. It's been an unbelievable job from that standpoint.
Our guys are -- I'm excited about the way they're dialed in.

Q. Coach, at first glance drawing comparisons to the PAC-10, most people say you look most similar to Oregon. Coach Carroll says Juice Williams is a lot more like Jake Clocker. Do you think that's completely separate what you guys are doing, draw a blueprint?
COACH RON ZOOK: Because the offense right shoulder kind of from the same family, I think that's probably where the people draw the biggest conclusion that we're the most like Oregon and the fact that, you know, Juice is an athletic quarterback and can do a lot of things, but we're going to do the same things just like I'm sure Southern Cal is going to do the same things we've been doing to get to this point.
We're not going to change. They're not going to change. Everyone is going to have wrinkles here and there. You got a little extra time in the Bowl scenario to maybe look at some different things and -- I think everybody is going to pretty much do what they've done to get to this point, at least we are.

Q. Ron, you've talked a lot about how this program is still not where it's going to get to be, where you want it to be, and yet you're at a real pinnacle to be playing in the Rose Bowl.
Do you worry that you've set the bar too high early?
COACH RON ZOOK: Well, it's like when I took the last job, people said you need to be the second one. What do you want me to do, tell them no and I'll take it the next time?
You know, obviously we want our program to be on the level -- when you took about where you want your program, you look at Southern Cal. It's year after year after year. The thing that I'm excited about is we're going to have that opportunity. We're not where we need to be. We're going to be a better football team next year than we are this year because your players are older, they're more experienced.
Obviously there's going to be other problems that you have to deal that we haven't dealt with before. That's part of the program. I said to them yesterday, you know, the chaos that's in this hotel, the excitement that's in this hotel, when your program is where you want it to be, you're going -- we have to learn to deal with that. That's just another thing that -- that other programs that have been here year in and year out understand what -- how to do it.
We don't have anyone on our football team that's been in their room on New Year's Eve when the New Year comes in. They've all been out. They're going to be in their rooms. I remember the first time that happened to me. It's like gosh, New Year's Eve, you're also out celebrating.
There's no question, we're going the continue to grow and get where we're supposed to be.

Q. Coach, has there been a person or two that's offered you advice about dealing with that game that you haven't been here before? Has there been one, two people that maybe played here before that said something to you in?
COACH RON ZOOK: Well, you know, it's funny. Moe Tippen, the first guy I worked for in high school, he's called, and I owe an awful lot to him.
Coach Godfrey, I spent the time with in college, left me a message yesterday. Commissioner Delaney spoke to the team yesterday. I thought the words he said -- I thought it was very fitting. Once again it goes back to the responsibility that we have to the Big Ten conference and so forth. And, you know, everybody has kind of got their own take on it, but we have to be able to use what -- take those things and use it in our personality.

Q. Coach, obviously when you have success, your assistants become coveted and Coach Locks' name has been linked to a couple of possibilities. Having been in his shoes as an assistant trying to move up, is it difficult as a head coach, you want your friends obviously to succeed, but you don't want to lose those guys from your staff. Has that been a distraction?
COACH RON ZOOK: Not at all. Locks, those of you that know Locks, he's a very, very loyal person. He's a great football coach. He's a great person. All the things that you would want, and he's going to be a head coach. Whether it's this year or next year, the year after, he'll be a head coach. No distraction because of the way Mike has handled it and -- but, you know, I think that's the thing when -- you want your program to be successful. You want the opportunity for guys to -- that's that situation. I understand it.
Our systems are in place. Our offense, our defense, and our specialties are not going to change, and that's what's very, very important to me when I had the opportunity to become a head football coach. I wanted to make sure this is the system I wanted to run on offense, this is the system I wanted to do on defense, this is a special team system. Your program does not go backwards, you know, if there is a coaching change, if somebody does have the opportunity to go on and become a head football coach.

Q. Coach, in five of the eight Bowl games that the Big Ten is in, the opponent is a car ride away from the stadium, basically road games. Can you discuss any possible disadvantages you think you guys might have for USC playing in L.A., and have you addressed that with the team at all?
COACH RON ZOOK: You know, sometimes it's having not been involved in this kind of experience with our football team, they don't know what they don't know., and it's just like playing on the road. They understand that, you know, it is kind a home game for Southern Cal, and that's kind of the way it is, but there's nothing we can do about it.
There's no doubt in our minds there's going to be a lot of Fighting Illini fans in the stadium as well. I think it's the excitement of the game and the opportunity that they have, they're so looking forward to it. I really don't believe it will be an issue.
GINA CHAPPIN: Any further questions for coach?
All right. Coach, thanks so much.
COACH RON ZOOK: Thank you. Appreciate it.

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