The University of Illinois football program has undergone an amazing rebuilding process since Ron Zook took over. There are lots of possible parallels between Washington and Illinois. A few experts feel that UW has the potential to be the surprise team of 2008 despite a murderous schedule.
It only took Zook three years to get the Illlini back in a BCS bowl which is the kind of performance that Washington fans expect out of their coaching staff. Willingham in year four has the talent on the squad to make a run, it is just a matter of getting that talent to mature, and perform as a team.
In 2005, the University of Illinois hired Zook to replace Ron Turner as the head coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini football team. Zook inherited a program which had become a disaster since winning the Big Ten championship in 2001, finishing 1-11 in 2003 and 3-8 in 2004, including Big Ten records of 0-8 and 1-7, respectively. In Zook's inaugural season of 2005, Illinois finished with an overall record of 2-9, and a record of 0-8 in Big Ten games.
Despite his team's past struggles, Zook has improved the ability of Illinois to recruit top football talent. According to one source, the 2006 recruiting class was one of the 30 best in college football.
Despite this, they finished the 2006 season 1-7 in the conference and 2-10 overall. While the record did not improve, the play on the field did as the Illini nearly upset top ranked Ohio State in Champaign before losing 17-10. Additionally, the Illini played well against Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State (they lost 63-10 the year before; Penn State led 56-3 at halftime) but ended up losing close games (they were down 15-12 at Penn State until Penn State broke open the close game to make it 26-12).
The 2006 recruiting class included Isiah "Juice" Williams of Chicago Vocational High School, considered to be one of the top quarterback recruits in the country. They also signed Arrelious Benn, one of the top wide receiver prospects in the 2007 class. More recently, Zook has also won over Simeon High School standout Martez Wilson along with Florida prospect D'Angelo McCray. This class is one of Illinois' best in recent memory, being rated within the top 25 nationally by some experts.
The Chicago area is a high school football hotbed, and there is no reason that the Illini shouldn't have great talent every year, but so much of it bleeds out to Notre Dame and the rest of the Big Ten. Zook is the first Illinois head coach in years that is starting to keep that talent home. Part of the problem at Illinois is that every time they do well they get caught cheating, and that sends the program back into a dark hole for a decade. The same sort of rumors started flowing again during Zooks tenure, but nothing substantial has come out as of this time. Most feel the rumors are sour grapes from South Bend, and Ann Arbor.
Zook's recruiting success finally began to pay dividends during the 2007 season. After losing a close game on neutral turf to a Missouri squad which would go on to be ranked as high as #1, the Illini ran off five straight wins, including back-to-back home wins over Penn State and Wisconsin. Illinois' 5-1 start gave them a #18 ranking in the AP poll. This was Illinois' first ranking in the AP poll since the end of the 2001 season.
However, the ranking would prove to be short lived after consecutive losses to Iowa and Michigan. A homecoming win over Ball State gave the Illini bowl eligibility and a blowout win at Minnesota all but assured Zook's first bowl appearance as coach of the Illini. On November 10th, the then-unranked Illini defeated #1-ranked Ohio State in Columbus, ending the Buckeyes' 28 game home winning streak. The Illini finished the 2007 regular season by defeating Northwestern to finish 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the Big 10.
Because Big Ten champion Ohio State played in the BCS National Championship game, Illinois received a bid to play in the Rose Bowl as the second ranked team in the Big Ten. The Illini's improvement of 7 wins over the 2006 season was the largest such increase of any Division I team.
Washington historically has been much stronger than Illinois on the gridiron despite the fact that the Illini have steady support from a loyal fan base, and a larger local talent base to draw from.
Washington has lacked administrative support, and cohesiveness since the national championship year. Thirteen years under Barbara Hedges were a slow death, and it is actually amazing that the machine held together that long.
President Mark Emmert has stated from the beginning that he is pro athletics, and believes that the football team is the front porch of the University. His first steps were to hire Willingham and Turner whose jobs were to restore respectability, and ethical behavior to the athletic department and football program.
Perhaps both were the right guys at the right time, but Turner was fired last Winter, and Willingham barely escaped the same axe. The problem was simple the team was not winning. Even though the program was clean there was a complete disconnect with fans, boosters, alumni, and media. With over $300 million needing to be raised to rebuild the stadium it became evident that Turner and possibly Willingham were not going to be able to sell it to the state, and the public.
I have always felt that Ty was the guy that would stabilize things over 4-5 years, and whoever took over from him would have some good building blocks to take advantage of if it didn't work out. Going into year four his program is at a crossroad
So here we are headed into year four wondering if Willingham is going to be able to take it to the next level like Ron Zook did at Illinois last season. I think the pieces are in place to win as many as eight games this season even though the schedule is less than kind.
Jake Locker has a year under his belt, and that makes a big difference even though his skill players need to step up to the plate immediately. This team is going to be very young in places, but overall the talent has improved at almost every position. It's time to win at Washington, and it is time to produce an Illinois type turnaround at Montlake in 2008.
It looks like a couple of recruits are missing the start of the bridge program today. RB Demetrius Bronson could be delayed a couple of days and is meeting with coaches to go over whatever requirements he is missing. Bronson is confident that he will be eligible for Fall since he is picking ups some credits from a BYU extension course.
QB Dominique Blackman is waiting for results on his ACT. His GPA slid a bit since he took his SAT which means he has to raise his score a bit to qualify. Blackman reports that he is down to 240 after playing volleyball this past Spring which means if he makes camp he should be around 235 by the time the season begins.
Both of these kids were expected to redshirt this season, so if it takes a little extra time I guess it is ok, but they do fall behind the rest of the class since the kids that are in school will be going to informal workouts starting on Tuesday with the rest of the team till practice begins in August.
One thing to keep in mind is the kids are always positive up to the minute they don't qualify to get in, so keep your fingers crossed on both of these guys.