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For Fighting Illini Coach Ron Zook, It's Make Or Break in 2009

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 01:  Head coach Ron Zook of the Illinois Fighting Illini looks on during the 'Rose Bowl presented by Citi' against the USC Trojans at the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2008 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Oliver VanDervoortCorrespondent ISeptember 5, 2009

On the eve of the Illinois Fighting Illini's 2009 season, expectations couldn't be higher. Head coach Ron Zook has spent the past four seasons trying to build the Illini into a Big Ten powerhouse, and coming into his fifth season, that sweat and effort needs to come to fruition.

Zook has long been known as a great recruiter, and a player's coach. Where his reputation has been left wanting is as an X's and O's coach.

Zook had the unfortunate assignment of following the most revered Florida Gators coach in school history in Steve Spurrier, and certainly trying to live up to Spurrier's reputation played a part in Zook's stay being short. His inability to post a record better than 8-5 played a larger factor.

Zook was fired before the end of his third season despite bringing in talent that allowed Urban Meyer to win a national championship in just his second year in Gainsville.

When Zook was hired at Illinois, it seemed to be the perfect situation for him. A moribund program which struggled to win three games a year, let alone compete for a bowl appearance. 

Zook's first two seasons were very similar to those directly proceeding them, going 2-9, and 2-10. However in his third season, the Illini experienced a miracle turnaround in which they went 9-4, made the Rose Bowl; and raised expectations for seasons to come.

Last year, Zook's squad struggled on defense and quarterback Juice Williams never really improved the way Illinois coaches and fans hoped he would, and the team finished 5-7.

So now Zook sits squarely on the hot seat. The nucleus of a talented, underachieving squad returns with expectations of at least making a bowl game considered iron clad.  

If he is able to get his team back to a bowl, Zook most likely will being to ensure himself a spot as the head coach for years to come. Should it be another losing season, it would mark the fourth time in his five seasons, and may be his last.

Zook has always been known as someone who can bring in the talent. Will he start to be known as someone who simply lays the groundwork for the next guy?

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