Monday, February 12, 2007

Can You Smell What the Zook is Cookin'? | by Jay

Have you been following the Ron Zook v. the World contretemps that finally flared up last week? It's juicy. Put on a pot of coffee and let me catch you up.

Wednesday. On the eve of Illinois landing a top-15 recruiting class -- including the top defensive end (Martez Wilson) and top wide receiver (Arrelious Benn) in the country -- Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel of the New York Times ask the question that's been on everyone's minds: How is the Zooker Doing It?
The success at Illinois has left the world of college football abuzz with a question: How did a program that went 4-19 the past two seasons, including 1-15 in its conference, persuade so many top players to sign?

John L. Smith, who was recently dismissed as the head coach at Michigan State, expressed a view shared privately by many rival coaches and recruiters: “If they had a winning program and all of that, it would be a different deal. If they had the greatest facilities in the world, then maybe they could sell them. But what are they selling?” He added, “Where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire.”

But Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten, made an unsolicited call to a reporter for The New York Times to say that “blogosphere smoke” was the reason for any suspicion surrounding the Illinois class. “Around signing day,” he said, “smoke does not equal fire.”

... In a telephone interview Monday, [Ilinois athletic director Ron] Guenther said the university hired an outside law firm to investigate anonymous tips and complaints about suspected recruiting improprieties, and to determine the source of rumors about the program. He said the investigation had cost the university thousands of dollars.

Guenther also said he and Illinois coaches were convinced that another university’s coaching staff had leaked unflattering personal information about recruits to a Web site. He would not name the Web site or the university, other than to say it was not a Big Ten program.

“I take this stuff so seriously,” he said. “I have an interest in the coach’s and the program’s reputation. It’s defamation of character, and it’s got to be challenged.”
Leave it to Johnelle to go off half-cocked; I laughed out loud when I read his comment. Apart from that slam, unfortunately, the article doesn't elaborate on the specific complaints against Illinois, nor who levied them, and the article ends with a shrug. Who knows?

The real story in this piece seems to be in Guenther's reaction: Illinois is mad as hell, and they're not gonna take it any longer. Still, no specific accusations...not yet, anyway. (Illinois fans, judging from message board posts, are pissed, and think the whole NYT story is a plant by a rival school meant to derail their recruiting class.)

Also Wednesday. Alan Goldenbach of the Washington Post puts out a story the same day, ostensibly about recruiting ethics and protocol in college football. The lead anecdote is a bit on Arrelious Benn, who has some unflattering things to say about Notre Dame and former QB coach Pete Vaas:
Throughout his junior school year, Benn said he had considered Notre Dame his top choice, but when he felt as though the Fighting Irish coaching staff was putting too much pressure on him to commit he stopped considering the school. Once Benn orally committed to Illinois, Notre Dame assistant Peter Vaas continued to pepper Benn with text messages and voice mails, some of which Benn provided to The Post:

"FYI, ILL is telling Robert Hughes that they will build their offense around him? Didn't they tell you that?

Coach Vaas," Vaas wrote Benn on Dec. 17.

Earlier that month, Vaas left this voice message on Benn's phone: "You don't want to do anything except bury your head in the sand. . . . I guess you're not tough enough to compete at the big level."

Vaas, who was let go as quarterbacks coach by the Irish after their 44-14 loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl, did not deny leaving the messages. He said last night that even though Benn made his announcement on national television, that isn't necessarily a recruit's final word.

"Did he say [he was going to Illinois] to me? Did I see him on TV?" Vaas said. "There's an awful lot of rumors or innuendo out there . . . and kids change their minds after they do that. A lot of times, it depends upon what kind of conviction a kid has about a place. You know how you read between the lines? As a recruiter, I have to hear between the lines."

A Notre Dame spokesman declined to comment last night.
A couple of things struck me about Goldenbach's article. First of all, it's curious that this piece would come out the same day as the NYT story. In that article, we have Illinois accusing an unnamed school of slandering its good name; in this, we have an Illinois recruit backbiting the school that came in second place for his services. The WaPo story essentially fills in the blanks for Guenther. And why would the WaPo do a story on Benn -- focusing on events that happened roughly two months ago -- just two weeks after running a lengthy profile on Benn's first week as a college student? (Benn is an early enrollee to Illinois). It's interesting, too, that Goldenbach would be the reporter to present this; over the years he's done a number of pieces on Illinois recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley (while he was in the same position at Maryland). Did Locksley encourage Goldenbach to write this?

Perhaps on Wednesday night, this would seem like tinfoil-hat speculation. Given the stories that would appear over the next two days, I don't think it's far from the mark. It's the first salvo in an organized PR campaign.

Thursday. Signing day. Zook goes to Chicago for a media blitz, doing radio interviews and TV spots (here's a bit from ESPNU) and calls to reporters defending himself against the still as-yet-unspecified allegations. The Chicago papers pick up where the NYT story leaves off, and things get a little more specific. Herb Gould writes about it in the Sun-Times, and Teddy Greenstein has a piece in the Trib. The culprit is finally named.
"For people to say those things. One, we're not going to have people like that in our program. Two, if you get to know our people, you'll realize they are not that way," Zook said. "For the most part we know where [the accusations] are coming from. It's a shame for people to throw things out there and try to take away from a great university and program."

Illinois officials wouldn't acknowledge it, but there's little doubt they suspect Notre Dame is behind the accusations.
(By the way, at the Notre Dame signing day presser, Charlie Weis is asked about the Benn/Vaas story in the Washington Post. He responds:)
I think [Benn] put Coach Vaas out to dry on that one. I want to side with Coach Vaas on that one.

You ask me if Coach Vaas sent him texts. Sure, he sent him texts. You probably could go ask the kid if he committed to us beforehand, too, see what he says to that one. It comes down to those silent verbals, all that other type of stuff.

I wish Regis [Benn's nickname] well at Illinois. I don't think now is the time for him to be hanging Coach Vaas out to dry for sending him texts, because signing day for him was when he matriculated into the second semester. For guys that go midyear, the day they enroll in classes is like their signing day...

I don't think Coach Vaas was trying to do anything unethical. I think Coach Vaas was trying to give him everything he possibly could get him, to a guy who once verbally committed to us, then switched to another school. I think we should wish him well and not point a finger at Coach Vaas.

The fruits of the Zook media blitz on Thursday bloom; more stories in the Chicago papers (and around the country), more finger-pointing at Notre Dame, and still no specific allegations. Greenstein, par deux:
Zook actually does know where it's coming from this time. Or he thinks he does.

He won't publicly name the school, but it might be located 90 miles east of Chicago. The one where Rockne coached.

Notre Dame?


Zook doesn't want to seem, uh, paranoid, but it's clear he believes Notre Dame played a role in the Times' story. He believes the timing of the piece—it ran on national signing day—was intended to hurt Illinois' recruiting efforts.

"I've taken a lot of criticism," he said. "All I ask is that people be fair. If we need to be bashed, bash us. I don't have a problem with that."

But he has a major problem with rival coaches whispering that he and his staff used illegal inducements in signing blue-chippers Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson.

Asked how he keeps Illinois boosters away from recruits, the coach replied, "I don't think [booster involvement] has been insinuated here. What has been insinuated is that our coaching staff has done things. I know what's being said to our recruits."
Most importantly, in this article we get (for the first time) a hint about the source of the allegations.
Illinois went so far as to hire a law firm to investigate charges that it had supplied cars to Benn and quarterback Juice Williams.

The allegations came from anonymous letters sent to university officials.
Gould, in the Sun-Times, has another salacious bit of gossip about Notre Dame recruiters, care of Martez Wilson's dad:
Wilson's father, Michael Whitehead, told the Sun-Times he was shocked when a Notre Dame assistant coach got into a shouting match with a Simeon [Wilson's high school] assistant at their home. The discussion centered on what Illinois football would accomplish during Wilson's time there.

''It was like we weren't even in the room,'' said Whitehead, who was taken aback by the argument.
An old Florida beat writer, Mike Bianchi, blasted Notre Dame in the Orlanda Sentinel:
"This is typical Golden Dome arrogance. How could high-and-mighty Notre Dame lose a recruit to those lowly bumpkins in Illinois?

As somebody who once went on a recruiting trip with Zook, I can tell you how: Because the guy works harder and cares more. I still remember that 13-day span during the May recruiting period before his first UF season when Zook jumped in a car and visited 71 high schools in the state (an average of almost six per day) and gave speeches to 12 Gator Clubs. I'm just guessing Charlie Weis isn't driving alone at midnight through the back roads of Indiana, gulping down convenience-store coffee to try to stay awake."
Sure, Mike. Charlie doesn't work hard on the recruiting trail or anything.

Mark Tupper in the Decatur, IL Herald & Review hints at the next shoe to drop:
As soon as Guenther has the results of the law firm's investigative work, he needs to come forward and identify the source of the original postings. We're all going to find that the author has an agenda closely tied to another university.

Expect Guenther to speak very soon.

While doing so, Guenther needs to strongly defend his football coach, which he will.

Then, the New York Times needs to revisit the subject, vindicating Zook and pointing a harsh finger at the real culprit. My guess is that won't happen, nor will TV personality Regis Philbin, a blithering Notre Dame mouthpiece, apologize for his comment this week ("Isn't that fishy?") made to explain why Irish coach Charlie Weis had not been able to pad an already strong recruiting class with players like Illini-bound Benn and Wilson.

And here's another thing you can count on: There will be a mad scramble of denials attempting to place distance between any school and the author of the original message. That will be fun to watch.

...And the law firm Guenther hired will uncover the real culprit and the true motivation behind these venomous accusations.
Tupper also had a blog entry along those same lines. The comments section provide a nice glimpse into the Illinois mentality about all this.

Notes & Questions.

1. Illinois has played this pretty well so far in the media, turning suspicions into sympathy. (Zook is a natural at playing the victim.) The story should be about how Illinois garnered such a spectacular recruiting class in the face of the program's indemic futility, but they're deflecting the skepticism and making the story about Notre Dame's sour grapes. Zook, Guenther, Illinois players, their families, and the commish of the Big 10 have all weighed in against ND; but what are they talking about? Do you see any concrete allegations from Notre Dame levied against Illinois in any of these articles?

2. But let's be realistic: you don't need a university's coaching staff to plant the speculation that maybe Zook is cheating. All you have to do is look at the facts of the situation, and your eyebrow will almost involuntarily raise. He got the best receiver in the country, a player from Washington DC, with offers from just about everywhere, to commit to a cold-weather program halfway across the country, one with a decidedly mediocre coach and one that's won 4 games in two years. He also pulled a four-star defensive tackle out of Florida that was coveted by both Bowden and Urban. Anybody who followed recruiting this year is wondering how the hell Zook did it (and probably still wondering, even after the explanations given by Zook & co. in the articles above).

3. Guenther can't be serious about bringing a defamation of character suit. Does he want to open Illinois up to a discovery phase in an actual case? Heck no. It's a scare tactic: a lot of bluster and hot air meant to dissuade further rumor-mongering.

4. We've heard from several sources that there was a post on the Michigan Rivals board that told how Michigan sent a letter (or letters) of complaint to the Big 10 about Illinois' recruiting practices. Delany made no mention of this in his public statements above. If I were a reporter doing a follow-up story, I would ask Delany if he's received any complaints from other Big 10 schools about Illinois.

5. Let's not forget who we're talking about here: it's Illinois. They have a long record of violations in both major men's sports. Locksley, too, has some dirt on his resume: at Maryland, one of his coaches was caught giving cash to recruit Victor Abiamiri. Historically, this isn't a squeaky-clean operation.

6. I'm really curious to see how Guenther plans to tie the allegations back to Notre Dame. He better have something substantial, or else this drama that's been unfolding over the past week is going to look less like an honest defense and more like a petty attempt to shift the blame.