CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Back in the dark, awkward days after Ron Zook had been fired as Florida coach but not yet banished from Gainesville, his wife Denise was flipping through a magazine when she spotted a small, clear block with a single word on it.
Without saying anything to her husband, she ordered 10 of the blocks, hoping to give them out as Christmas presents.
``I really believed Ron would have another staff,'' Denise Zook said Tuesday. ``I thought, `OK, by Christmas, if he has another staff, then I will give this to him.' And he did.''
It would have been easy - understandable, even - for Zook to head back to the quiet comfort of the NFL after his disastrous three years at Florida and the unrelenting criticism that went along with them.
For Zook, though, believe is more than just a quaint slogan to put on his desk. He believed he had the right plan at Florida, and while it didn't work out there, he truly believed it would somewhere else.
Even a place like Illinois, where success has been a once-in-a-decade thing, at best.
Midway through his third season, Zook has people believing in him again. The Illini are 5-1 - one victory better than the Gators - and tied with perennial powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan atop the Big Ten. At No. 18, they're back in the Top 25 for the first time since 2001 after beating Wisconsin, their second straight win over a ranked team.
And Zook is attracting talented young players that could make the Illini a force for seasons to come, just as he did at Florida, even if he didn't get to stick around long enough to reap the benefits.
``This hasn't been a fluke,'' Zook said of his Illini. ``They've worked hard and they are a good football team. Now, are we where we need to be? No. But we've made progress. And they're doing it. It's not by luck, it's them doing it.
``It's like a light flicker. It's still not on bright yet, but it's flickering.''
Zook was a lifetime assistant when Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley hired him to replace Steve Spurrier in January 2002, and his days were numbered from the minute he accepted the job.
Following someone as revered as Spurrier is impossible enough, but Zook had never been a head coach before and Florida fans - not exactly a patient bunch - were certain he was in over his head. He'd barely gotten to Gainesville when was up and running.
Though he led Florida to three straight bowl appearances and a share of the 2003 SEC East title, and solidified a reputation as a tireless and effective recruiter, the Gators took a step back under Zook. They lost 14 games over three years - as many as Spurrier did in his last six seasons. Maybe worse, they often looked boring and confused doing it. A program that had reshaped the way college football was played in the Southeastern Conference was now nothing special.
After a loss to lowly Mississippi State in October 2005, Foley fired Zook, saying that ``something's not working here.'' With four games still left, Zook agreed to stay on through the rest of the season.
``Hardest thing I ever did,'' he said. ``No one that I knew except maybe Denise wanted me to finish that season. No one. ... (But) all you have is your word.''
He wasn't out of work for long. Six weeks after being fired at Florida, he was hired at Illinois.
To many, it seemed like another no-win job. The good old days of Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Red Grange were long gone. The Illini had two winning seasons in the 10 years before Zook arrived, and hadn't been to the Rose Bowl since 1983.
``It's the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with,'' fifth-year senior linebacker J Leman said. ``Eight (wins) in four years. That's awful.''
But Zook saw great potential at Illinois.
``It's like I told our players, `Who says? Do you believe it? Do you believe that it can or do you believe that it can't?''' he said. ``We have everything that everyone else has. People don't want to accept that, people don't want to buy that, and that's why we're not there yet. That's why it's so hard. We've got to keep knocking down. Until we get there, we've got to keep knocking them down.''
Zook's first task was to get better players. Though the Illini had good players here and there, they needed more athleticism and depth.
In his first season, Zook landed quarterback Isiah ``Juice'' Williams and defensive back Vontae Davis. Last year he got Arrelious Benn, Davis' high school teammate and one of the best receivers in the country, and beat out Notre Dame for Martez Wilson, one of the top defensive linemen.
That high-profile recruits were suddenly flocking to the flat lands of central Illinois raised eyebrows, and Zook found himself defending his recruiting methods. Never mind that he'd done the same thing at Florida; Zook recruited most of last year's national championship team.
``A lot of times when a program comes up quickly, there are going to be criticisms,'' recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. ``There's never even been slaps on the wrist where he's been. I think it's just jealousy. Zook has a personality that draws kids.''
With Illinois losing his first two seasons, Zook also found himself again battling the perception that he was great at recruiting, not so great on game days.
``I'm not going to say that that didn't bother me,'' he said. ``If you truly believe in what you're about and if you truly believe in what you're doing, somehow you have to put that out of your mind and your faith has to be strong enough that you can do that.''
Though Illinois won only two games for a second straight year last season, Zook said repeatedly his team was getting close. When the Illini lost to now No. 11 Missouri by six points in the opener, he knew his team was on the verge of a turnaround.
Sure enough, after winning its next three games, the Illini beat Penn State and snapped then-No. 5 Wisconsin's 14-game winning streak. It was the first time Illinois had beaten ranked teams in back-to-back weekends since 1959, and the first win over a top-five team since 1989.
Benn is drawing raves from just about everyone who sees him, and Rashard Mendenhall, who Zook inherited, has established himself as one of the best running backs in the country. Someone even asked Zook on Tuesday if Illinois should be touting him for the Heisman Trophy.
``It's very satisfying,'' linebacker Brit Miller said. ``We're up there with the Ohio States and Michigans, the teams that have been in places above us. Finally we've got something to be proud of at the University of Illinois.''
The Illini travel this weekend to Iowa, a team they haven't beat since 2000, and still must play Michigan and at Ohio State.
``It's important they understand they have accomplished some things lot of people didn't think they could,'' Zook said. ``They also have to understand we have not really accomplished anything yet in terms of something we can enjoy at the end of season.''
That means doing the same things they've been doing, the things that, deep down, they know work.
It means believing, even when other people don't.
``People think I'm crazy, but (getting fired) is the best thing that ever happened to us,'' Zook said. ``When this thing gets rolling like it's going to, it's going to be a lot of fun.''

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