T. HARRIS: Criticisms of Zook sting players too

HOOVER, Ala.-- Shortly after Florida's fiery head coach Ron Zook addressed the media Tuesday afternoon at Southeastern Conference Media Days, Zook was ushered out and two of his players were brought in for informal question-and-answer sessions.

Inevitably, many of the reporters' questions to the players centered on Zook, the object of criticism during much of his first two years as top Gator. After a pair of uncharacteristic five-loss seasons, and with the spectre of an unemployed Steve Spurrier hanging in the wings, much of the Florida talk on Tuesday focused on the heat which might come to rest on Zook should the coming season go sour.

Let there be no questions about where senior linebacker Travis Harris stands on Zook. Though some reporters' questions seemed to be probing the players for character flaws in the oft-beleaguered coach, the fifth-year senior said Zook exceeded Spurrier in at least one all-important category: ability to relate to his players.

"The players absolutely love Coach Zook," Harris said. "Why? Because he understands us.

"A lot of times with coaches, the age difference makes it hard to relate to us. But he tries his best to understand us and relate to the things that are going on in our lives. He cares more than maybe any other football coach.

"I went thorough some things regarding football a while back. He took a caring to how I feel, and he gives you a chance to voice your opinion... not that he's necessarily going to change anything, but the relationship is just a little bit more than other coaches.

"I've been here five years, and I've been through a couple of other coaches. Spurrier, he was a great coach, but just on a personal level, [Coach Zook] just brings a lot more to the table."

Say this for the always-upbeat Zook: he seems totally unfazed by criticism. The Florida head man said Tuesday he avoids newspapers, doesn't listen to talk radio, and absolutely abstains from Internet fan sites. He understands the pressures attendant to being the man to follow Spurrier, and he embraces it.

For some players, however, it's a different story. Harris said the players hear the criticisms, and had at times been truly stung by them.

"Talking about Coach Zook is like talking about a member of our family," he said. "We're always going to take up for him. People don't know what a guy does. They don't know the work he puts in. They're on the outside looking in."

Harris has one word to describe Zook: "fireball."

"[Coach Zook] works hard. He puts in lots of hours. People that criticize him don't realize that that hurts us too. It motivates us even more."

"I don't think he ever sleeps more than an hour, IF he sleeps. He says he 'sleeps fast', whatever that means. He's just always thinking football, always trying to think of new ways to make this team better."

Despite having more than 80 players, Zook still finds time to treat each player as an individual, Harris said.

"Even in practice, a lot of other coaches just kind of sit back and let their assistants run things. Coach Zook does everything. He might be in the linebacker group, or in another group. He's everywhere. In our position meetings, he might come up and tell you some different ways of doing things. I mean, he just coaches everybody."

The players' affection for Zook is often apparent when recruits come in for official and unofficial visits, Harris said. As a senior player, Harris has been called upon several times to help potential recruits with their recruiting visits.

"My main thing with recruits is to be honest. I may want this person to come and play for us, but I'm going to tell the truth. I tell them basically how it is.

"Recruiting for us is kind of a hard thing. Florida might be the place for some people and not for others. So my whole thing is to tell the truth. I relate how Coach Zook is. If they ask about the coach, I tell them about the coach."

What will it take for a Zook-led Florida team to outrun the shadow left by Spurrier? A national championship? An SEC championship?

"We have to win the SEC first. That's what I think," Harris said. "People are going to talk regardless. It's just a stigma. We're playing at a big university, and Spurrier is a big reason for the success we've had.

"But we just have to play through all that. We have to worry about our team. Our goal is to win the East first. We feel like if we do that, our other goals will fall into place.

"A lot of people aren't giving us a chance, and a lot of people didn't give us a chance last year in some of the games we played. We feel like we're capable, like we have the kind of team to play in a BCS bowl.

"We just didn't get the job done in a few games last year-- we didn't finish. That's one of our main goals this year-- focus and finish. We know we have the talent to do it."

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The last two seasons under Zook have been marked by high highs... as well as low lows. Harris said Tuesday the 2003 wins over LSU and Georgia, the two teams which advanced to the SEC Championship Game, are something the team can point back to with great pride as they enter 2004.

"Every season, when you start the season, you've got to bring something that was good the year before to carry over," Harris said. "Beating those two teams was definitely a highlight for us, especially beating LSU, which went on to win a national championship. If we can beat LSU, which was the best team we played last year, we can play with anybody. That just brings the confidence up."

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