I am convinced that Ron Zook gave Florida his best shot. That it didn't work out as planned will be debated long after he's taken that final ride into the Gator sunset. There are those who will say that Zook deserves all the blame for not being able to win championships at UF, that he was never head coach material and should have never been given the job. There are those who will agree with some of that argument but rather than place the blame solely on Zook, they will hurl the majority of their venting energy at athletic director Jeremy Foley, claiming he should have never considered Zook for the job in the first place. Then there are the Zook defenders, who are every bit as numerous. These folks will insist for years to come that we will never really know how good the Zooker could have been because he wasn't given an adequate chance to prove himself and that he had the unenviable task of following the only true legend in Florida football history.
Zook was well aware of the enormity of the task when he took the Florida job. Following legends is never easy, particularly when the legend casts a shadow as large as Steve Spurrier, who earned his status both as a Heisman Trophy winner and as a coach. Zook knew all about the Spurrier shadow and legend but he never backed down from the task. He embraced the opportunity and welcomed the challenge. From day one he said having the Spurrier legend is one of the things that made the Florida job special.
Zook's hiring wasn't under the most ideal of circumstances, either. Not only was he following Florida's legend of all legends, he was also hired in the shadow of the landing of a near legend. This job was apparently Bobby Stoops' for the taking, but somehow, a done deal wound up not getting done and athletic director Jeremy Foley announced that Spurrier's successor would be Zook.
Looking back on the hiring process, I believe that there were mistakes made that hurt Zook both with the press and the Gator nation from day one. I believe that Jeremy Foley's jaunt to both Norman, Oklahoma, where he spoke with Stoops, and to Denver, where he spoke with Mike Shanahan, only fueled the expectations that Spurrier's successor would be someone cut from the same cloth of winning championships. Instead of someone with championships on his head coaching resume', Foley announced Zook, a career assistant coach whose only foray onto a head coaching radar that we know of was in 1996 when he missed out on the Akron job.
By making the search so high profile yet at the same time one that was filled with such mystery, I believe strongly that Foley set the Gator nation up for both criticism and disappointment. Foley has enough friends in the coaching profession that he could have asked for and received public endorsements of Ron Zook as a good and logical candidate to take over for Spurrier. Coaches like Bill Cowher, Mike Gottfried and Dick Vermeil are Ron's friends. How difficult would it have been call them up, tell them that Florida's thinking of hiring Ron, then ask them for a public endorsement? The fact that there was no buildup for Ron made it seem like a disappointment from the beginning. An opportunity was missed.
Once on the job, I think Ron worked this job harder than anyone could have possibly dreamed. I think he relished the challenges as an opportunity to prove himself worthy of the hire. I think he gave Florida every ounce of his energy and devotion.
He did a lot of things right. He was fiery at the Gator gatherings throughout the state. He said the right things and didn't create any kind of antagonistic atmosphere. He proved to be a lights out recruiter. He was and is loved by his players.
He didn't win enough, though, and in the end, that's what proved his undoing. As I look back on his three years at UF, I have to admit that it was a strange run. Florida lost games it should have or could have won. The Gators won some games they had no business winning. They also had some rotten luck with the zebras to go with some incalculable fourth quarter collapses.
It is the collapses in the fourth quarter that Zook detractors tend to bring up most often and there is no real defense for all the losses in the final two minutes of games that could have and should have been won. You can blame the coaches. You can blame the players. Bottom line is that Florida lost at least seven winnable games and if Zook wins even four of them, we're not talking today about his last run through the tunnel.
I've got mixed emotions. On one hand, I understand that the losses were difficult to take and that the loss to Mississippi State goes beyond any reasonable explanation. On the other hand, I also realize that Ron was doing on the job training as a head coach and that he had more quality wins in his three years than Tommy Tuberville has produced in his combined stays at Ole Miss and Auburn. Yet, Tuberville stands ready to win a SEC championship, and if the stars align properly, a national championship for Auburn.
We will never know what might have been at Florida with Zook had Foley and the administration given him one more year. I maintained from the beginning that Spurrier was Michelangelo, a genius who could create magnificent results with or without the greatest of material, and that the Zooker was more of a paint by numbers type.
I caught a lot of fire for that analogy, but in retrospect, I believe it was right and once again, I will tell all of you, there is nothing derogatory about the implication. Spurrier is that rare type in the college game who can win by sheer brilliance, able to do things with imagination and pizzazz on the spur of the moment and able to create masterpieces under almost any circumstance. Bear Bryant was like that, too.
But not many others.
Most coaches are paint by numbers types. Paint by numbers means you have a system to follow that may not be quite as sexy or as exciting as the methods employed by the genius, but if all the numbers are painted properly, you can still come up with a very pretty picture.
I think Ron had to follow his system and paint in all the numbers to make it work. I also think that we'll never know if his picture could have been beautiful if all the numbers had been painted in. Only time could have told that, and Ron ran out of time when Foley and UF President Bernie Machen pulled the plug on his Florida coaching career four weeks ago.
So now we come to that last run out of the tunnel. I hope that Florida fans will be kind and I hope that they will be appreciative. Zooker worked hard and never once stopped dreaming the dream of taking the Gators to the top. No one wanted this success more than he did, nor is there any way for any of us to measure the pain he'll be feeling when he takes that last run out onto the field.
When he makes that run, I'm not going to be worrying about what might have been. That's just speculation and there's no way to ever know. What I will be thinking is thanks Ron. Thanks for working hard. Thanks for doing your best. Thanks for being so darn decent and caring. Thanks for a thousand things you did right.
Yeah, I'm going to focus on the things he did right. I hope you will too.