Zook's Soldiers Stand Behind Him

Florida coach Ron Zook has been through some wild times this season. Doubt him or not, he doesn't care. At this point, it's just about winning games....

His words flying faster than his mouth can spit them, Florida coach Ron Zook delivers his pre-game pep talks without much regard for clarity. But that doesn't matter. His players comprehend every thought just fine.

At this point, that's all he needs. And that's all he really wants.

"Sometimes when he'll give a speech," senior wide receiver Carlos Perez says, "you can't even understand what he's saying. He just gets so excited. But then you look into his eyes. You know exactly what he means. You know he wants us to win with everything he has."

This much is crystal clear. His players never doubted him, and it's starting to pay off.

It's his tireless energy, they say. It's his inexhaustible excitement, they'll tell you. That's what keeps his players at his side. That's what keeps them fixated on his every decision – no matter the result.

"When you see a coach more hyper than your teammates, it gets you pumped up," senior cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said. "He's out there hitting guys, and guys are hitting him. He's running around head butting his players. If that doesn't get you ready to play, you're not an athlete."

So here he is. Take him or leave him. Join him or fight him. Either way, Zook doesn't care. He's sticking to his game plan, and so are his players no matter what you think.

As the second-year head coach prepares for Saturday's game against Georgia, he will attempt to do something even the almighty Steve Spurrier never accomplished. Zook will have the chance to defeat three ranked teams consecutively on the road.

Yes, this is the same Zook who was as good as fired three weeks ago. At that time, the decision seemed inevitable. It seemed predictable. But as it turned out, it was nothing but premature.

His back against the wall, Zook tore through sixth-ranked LSU and followed the win up with another against 11th-ranked Arkansas. Zook claims he never expected otherwise. Very few could say the same.

Even Florida's fondest boosters appeared to be down on the coach. Before the Gators played Kentucky, Tom Stratton, a booster from Melbourne, e-mailed the Lexington Herald-Leader about his latest displeasures.

"Many of us in Gator Nation believe a Wildcats victory this Saturday could be the price we must pay to launch the beginning of the end to the Ron Zook debacle," Stratton wrote. "Go Cats!''

The comment, which appeared on the front page of the paper, echoed the opinion of a majority of Florida's followers. And after the Gators fell to Ole Miss, the corps of doubters continued to grow.

"The thought was we were spinning into the abyss," said Stratton, who plans to contribute financially in good and bad times. "I was 90-10 against him. Now I'm more like 50-50. And if he beats Georgia, I'll eat my words. He will have resurrected his career."

So what did Zook do different? How did he pull an otherwise worthless season into contention for a Southeastern Conference title?

"He knew what we were capable of," tailback Ran Carthon said. "And he knew what he was capable of. He just finally found a way for us to realize what he already understood."

Zook stuck to his game plan, shunning off the doubters with defensive answers. And his players stuck by his side.

Georgia coach Mark Richt, who faced similar scrutiny in his first year as the Bulldogs coach, said Zook's ability to fend off the critics is not an easy situation to overcome. Yet the Florida coach hasn't steered away from his initial strategies, and that will make him successful, Richt said.

"It's hard to keep things a float when everybody is on you," he said. "You can't lose your faith in what's going on. You don't just jump off course and go on a tangent. You don't just do things you never did before. You believe in your system, and you keep banging away at it. Coach Zook has done a super job of that."

But which Zook will show up Saturday? Will it be the cocksure leader who silenced his doubters? Or the questionable coach who infuriated his followers?

Even with his most recent two wins, nothing is secure. After all, just as Zook seems to have won back some of those who fell from the bandwagon, one loss can conger up the critics once again.

"You can't judge a football season by the last two games, just like you couldn't judge it after Ole Miss," athletics director Jeremy Foley said. "You have to judge the football season as a whole. You have to let it play out. Is this indicative of the type of team I think we can have? Yes. But if we lose Saturday, there's going to be more questions."

In Zook's first two years as coach, he has done his share to prove why his players put so much faith in him. Now, though, it's time for him to turn those questions into answers. Against Georgia, he'll certainly have his shot.

"Whenever you win, people are going to love you," Ratliff said. "When you lose, people are going to hate you. And if we lose to Georgia, Fireronzook.com will start blowing up again. But Coach Zook won't let that happen. He cares way too much to lose this game."

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