FG: It seems hard to keep a team focused from week-to-week-to-week. That's something your guys seemed to do very well this year whether you were coming off a loss or a win. How did you keep them so focused?
Zook: There's not a book that you read that tells you how to do it. I think a big thing is our players. We've got good people. After the Ole Miss game I told the guys that it's hard to become a team and to succeed in today's society. We were a better football team than the way we were playing. The guys swallowed their pride and said 'hey, let's have pride in the University of Florida and pride in our football program and put all of our energies into being the best football team we can be.' One of the things that makes the University of Florida the greatest is also one of the things that make it the toughest--- how do you keep everyone focused when there is so much other noise in the system? You have to know where you stand or you could become distracted and walk off into different directions and not have everybody going in the same direction together.
FG: Was there any sense that the confidence that came with the win at LSU changed their perspective after what had happened the week before against Mississippi?
Zook: We were somewhat excited, but it was more like if we do what we're supposed to do this is what can happen. The thing I remember is a line from Bobby Knight's book--- "Big game, next game." The quicker you get over one game and move on to the next game, the better your chances of performing at the effort level you need. I was very, very proud of our team's ability to do that.
FG: Your mantra for the season was that this would be a team that would improve as the season went along. The team certainly did that, and last year's team also showed improvement during the season, but not nearly as much as this year's team. Why did this team make so much progress in the second half of the season?
Zook: Hopefully it will be the same next year. The longer you're in a system, the easier it is. A lot of time when you try to get everybody on the same page there's a lot of heartache involved. On the one side you have these guys with the fire Ron Zook stuff and then the other part of yourself is saying these guys are good guys and they really do care about us. The longer they go, and realize how much we do care about them, that we do have a plan, then they buy into it, to the point where they are able to shut the other things out.
FG: That transition affects both the younger and the older players, doesn't it?
Zook: It's really harder for the older guys because one of things for any human being is that human beings resist change. It's natural. It's normal… people resist change.
FG: How long does it take players to get comfortable with a system?
Zook: I think by the end of last year our players were comfortable with what we were doing. As a coaching staff it takes time to get to know your players. I've said many times that a particular thing for one player may not be so great for another. It's our job to put the players in a position to be the best players they can be. If you learn your players, and learn how they react and learn what they do best, you can put them in a position where they can be successful. They can't have everything they'll be comfortable with, that's just never going to happen. But if there's a lot of things they feel good about they're going to play fast, they're going to play with energy, they're going to play with enthusiasm.
FG: Since the FSU game there seems to have been a groundswell of pride among Gator fans about the way your team played. That despite all the players had to overcome, they almost won and played their hearts out from beginning to end. Did you feel those emotions after the game even though you, like every other Gator, were bitterly disappointed with the outcome?
Zook: I felt bad for our fans. The Swamp was The Swamp again. I'm so happy that it's back. We had some recruits in there who couldn't believe it. Some people say a team can't get up for every game, but I don't believe that. It's the same for fans. I believe fans can get up for every game too. I told our players I want our fans to walk out of this stadium saying, 'man, those guys were having fun out there.' You lose sight of that sometimes because there is so much pressure to win. Back in my first press conference when somebody asked me what I wanted people to say about my team, I said I wanted people to walk out of The Swamp saying, 'Those people are having fun. They're playing hard in terms of emotion and excitement.' What happens sometimes is that you become so obsessed with winning that you forget … it's like driving with your emergency brake on, instead of playing loose and letting go and flying around… I think that's a little bit of the thing we started with the LSU game. We started playing one play at a time, we're not going to worry about the score, we're going to worry about what we can do. I reminded them of that again at halftime (of the FSU game). I knew the game was a long way from being over. In the first half we might have been a little tight, for whatever reason, but there was no doubt in my mind we were good enough to win the game. I told them to go out and have some fun, that I want the people to leave here saying those guys are playing hard and having fun. Most of the time if we can play with that type of emotion and that kind of energy, more often than not we're going to come out on top.
FG: Isn't it exciting to go out on the recruiting trail knowing that you were seven or eight plays away from maybe winning nine, ten, eleven or even twelve games? You couldn't say that last year after you got bopped two or three times.
Zook: Mike Degory and I were talking about that this morning. Mike said we were six or eight plays away from an undefeated season. The work we've put in, now we need to turn it up a little more. We're not where we need to be yet. We're not close to where we want to be, but as long as we keep going in the right direction and keep working we'll get there. There's no question we're closer than we were a year ago. If you compare the scores of the Miami and Florida State games last year to the games this year I think we've taken the gap to a point where's there's not very much there.
FG: Expectations were not very high, outside the immediate Gator family, for the 2003 season. It seems that expectations are going to be very high for next season. Is that an exciting prospect?
Zook: Not really. We have our own expectations. We don't worry about other people's expectations. I always said it's not where you begin the season but where you finish it that counts. We can't control what other people think about us. I say it again--- we're not close to where we want to be and where we're going to be. But we're going to get there. There is no doubt in mind we'll get this program where it should be.
Note - This Q&A with Florida Head Coach Ron Zook appeared in FightinGators magazine. Click here to purchase a subscription to FightinGators magazine.