FOOTBALL: Zook's been down this road before

<img src=http://www246.pair.com/autoybkh/albums/albun25/7495798_G.thumb.jpg align=right>He's been down this road before. For reasons that he probably can't explain himself, Ron Zook and adversity have been on a regular collision course ever since he took the job as the football coach at Florida. He wasn't the popular pick of Gator fans when he got the job. They had their sights set on Bobby Stoops or Mike Shanahan, but Zook was the surprise choice of athletic director Jeremy Foley.

Now five games into his third season and for the third straight year, Foley is answering a ton of emails questioning why Zook is the coach and both Zook and Foley find themselves on the Green Mile list of Gator fans who think the season's already in the toilet.

It is not like Zook plans things this way. He's a meticulous planner, an unparalleled workaholic who inspires passionate loyalty from both his players and staff. He's the potential feel good story that one minute has fans pulling for him to succeed beyond their wildest dreams, yet always seems to be one game away from having those same fans declare him dead man walking. No one wants to win more than Ron Zook. No one wants to take the University of Florida back to the heights that it enjoyed during the twelve year reign of Stevie Wonder.

But for some reason, bad things keep happening to a good man. And when I say bad, I mean really bad.

Try playing Miami second game of the season two years in a row. That's something you don't wish on anyone other than Florida State or Georgia.

Try five losses in the last two minutes in the past two seasons, and each of the losses avoidable if just one player takes one or two steps in one direction or the other, just enough to get in the way of a play that decided the game.

Try losing two games (Florida State 2003, Tennessee 2004) in the final two minutes in which the zebras were so bad that an entire nation swears that at least one or two on those crews had a debt to settle with their friendly neighborhood bookie.

You want buzzard's luck?

Try losing Saturday night thanks in part to two of the silliest personal foul calls you could imagine. In a hundred more games, Ray McDonald doesn't head butt the LSU quarterback or Jeremy Mincey somehow manages to kick an LSU player as he tries to leap over him.

It almost makes you wonder if somewhere along the line Zook pissed off someone who hired a Voodoo priest because it seems that the needle gets stuck in the doll every time the Gators are on the verge of pulling off a big win in a critical game.

So Zook is once again with his back to the wall. Two years ago, one week after the Gator nation embraced him when he won one for his dad (the late Pete Zook), the same Gator fans who praised him were calling for his head after Florida was steamrolled by Miami. He lost to Ole Miss on the road, too. Ole Miss for crying out loud.

Last year he had Miami on the ropes and then the Hurricanes stormed back for 28 straight points to win in the final two minutes. He lost to Ole Miss again. Ole Miss for crying out loud.

And both seasons he found ways to motivate his team to do the improbable. He rallied the Gators to unexpected wins over Auburn in overtime and Georgia in Jacksonville in 2002. Last year he was 3-3 after the Ole Miss loss and facing road trips to LSU and Arkansas followed by the Georgia game in Jacksonville, a threesome of games that figured to be the wooden stake in the heart of Zook's Florida coaching career. Instead of losing he won all three and five in a row before the Zebragate I loss to Florida State.

So five games into this season, Zooker and the Gators find themselves sitting 3-2 with the Poodles and FSU still on the schedule. Once again, he's lost one to the Zebras (Tennessee game) and then one everyone figured he would win (LSU). The natives are restless, willing to mulligan Zook for the Tennessee game since an SEC crew of zebras tried to go one up on the ACC crew that blew Zebragate I. After two 8-5 seasons, the Gator nation is demanding something better than another New Year's Day in Tampa for the Outback Bowl but with Georgia and FSU still on the schedule, they're wondering if a trip to scenic Shreveport is in the mix.

And you know what happens if you have to play in Shreveport for the Weedwacker Bowl? You win and you only have to stay one week. You lose and you have to stay an extra week.

There are the usual threats that the Bull Gators have thrown up their hands in disgust and are threatening to withhold all their money. There are also the usual threats that either Jeremy Foley offers Bobby Stoops three Brinks Trucks and a thousand feet of beach front somewhere that a hurricane hasn't hit or else Foley can see if he can work his same athletic director magic at Boise State or Slippery Rock.

All of which means that it is once again Zooker time, that time of the year when Zook finds himself with his back to the wall needing to do the improbable to get a twelfth hour reprieve from the warden.

He pulled rabbits out of the hat in 2002 with the wins over Auburn and Georgia. He did one better in 2003. Those three wins were more unlikely than someone duplicating Harry Houdini's famous Hindu Needle Trick.

This year, he doesn't face nearly the obstacles he faced in either of those years. He's got a better football team than he had in either 2002 or 2003. It's not like the two losses are to teams that are chopped liver, either. Tennessee proved its mettle by dismantling Georgia the week after the Poodles had clocked LSU. LSU came in to The Swamp, backs to the wall, needing to play lights out to begin the salvaging of a season gone bad.

Zook's had his back to the wall enough in the past two plus years that he knows exactly what to do. Middle Tennessee State and Mississippi State are the next two opponents, and that will bring the Gators to 5-2. Will anyone be surprised when and if the Gators find a way to beat the Poodles again? Zook's done it the past two years and Florida's better this year than in either of the previous two seasons. It's hard to imagine that Georgia is as good as it was in either of those two years.

So 6-2 followed by Vandy and then South Carolina?

That has an 8-2 look to it.

Then there is the FSU game in Tallahassee. Would anyone really be surprised if Florida won that game? Oh, sure there are fans who are saying it won't happen, but those same fans were saying a week ago that the Gators would take the Seminoles apart in November.

Before the season began I predicted 8-3 and said 9-2 would not be a surprise. We're five games into the season and I don't see anything to change my mind. I'm not a gambler but I've learned my lessons the last two years. Zooker has his back to the wall and that's good enough for me.

I stand by my predictions.


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