If Only Being Good Was Good Enough

A good man is hurting today and there's probably nothing that any of us can do for him. No amount of kind words and no amount of encouragement can serve as novocaine enough to dull the pain that Ron Zook is feeling. He will try to smile through it, but neither his smile or his attempts to positively spin things will change the fact that soon he may be out of a job.

Ron Zook is indeed a good man. He's about as decent and caring a human as you'd ever want to meet. Spend a few minutes with him and you understand why he's so popular with his players. He's honest, hard working, engaging. He's got a zillion qualities that you'd love to have for yourself and see in others. When things are good, no one will celebrate your good fortune more than Ron Zook. If you're feeling bad, he's the kind of guy you appreciate because he will share your pain. That's a good man.

If it was only that simple.

If our only requirement to be head football coach at the University of Florida was "good man," then Ron Zook would be the guy we would want to coach the Gators until the day he dies. Unfortunately, while being a good man is one of the endearing qualities we want in our coach, the only quality that matters is winning, and Zook just hasn't done enough of that.

A 4-3 record at this stage of the season would have the wine and cheese crowd at Vanderbilt ordering truffles for next week's tailgate. At Florida, a 4-3 record at this stage of the season is bad because it is a reminder that after averaging ten wins a season for 12 years, the Gators have slipped back to the mediocre records that were the program in the second half of the 1980s. Through 33 games of the Ron Zook era, the Gators are 20-13, something to crow about at a place like South Carolina, reason to panic in Gainesville.

Now, compound the lack of victories with Saturday's fiasco in Starkville, a 38-31 loss to the same Mississippi State team that hung a touchdown on Division 1-AA Maine in a 9-7 loss earlier in the year. The only thing that could make losing to the worst team in the Southeastern Conference more painful is to lose it in the final seconds.

What are the odds that the Gator defense could collapse in the final two minutes for the sixth time in the past two years? At some point, you have to think that someone would step up and make a play at crunch time, but once again, the bell rang but no one answered the call. It's one thing to lose a lead in the last two minutes to Miami, Florida State, Tennessee or LSU. Those are programs of stature that have a long history of dramatic comebacks. Those losses hurt but at least they can be explained away.

There's no way to explain this one away. No way at all.

Zook was hurting when he walked off the field and he hurt the entire plane ride back to Gainesville. When he sits in his office and watches the film of that game-winning play, a 37-yard run through an uninspired Gator defense, he will think a wooden stake has been hammered into his heart. There were plenty other bad plays, but Jerious Norwood's touchdown run personifies all that was wrong with the Gator defense on this day. You start with a hole big enough that you could drive a truck through it. Follow that up by linebackers being caught flatfooted and add in half-hearted pursuit by the secondary. Don't take anything away from the effort of Norwood, but it isn't exactly like the Gators put up much of a fight. .

When the Gators lost to Miami last year, blowing a 23-point lead and losing in the final seconds, it was not from any lack of effort. The same can be said about last year's loss to FSU or the two previous losses in 2004 to Tennessee and LSU. In all those losses, fans left the stadium knowing that the Gators had at least given everything they had.

That wasn't the case Saturday.

When it comes right down to it, Zooker was betrayed by his own players. They had to know what was at stake when they took the field in Starkville. They had to know that they were a loss away from a trip to Shreveport for the Weedwacker Bowl, and they had to know that they were playing for a coach under fire from fans, boosters and the athletic director. They had to know that anything less than a huge win by a blowout margin was unacceptable, especially with the annual Florida-Georga game a week away.

They should have come out of the gate ready to play, both emotionally and physically, and if they weren't ready, then Mississippi State's 12-play, 71-yard scoring drive after the opening kickoff should have been the only wake-up call they would need. Well, the alarm rang. Many times. Only problem was most of the Gator defenders never woke up. They kept hitting the snooze alarm.

It is true that the Gator offense didn't hit on all cylinders, but it did produce 31 points. Ciatrick Fason was electrifying. His 55-yard touchdown run should make every highlight reel on every network. Chris Leak wasn't consistent, but he did throw for 260 yards and connected for a couple of touchdown passes to Chad Jackson. His interception in the game's last three minutes was about as untimely as it gets, but it shouldn't have mattered. By the time he threw it, the game should have been out of reach for Mississippi State.

Thirty-one points were plenty enough to win if only the defense had shown up to play. How bad was the defense? Try giving up 251 rushing yards to a team that ranked number 114 out of 117 in Division 1 in total offense. Try giving up 38 points to a team ranked next to last in scoring.

What makes the defensive effort so painful is the lack of consistent effort, and that is inexcusable. There was never a time in this game when you felt the entire defensive team was hustling and into the game emotionally. What makes this uninspired effort so disheartening is that it very well may be the last straw, costing a good man the job that he always wanted. When Jeremy Foley does his "what should be done eventually must be done immediately" speech at a press conference and thanks Ron Zook for giving such a good effort the past three years as he shows him the door, Foley will probably say that it wasn't just this one game that did Zook in, but all the losses and in particular, all the losses in the last two minutes. Foley will say it, but don't for one second believe it. You can lose to nationally ranked teams and survive. You don't survive losing to a Mississippi State team that lost to Maine.

If there is finger to point, it should be that Zook loaded up his staff with superb recruiters at the expense of on the field coaching. Zook and staff have brought in the "Jesse's and Joe's" that Zook talked about when he started putting this team together with superb recruiting efforts but a third straight season with five losses is looking more realistic by the moment. Why? Because the Gators only resemble a well coached team in spurts. There is never a consistency in handling assignments or in emotional effort.

Saturday's game was the perfect example. Mississippi State didn't have five players who would crack Florida's two-deep roster. Yet, the team with the least talent won the game because it was better coached and because it consistently gave the best effort.

If Ron Zook had coaxed that kind of effort out of his own troops Saturday, he wouldn't be at the head of this week's dead man walking list for college football coaches. Zook is a good man and because he is a good man, he'll hurt more than you can even imagine when he is shown the door.

You can be the nicest guy in the world. You can work your tail off. You can care all you want about your players. In the end, however, you better not lose five games a year for three straight years. Not if you want to be the football coach at the University of Florida.

And you never, ever, not in a million years lose to a team that lost to Maine.

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