The girl put curlers in her hair Saturday, October 23, 2004. There had been a few spats along the way, but the day the curlers went on in Starkville, Mississippi is the day that the love affair ended. Unlike most love affairs, though, there wasn't time for a separation.">
The girl put curlers in her hair Saturday, October 23, 2004. There had been a few spats along the way, but the day the curlers went on in Starkville, Mississippi is the day that the love affair ended. Unlike most love affairs, though, there wasn't time for a separation.">

Like All Love Affairs, This One Came To An End

"All love affairs end. Eventually, the girl is gonna put curlers in her hair ." ---- Al McGuire <br><br> The girl put curlers in her hair Saturday, October 23, 2004. There had been a few spats along the way, but the day the curlers went on in Starkville, Mississippi is the day that the love affair ended. Unlike most love affairs, though, there wasn't time for a separation.

Divorce came swiftly. Hours before it became official, word leaked to the media that the separation papers were being drawn up. University of Florida vs. Ron Zook was stamped and sealed Monday afternoon at a press conference at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. So ended the love affair, in heartbreak and disappointment, certainly not the fairy tale ending that Ron and Denise Zook envisioned more than twenty-five years ago when The Zooker let it be known that head coach at the University of Florida was his dream job.

This was the dream he never stopped dreaming, even when he was demoted as defensive coordinator by Coach Steve Spurrier after the 1993 season. It was the dream he saw coming true back in January of 2002 when he became the surprise choice of athletic director Jeremy Foley, jilted by Spurrier's decision to retire after a win over Maryland in the Orange Bowl.

As dreams go, this one was never one without its share of twists, turns and thickening plots. He wasn't the first choice of Gator fans. In fact, no one had him on the radar when Spurrier left suddenly. He won fans and lost fans with a peaks and valleys approach, winning games he shouldn't have won, losing games he should have. He was left for dead in the high weeds on more than one occasion only to rise resiliently to breathe new life in the program.

He had the program on life support again Saturday when he took his team to Starkville. Two last second losses and a much publicized incident with a fraternity had Zook back in the familiar back to the wall position, but unlike previous desperate situations, he didn't pull off the miracle comeback.

By losing to Mississippi State, divorce became the only option that Foley and University of Florida President Bernie Machen could see. When Zook was summoned Monday morning from an early morning staff meeting to meet Machen and Foley, the coach knew that the carriage had turned into a pumpkin and that his dream was over.

Though he may have held out hope for a last minute reconciliation, Zook had to know in his heart that he had reached the end. Losses happen, but losses to the worst team in the Southeastern Conference in the same fashion as too many other losses in his thirty-three game era undid him. In the last twenty games, there have been eight losses, six of which saw the winning score in the final two minutes. It's one thing to lose to LSU in the final two minutes of the game, but losing to a bottom feeder that has lost to Maine is a career ender. Losing to a bottom feeder on a 37-yard run through a defense offering little or no resistance in the final two minutes is a firing squad without a last request.

Word of the meeting spread at warp speed. Long before he could inform his assistant coaches and players, word leaked out to the media that Zook had been terminated. The 4 p.m. press conference was hastily arranged and media from all over the country descended on Gainesville.

After an opening statement and question-answer by Foley, Zook was brought out to read a prepared statement. The coach handled it with pride and more class than could have been expected under the circumstances.

He walked briskly to the podium, his face showing the emotional wear and tear of a man whose dream had turned into a nightmare. He spoke with a voice strained by emotion and not the usual upbeat, rapid-fire manner.

He thanked everyone including those who had only hours before canned him. He even thanked the media for being fair at a time when a Nixonesque "You won't have the Zooker to kick around anymore" might have been appropriate.

Then he got to the part about his players and his assistant coaches.

That's when he broke down.

The tears welled up, his voice quivered, his hands shook. He talked about how he loved those kids who had chosen to follow him on this rocky journey, a journey that no one wanted more than the Zooker to end differently. Everyone in the building knew the words came from a heart that wasn't just breaking, but one that had already been crushed.

He got through his statement, then apologized that he wouldn't be taking questions because he had a job to do, which is to get his football team ready to beat the University of Georgia. He left the room quickly, head held high.

As he walked out of the room, it was evident that Zook had placed all the blame on himself for how his dream job ended up this way. This is a very caring man who takes relationships very personally. He remembers people's names. He remembers details about their lives. He never forgets to offer encouragement to people he knows that are hurting or praise to people whom he knows have done well.

He won't blame his assistant coaches. He won't blame his players. He will blame himself, and if you know Zook, it will be a long time before he forgives himself for what happened.

When it comes to football, it is true that the buck stops with the head coach. He is the one responsible when things go bad. If a player fails to make a play, it's the head coach's fault. If an assistant coach doesn't do the job, it's the head coach's fault. If a player is out of line off campus, it's the fault of the head coach for failing to discipline the team properly.

But ask yourself this: can the coach run the route for a wide receiver? Can the coach throw the ball to the right receiver? Can the coach block the blitzing linebacker? Can the coach make every decision that an assistant coach makes during a game or during practice? And given the NCAA's bizarre rules that so limit the head coach and the amount of contact he can have with players during the offseason, can the coach be blamed for every off the field incident that resulted in a football player making headlines?

The answer is no to each of the aforementioned items, yet the head coach will take the blame every time.

To his credit, Ron Zook took the blame when things went wrong on the field and when things went well, he was quick to give credit to his players and his assistant coaches. When his players got in trouble off the field, he didn't offer up excuses for them, but he did stand by them the way a father would stand by one of his sons.

He did things in a standup way, and that is to be commended. He did everything that was asked of him by the university except for one slight problem. He didn't win as often as is expected at the University of Florida and for that, he won't be coaching the team after the 2004 season ends.

There will be plenty of time to dissect exactly what went wrong in more detail, but for now, let it simply be known that Ron Zook gave it everything he had at the University of Florida. Things didn't work out as he had hoped. Machen and Foley made the move that they thought was best for the university in the long haul.

Zook will coach the remainder of the season, then he will walk away. If you know him, you know that if he is bitter, he won't let anyone know it. He will shoulder the blame for not getting the job done and he will feel mightily for his assistant coaches whose lives are disrupted by his firing.

Most of all, he will ache for his players. Oh, they will have a new head coach and you can bet that the new guy will be about as good as money can buy. The players that Ron Zook recruited will likely win a lot of games for the new guy and maybe they will even win a national championship for him. There is that much talent already in place.

In so many ways it will be like a million other divorces. The old dad goes and the new dad moves into the house with benefits plenty left behind by the old dad. The new dad will get to take credit for something for which someone else laid the foundation by busting his butt and working way too hard.

Divorces are like that. There's no such thing as one without consequences. But at least if and when that championship happens with these kids that Zook recruited, the Zooker will be able to smile and know none of it would have happened without his hard work. But, in typical Zooker fashion, he'll call them and congratulate them for what they have done. He won't take the credit, even though he should.

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