Yes, the job has been broken, but not his spirit. Oh, you can see it in his face that this hurts with a pain he couldn't begin to describe. No one wants to face failure, and in his own eyes, Ron Zook failed. Given a shot at his dream job, he didn't win enough games and was fired halfway through his third season.
But even though the pain is the kind that keeps him from sleeping less than his normal four hours per night, the spirit is still strong.
You could see it Saturday night as he left Florida Field for the last time, a winner by a 48-14 margin over a quality South Carolina team. Sure, it would have been sweeter if this win could have come over LSU or Tennessee or Georgia because a win over one of those three earlier in the year would have saved Zook from the humiliation of a midseason firing squad. On this night, however, South Carolina was the opponent, not nationally ranked, but bowl eligible, tough and previously undefeated on the road this season, coached by Lou Holtz, one of the winningest coaches in all of college football history with 249 victories.
It was a win to savor. He didn't show the satisfaction with a huge grin or a big show of emotion, but there was a calm in his voice as he credited his team for playing hard for 60 minutes and finally putting together the all around performance he's been asking of them for three years.
"That's the kind of ball that the coaches have been trying to preach around here from day one," said massive offensive guard Mo Mitchell, one of the seniors who played in his last game at The Swamp. "I'm sad we didn't do this earlier. Coach Zook deserved it."
Earlier in the week, Zook got a call from an old friend who knows how Zook has agonized over his team's high peaks and low valleys. The caller was Dick Vermeil, formerly the coach of the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams, now the coach of the struggling Kansas City Chiefs.
"[Vermeil] told me last week that the last thing that comes for a young team is consistency," said Zook at his post-game press conference. "These guys, they're young, but they're going to continue to improve."
The consistency that the Gators found on this Saturday night special was in all phases of the game. Florida put together the kind of solid effort on offense, defense and special teams that simply overwhelmed South Carolina. The improved play in all areas was just a continuation of what happened in the second half of last week's road win against Vanderbilt.
"The second half of the Vanderbilt game really set the standard for this game because we wanted to come out and do well in all phases of the game," said Mitchell. "On special teams, on offense and on defense we wanted to play consistent and play up to our ability. We didn't run the ball as well as we wanted to, but when the passing game is going so well, you don't have to run so much. It was kind of like the old days."
The Gators put up 411 total offensive yards, 319 of which came in a passing game that saw Chris Leak throw six touchdown passes, tying a school record set by Danny Wuerffel for TD production in a Southeastern Conference game. Leak spent an evening looking downfield, connecting on touchdown passes of 24 (to Tate Casey), 56 (Chad Jackson), 61 (Andre Caldwell) and 39 (Dallas Baker) yards as he ran his Southeastern Conference leading string to 19 straight games with a touchdown pass.
Defensively, Florida recorded three sacks among 13 tackles for loss to go with four interceptions while limiting South Carolina to only 279 total yards. After giving up a first quarter touchdown, the Gators swarmed and played with reckless abandon, shutting South Carolina's offense down the rest of the way until a meaningless fourth quarter touchdown. Freshman middle linebacker Brandon Siler tossed South Carolina quarterback Syvelle Newton like a rag doll for a sack on the opening drive. He would finish with 14 tackles including four for loss. Defensive end Jeremy Mincey ended one South Carolina series with a leaping interception at the line of scrimmage. His seven tackles included a sack among four tackles for loss. Freshman safety Kyle Jackson picked off two passes.
Special teams contributed a blocked punt, two field goals and downed a punt inside the five. The special teams tone was set in the first quarter when Chad Jackson's acrobatic save in the end zone allowed the Gators to down an Eric Wilbur punt on the one yard line. Kickoff specialist Matt Piotrowicz set the special teams tone for the second half on the opening kickoff when he launched himself like a missle into South Carolina's Troy Williamson, held around the ankles by Dallas Baker.
"We're a young football tam that's getting better," said Zook. "We've got 65 guys or so that will be coming back with two years or more of less experience. This is going to happen. These guys are going to be good."
Had they been good four games ago, Zook's status would have never been in doubt, but that's the price paid for playing a team so young and so inexperienced. Of the 14 losses that show on Zook's record at Florida, six came in the final two minutes of the game. The four losses this season are all by a touchdown or less and three of those losses came in the last minute.
"We're only a play here or a play there from being undefeated," said Zook.
The consistency the Gators found Saturday night against South Carolina was lacking earlier in the year when Florida needed a play here or there to win the close games. If Florida is able to maintain the consistency next week in Tallahassee then again in a bowl game, the Gators of 2005, who will be coached by someone other than Ron Zook, will be favored to finish high in the national rankings.
Asked if he thought the Gators will be able to compete for a national title in the next year or so after his departure, Zook just smiled and said, "Absolutely. That is what we told them when we recruited them."
At some point in the future, Gator fans will probably get their second national title. Another coach will claim it on his resume', but when it happens, there needs to be a stamp that reads, "Foundation by Zook." Someone else will get the glory, but in his heart, Zooker will know that his sweat made it all possible.