Do Machen, Foley Have The Guts

TALLAHASSEE — The coach with the best winning percentage in history at Bobby Bowden Field is not Bobby Bowden, but instead is the improbable Ron Zook, now a perfect 1-0 on the night that Doak Campbell Stadium officially changed names.

Who among us with a measure of sanity would have ever thought this possible just four weeks ago when Zook was handed lame duck status by University of Florida President Bernie Machen and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, the two-man lynching crew who decided that Zook had to go after a 38-31 loss to Mississippi State?

Canning Zook may have seemed like a good idea at the moment. Most strokes of genius seem like a good idea at the moment, but once those good ideas have sprouted legs and run a little bit, the brilliance quite often wears off. In other words, you can put a necktie on a pig, but in the end, all you've got is a pig wearing a necktie.

Canning Zook after that loss to Mississippi State may have been a stroke of genius for that one particular moment, but four weeks later it's got Machen and Foley playing the roles of the pigs wearing the neckties. No matter how they try to dress this one up, they still come up looking like a pig.

Zooker put them on the spot big time Saturday night with a 20-13 win over Florida State in Tallahassee. Yeah, that's the same Tallahassee and the same newly named Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium where the closest Steve Spurrier ever came to winning when he was the coach was a 31-31 tie in a game that he blew a 31-3 fourth quarter lead. This is the same Tallahassee where the Gators hadn't won since 1986, back when Kerwin Bell had a full head of non-receding hair and Galen Hall was the coach.

So imagine you are Bernie Machen and Jeremy Foley this morning, trying to figure out what to do about this dilemma. There are choices to be made.

Zooker has the Gators sitting at 7-4, likely bound for the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. He's got the Gators playing with the kind of consistency that tells us the lights have come on for a team that will bring back 17 starters next season. He's got players stepping up at crunch time to make plays. He's got pursuit to the ball. He's got an offense that has shown an ability to get points on anyone's board. .

When Machen and Foley did their public hanging of Zook's career back four weeks ago, it was done with a surgical swiftness that should have cut the heart out of the team and stomped that sucker flat. They can say there were hoping that Florida would rally behind the Zooker to win out those last four games, but don't think for a second this 3-1 finish is what they actually wanted. If you believe that, then you probably believe that Elvis was abducted by aliens.

Give Zooker a chance to play Georgia again and I doubt the record would even have that one L. Zook had to fight off the distractions of his public humiliation by Foley and Machen the week of the Georgia game. Imagine trying to be competitive after getting fired five days before a game against a nationally ranked opponent that just happens to be one of your two signature rivalry games every year.

You think Georgia could beat Florida if the game were played today? Only if you let something other than your mind do your thinking.

You don't think for one second Mark Richt would want another piece of the Gators, do you? Richt spent far too many years as an assistant under Bowden at FSU. What he saw in the Florida Gators against his ex-boss is far different than what he saw four weeks ago when he beat UF, 31-24. The Florida team he faced didn't play with this kind of measured anger and non-stop intensity. That Florida team didn't bring the house with one blitz after another. That Florida team didn't pressure the quarterbacks into one bad throw and one bad decision after another. That Florida team would have never gone for it on fourth and a foot from their own 27 with less than three minutes to go in the game.

This Florida team did all those things, withstanding all the pressure brought on by a Florida State team that rallied hard in the late stages to force Florida to make a play there at the end (Jarvis Herring interception with 12 seconds left) to win the game. Just four weeks ago against Mississippi State, when the Gators needed a defender to step up to make a play with the game on the line, there were no volunteers.

Dick Vermeil (Kansas City Chiefs coach and former coach of the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams) called Zook a couple of weeks ago just to console his friend. During the course of the conversation he told Zook that with a young team, the last thing to come together is consistency. The up and down ride of the previous two seasons has now given way to mature playmaking in the last 10 quarters. Now Florida has three straight wins and one of them is the improbable win in Tallahassee.

The win Saturday night set off the kind of celebration normally reserved for the ending of a movie like "Rudy." Zook got drenched in Gatorade, then was hauled off the field on the shoulders of his players while a crowd of Gator fans in the stands hollered in unison "Zook! Zook! Zook!" before giving way to "Ron Zook Field! Ron Zook Field!"

Ron Zook Field indeed. Now the field that Zook's on is a bit more level than it was four weeks ago. Now he's pulled his team together and won the last three games. Now he's got the team playing like he knew they would someday.

The only problem is that someday got here a bit late and while it was getting here, it was far too convenient to overlook Zook's talk that the team was getting better and better. What has become obvious in the last three weeks is that Zooker knew of what he spoke. The team is getting better, and not only that, Zooker has been winning over his critics en masse by handling the adversity of this situation with the kind of dignified resolve that has actually begun uniting the Gator nation.

Firing Zooker may have seemed like a good idea at that particular moment four weeks ago, but after Saturday night, it is looking like a move made hastily and without a whole lot of thought. Couple Zook's firing with the mishandling of Steve Spurrier's quest to return to Florida as coach in wake of the decision to jettison Zook and Spurrier's subsequent acceptance of the coaching position at South Carolina to succeed Lou Hotlz and you have the public relations nightmare on Elm Street.

In the past four weeks, The Bern and Jerm Show has put enough egg on the University of Florida's face to merit an episode on The Food Channel. If only Julia Child were still alive to host it.

There is little doubt that old Bern is using the canning of Zook as an opportunity to bring in his own boy, Urban Meyer, the same coach he hired at Utah a couple of seasons ago. The Suburbanator has the Utes sitting pretty at 11-0 with a chance at a BCS Bowl and an outside shot at a national championship.

There is also little doubt that Machen's heavy handed, micromanaging ways are his modus operandi. This is his line in the dirt, a high profile statement of the way things are going to be at Florida during his tenure as president. If he can get away with firing Zook and bringing in his own guy on his own terms and the guy he brings in is successful, then Machen has set the agenda for his entire term as Florida's president. He will be able to get away with any firing and hiring in the same way — can the guy he doesn't like and replace him with the guy he does — and there won't be anything anyone can do about it.

As Ron Zook has found out the hard way, there's a new sheriff in this town and his brand of hardball doesn't take into consideration all the hard work, effort, blood, sweat and tears that went into the building of this football team long before Bernie Machen was a blip on the University of Florida radar. The 17 returning starters and outstanding young talent that returns next season will have a chance to contend for a national championship. It will have a lights out offense and a defense that has shown in the last two games that it is ready to turn in dominating performances. Any Joe Doakes will be able to coach this team next year, but why not let the Joe Doakes coaching the team be the Joe Doakes who its architect?

Why not Ron Zook?

At Auburn last year, Tommy Tuberville was basically fired and replaced by Bobby Petrino, the Louisville coach in a weekend coup. But before the new leader could take over the palace, a couple of zealous, hard working reporters uncovered and reported the situation. Instead of T-Tubs getting the axe, Auburn humbly begged its coach to stay and extended his contract. All T-Tubs has done in the year since is take Auburn to an 11-0 record, a third-place national ranking and a berth in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

Auburn did the right thing by undoing the wrong.

Do Bernie Machen and Jeremy Foley have the guts to do the right thing with the Zooker?


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