The day Zook was hired as head football coach at Florida I was able to greet him again. I worked for two years with him but barely saw him in his first stint at the University of Florida. I was shocked walking down the halls that first week at the football office that he stopped me and said, "Hey Bob, how are you doing?"
I really was shocked he remembered my name. He meets thousands of people and has been three or four different coaching spots, and he remembered my name after seven years. The last coach I loved to death, but after eight years of working for the man, it seems he could only remember me as "My man!" That he remembers something insignificant as the name of a part-time staffer is one of the reasons I believe Ron Zook is going to be very successful in his next job at the University of Illinois.
To say Coach Zook fought with the uncertainty is appropriate. From day one he had to start recruiting and fighting other recruiters for kids he had no idea about. In less than two days he was hired and hosting recruits that he had never spoken to. One of his assistants told stories at the Women's Clinic about the first recruiting weekend when the recruits and players showed up to the hotel and were all amassed in one room. The new Gator staff didn't know the UF players from the recruits. The assistants turned to Zook and said, "What do we do?" Zook replied, "Well, recruit them all." Of course the story continues that the players took advantage of it and ate up the attention being supplied by the staff and Zook. He won over everyone, both players and recruits that night. That he can do things like that is another reason why he will succeed.
Then the negative recruiting started. Every recruit Florida contacted heard the same things: "He won't last. He is unproven. He was demoted once before at Florida." It was open season on Florida, but somehow, Zook managed to salvage a recruiting class that has produced present starters at running back, right offensive tackle, left defensive tackle, one wide receiver spot, and middle linebacker to go with key reserves on the second team, all from that very shaky beginning. His best recruiting job was convincing Rex Grossman and Taylor Jacobs to wait another year for the NFL. The fact that Zook can recruit in adverse conditions is another reason why he will succeed.
I remember the first spring under Coach Zook. Everyone was wide eyed and ready to go. Rex was there and the coaches were eager to see what kind of talent he possessed. They weren't disappointed. The thing I most remembered was the speed of the practices. Everything was very fast. Only seconds in between drills and he made everyone run from field to field between the drills. It took a few practices for everyone to catch up, but once they did the result was seen on film the next day. There were roughly 40 more snaps of drills and more individual coaching time to boot. The fact he gets so much accomplished in the allotted time is yet another reason why he will succeed.
His first season as a head coach and the Gators came out of the gates with a bang. The score of the first game was like so many season openers in the previous twelve years. The Gators threw the ball over the field and looked like they wouldn't skip a beat, but then they encountered the Miami Hurricanes and their now famous 22 first round NFL draft picks. Florida stayed close for awhile, but then a combination of Gator miscues and Miami's overwhelming talent took over and the final score got out of hand. The loss was in The Swamp and it didn't settle well with the fans. Zook commented afterward that "It's not the X's and O's, it's the Jessies and Joes." That reference to Miami's superior talent was viewed by some as an excuse, but three NFL drafts later, it is a proven fact.
In Zook's first road game, he took the Gators to Neyland Stadium which was a quagmire, soaked by monsoon-like rains. Florida silenced the 100,000 Vol fans with a 17-point victory that never really seemed close. That Zook could rally his troops to play so well a week after a big defeat and under adverse weather conditions is another reason why I believe he will succeed.
Two tough losses followed, one on the road at Ole Miss, the other a home thrashing at the hands of LSU, and the Gators were teetering on the verge of disaster. In the face of a storm of angry fans second guessing him and his staff, Zook once again rallied his troops. Florida pulled out an exciting overtime win over Auburn and that propelled the Gators to an improbable four-game winning streak that included a win over heavily favored Georgia. That he can keep his focus in tough times tells me that he will succeed.
The year ended tough with a bad loss to FSU in Tallahassee and a bowl game that got away on the Gators final offensive play. While the game is remembered for a failed trick play, people tend to overlook a good Michigan defense was chewed up by Rex Grossman and surrendered 30 points. This was an offense that was chastised for going conservative, yet given the time to prepare they had a gem of a game. That he could adapt in-season is another reason I believe he is going to succeed.
Once again, the Gators battled the negative recruiting. The 8-5 finish had everyone from Baton Rouge to Tallahassee to Miami to Athens questioning if Zook would even be around at the end of the next season. The negatives didn't matter, though. Florida turned away All-Americans like Turk McBride and Kenny Scott at the end because the class was filled up with quality, big time athletes who were recruited by every big time program in the country. Chris Leak, Earl Everett, Chad Jackson, Bubba Caldwell, Marcus Thomas, etc, all knew they could call Coach Zook anytime, night or day. He patiently answered every question and kept selling Florida football. The result was a consensus top three recruiting class and numerous starters on today's squad. The joke went Coach Zook kept his cell phone with him in the shower. That he is so accessible to recruits is yet another reason why I believe he is destined to succeed.
When the next season rolled around, the NCAA adopted a new plan that limited the number of two-a-day practices for athletes. The reason was simple: overworked athletes were dying or suffering serious injury due to heat so there were major changes by the NCAA for practice limitations. Florida lost valuable practice time implementing the changes, but Coach Zook didn't bat an eye. He broke the players into groups, then staggered the practice schedules so that the smaller groups got more practice in a shorter amount of time. Group A would show up an hour before Group B. The individual work would be done with Group A during the early part. When Group B showed up and warmed up, they worked together and did team drills. Afterwards, Group B had their time with individual drills. The result, more individual time for each group than there would be in two practices, and the same number of group snaps. That he can be innovative even with difficult circumstances is a reason I believe Coach Zook will succeed.
Of course, the Gators got off to a 3-3 start in Zook's second season. There was a last-second crushing defeat to a Miami team that rallied from 23 points down in the fourth quarter. There was a very poor offensive performance against Tennessee at home and another bad fourth quarter that led to a home loss against Ole Miss. The fans were up in arms again, oblivious to the fact the Gators played Ole Miss with a true freshman quarterback going all the way. The only thing that mattered to the fans was a 3-3 record with LSU and Arkansas (both nationally ranked and on the road), and Georgia, unbeaten and making noise about a national title, looming on the immediate horizon. The atmosphere in Gainesville was so thick you could cut it with a knife. But once again, with his back to the wall, Zook came through with three wins in a row, including the only loss that would be pinned on Georgia all year. Zook got a standing ovation as he stood on the bench in Jacksonville. That he is able to rally a team when his own job is on the line is another reason why I believe Zook will succeed.
The three-game winning streak stretched to five, ended with the "Swindle in the Swamp" against FSU. Not many faulted Zook for that one. Florida won the game on the field only to have victory stolen away by a horrible ACC officiating crew that blew one critical call after another. Publicly, Zook never blamed the referees. He did as he was told in this matter. That he can bite his lip and take the high road in tough circumstances is another reason why I believe Zook will succeed.
Gator fans know about the disappointing Outback Bowl game with Iowa. It was the most lopsided loss in the Zook era. What you may not know is the team was fighting the flu all week and that included All-American tight end Ben Troupe, who didn't practice all week. Some seniors were late for curfew and suspended for the start of the game. The whole atmosphere was not pleasant or conducive to winning and the Gators were badly beaten. Once again, the pressure was on Zook and his staff, and once again, the negative recruiting began by opposing coaches. Zook and his staff just ignored the negatives and once again turned in a class that was among the top eight in the country. That he can get his staffs to ignore the negatives is one of the reasons I believe Zook will succeed.
In year three, Zook played a sophomore laded team that featured only six senior starters, making the Gators the youngest team in the SEC. The young Gators were fast and skilled, but as is often the case with so many youngsters, inconsistency was the rule of the day. On defense, the youth was exposed more often but those same young players are very talented. Some of the inconsistency could be laid at the feet of four hurricanes hitting the state in four weeks, blowing up practice and game schedules, not to mention disrupting the lives of players and their families. A schedule shift meant no open date for the Gators and so much practice time was lost. Zook never made an excuse. That he won't blame weather or referees or adverse conditions for losses is another reason why I think Zook will succeed.
As if ACC referees weren't bad enough, SEC officials showed their incompetence at Tennessee, a loss that combined with the hurricanes set the Gators further behind. Two weeks later, the Gators endured their worst offensive game of the season and lost another heart breaker, this one in the final seconds to LSU. The two losses on the field followed by the news of the frat boys incident put the pressure squarely on Zook's shoulders. That Zook may have lost his cool in that heated incident on fraternity row only fueled the fired as the national media skewered him. In reality, even though he may have said some things he would not say again if put in the same situation, the fact is he did exactly what he was told to do. He was told by his boss to diffuse a brewing situation. He waded in and no one got arrested on either side. He took the heat for his players in this incident and he didn't complain that his boss put him in a bad situation. I believe this is a very good reason why he will succeed.
In a game rescheduled by a hurricane, the Gators scored a lopsided victory over an over-matched Middle Tennessee state team but then the bottom dropped out. The Gators went into Mississippi State and lost to what was at the time the worst team in the SEC. MSU did have it's starting quarterback back for the first time in four games and their offense played as well as it could play. The Gator offense scored 31 points and should have been more than enough, but the thin and inexperienced Gator defense struggled the entire day against a team it shouldn't have. Zook was fired the Monday afterwards. Although deflated physically and emotionally, he stood tall and showed class in the face of the firing in front of the media. Coach Zook was asked o remain on and coach the team for the rest of the season. This something that every coach he knew told him he should not do. His love for his players and the fact he told their parents he would be there for them, told him to do it and he did. He is a man of his word and this is why I believe he will succeed.
He had Georgia shaking in its boots on national television. The Bulldogs came in heavily favored and almost left with a whimper. The Gators allowed them to get an early lead and certainly seemed distracted by all of the press from the week before. By halftime two starting linebackers were out with injuries and the third almost didn't start due to injury. The Gators gave the Bulldogs all they wanted under desperate circumstances. Showing he will still fight in an impossible situation is a reason I believe Zook will succeed.
Lame duck coaches rarely succeed, but the Gators overcame the injuries to the linebackers and all the negative press to finish out the season with three straight wins, the last two in impressive style. Florida finished the season at 7-4 by beating Vandy, blowing out Lou Holtz's South Carolina Gamecocks, then ruining the inauguration of Bobby Bowden Field by scoring a win in Tallahassee against highly favored Florida State. The Gators outplayed the Seminoles all night long until a slight injury to Chris Leak derailed the offense for about four series. Yet, the Gators overcame this adversity, won the game and had the privilege of carrying Zook off the field on their shoulders while Gators fans shouted his name. It was an improbable ending to an impossible situation. Zook came out for a curtain call as the Gator faithful wanted to applaud him one more time for a job well done. He could have been obnoxious. Instead, he was humble and kept deflecting the credit to his players and staff. Because he's a player's coach and the kind of head coach assistants want to work for is another reason I believe he will succeed.
His players love him. The recruits love him. With the two robbery games from the refs thrown out, he is 11-5 against Lou Holtz, Bobby Bowden, Mark Richt, Nick Saban, and Phil Fulmer. He is as good a man that has ever coached the Florida Gators. What was done to him is as unfair as anything I have ever witnessed to someone over a three-year span. That he can stand tall even with all these negatives is why I believe with all my heart that Ron Zook will succeed.
This is not an "I want Coach Zook back" piece. What is done is done here at Florida. I think and hope the Gator fans will rally behind this new coach who is being so widely embraced. If they do, I think Florida will enjoy great success and win championships. I believe that will happen for a variety of reasons, one of which is the program and talent in the program are as good or perhaps even better than when Zook arrived. Maybe he didn't do all that so many wanted or expected, but he leaves the program in great shape for the new coach. I have no doubt that Coach Meyer and Coach Zook are both going to succeed.