As I thought about this question the past couple of days, I found myself nodding in agreement about how the players loved Zook. They really did. All you had to do was see him in the weight room when he'd go from station to station to encourage the guys on the team and you knew that there was a very special bond between players and coach. Zook was like a pied piper with his players and with recruits. Folks at the SOW (School Out West) called him a snake oil salesman, but it wasn't snake oil that made the Zooker so good on the recruiting stump. What made him so good on the recruiting trail was that he has that ability to break down barriers instantly and be the guy that you want to be buddies with.
Perhaps that is both problem and answer. I think that if there is one thing that really stands out in the past three years it is that Ron Zook spent a lot of time being the best buddy of his players. He was such a buddy that when there was an incident at a frat house back during the 2004 season, Zooker was right there in the middle of the fray, firing a few F bombs and a few other things that in retrospect, he probably wishes he hadn't said.
If you're looking at the one incident that above all else brought the Zook Era to an end, that's it. When called on to diffuse a situation that was escalating out of control, instead of marching his football players off the property Zook did what a buddy does. With words flying back and forth, Zooker had to get in the last word. That's what a buddy does for a buddy. He gets in the last word.
The problem with getting in the last word in this particular situation is that Zook had no business getting into things verbally with a bunch of frat boys. He had one job to do: get his players out of there before a bad situation got worse and control was lost. He did get his players out of there without any arrests. That mission was accomplished.
But did he accomplish the mission the way a 50-year-old man who is in charge should have done things? Did he set the kind of example that you expect from a man who commands respect? Or did he react the way you expect a buddy to react? I think we know the answer to those questions.
I am now convinced that the Mississippi State loss was simply the excuse that was needed to fire Zook. As Larry Vettel has so eloquently explained it, if Florida President Bernie Machen had fired Zook immediately after the frat house incident it would have given the frat boys, who have to share at least some of the guilt for the nasty confrontation, a win they didn't deserve. If you're the president of a 50,000-student university, the last thing you do is let the president of a frat house trump you when he's publicly grabbed the most high-paid employee of the university (Zook at the time) by the short and curlies.
Rather than fire Zook at that moment, which would have been seen on campus as a win by the frat boys over the football program, Machen simply waited for one more embarrassment and the Mississippi State game gave him the ammunition he needed to end it all right then and there. Losing the Mississippi State was bad enough, but losing in the last seconds to the worst team in the league was just another of those unexplainable endings that we got used to the last three years when there were nine such daggers (out of 15 losses) thrust into the collective hearts of Gator Nation.
The players' buddy got canned and he's been replaced by a coach who will tell you he has no desire whatsoever in being the players' buddy. Buddies tend to do things they regret later simply because that's what buddies do. That's what buddies have always done. Being a buddy quite often means the transmission in your brain is jammed in neutral.
If you've followed Urban Meyer the last four months, one thing that stands out is that everything he does is calculated to get the very best out of himself, his staff and his players. Coaches who spend too much time being buddies can't be objective and if you're not objective, how can you get the best out of the people you lead?
I think Urban Meyer hopes that the players like him but I don't think he believes that's 100 percent necessary in his grand scheme of things. I believe that the only necessity he sees is that the players understand that (a) he's in charge, (b) they will do things his way or they won't be here and (c) they will respect him. The players who choose to oppose points a, b and c will find themselves using up all their wireless minutes, dialing one school after another in search of a new place to play ball. The players who buy into Meyer's plan will learn to do things his way and the respect that is earned will be mutual. In all likelihood the players will also learn to like him and love him. He won't win them over by being their buddy. He will win them over by making them understand exactly what he means when he talks about "investment."
At Gator Gatherings in Lakeland and Orlando last week, Meyer talked about fourth quarter collapses and how the team that wins those heartbreakers is always the team that "has the most invested." In Lakeland, Meyer said, "There's a common denominator," he said. "The most invested team wins those games in the fourth quarters."
The team that has the most invested is the team that understands that sloppiness off the field, in the classroom and in the weight room translates into jumping offsides in the fourth quarter when a game is on the line. The team with the most invested understands that losing your cool in a bar on a Friday night in July translates into losing your head long enough to get a stupid personal foul in the fourth quarter that kills a potential game-winning drive in October.
The team with the most invested understands that if it is going to win instead of collapse late in the game that the coach is the coach, not your buddy. The coach is the guy in charge. He's the guy who has laid down the rules in such a way that following them equates into team pride, discipline and success. He's the guy they respect enough to do it his way.
Looking back on the Zook Era, there's no question the Former Ball Coach (FBC) loved Florida so much that he sold some incredibly gifted athletes on the notion that the Gators could be great. There is also no question that the FBC spent far too much time being the players' buddy instead of getting the players to invest into all the little things that add up big in fourth quarters. If Zook can learn that he can be popular without being everybody's best buddy, then he'll have learned enough from the Florida experience to be successful at Illinois. Here's hoping that the lesson sinks in enough that it becomes the cornerstone for future success.
The New Ball Coach (NBC) at Florida is putting in a new foundation of respect and discipline. He calls it investment and that's a good term. He's investing in the future of Florida football and that future should provide one big win after another in the long haul. At some point, Urban Meyer is going to be universally loved by his players, but it will be love that was earned the hard way, not by being everybody's buddy.