A Stellar Record

Florida Gator Athletic Director Jeremy Foley has had a great run of coaching hires during his tenure at the University of Florida. Eight months ago, he called upon Coach Ron Zook to take over the football program. Zook has embraced his new job with loads of energy and enthusiasm. The Gator nation waits in anticipation as the 2002 kickoff is closing fast.

Amid all of the screams and protests of rabid Gator fans after the hiring of former Gators defensive coordinator Ron Zook to replace the NFL-bound Steve Spurrier, Jeremy Foley just remained calm. It's the kind of calm only harbored by supreme confidence.

Foley, athletic director at UF since 1992, certainly has reason to feel confident about any coaching selection he makes. His track record more than speaks for itself.

Foley has hired 21 coaches in his tenure as AD at Florida, coaches who have led to UF winning the SEC All-Sports Trophy, awarded to the top overall athletic program, 11 straight years. UF has also finished in the top 10 nationally in All-Sports rankings in every year of Foley's tenure.

However, it is Foley's latest high-profile hire that will, fairly or unfairly, determine how many Gator fans view him as an athletic director.

After top candidates Bob Stoops, former Gators defensive coordinator and most fans' top choice, and two-time Super Bowl champion Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos, decided to remain in their current jobs and not to pursue the Florida job, Foley immediately looked to his third choice, Ron Zook.

Jeremy Foley makes the biggest hire of his career in Coach Ron Zook

Zook's time at Florida was up and down, with Zook being demoted to special teams coach and then promoted back to defensive coordinator before leaving for the NFL. Zook has seen mostly success in the NFL, first as a special teams coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers and most recently as the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints.

However, Zook's lack of head coaching experience and a big name has caused many Gator fans to question or downright blast Foley for the hire. Foley sees this as totally unfair.

"Criticism is a part of what we do," Foley said, "but it was totally unfair to Ron because people didn't know him personally, yet they were attacking him."

Foley says that rendering any judgment on Zook at this time is pointless since Zook's Gators have yet to play a single down of meaningful football.

"It's all irrelevant," Foley said, "because the bottom line is how we do on the field."

Foley said the initial reaction of the fans to a coaching hire never affects him because it's not based on performance, only perception.

"I could have hired Vince Lombardi and people would've been excited," Foley said, "but until we perform on the field, no one knows if it was a good hire or not."

If Foley's recent hires are any indication, then the Zook era of Florida football should be very fruitful. The hiring of Bill Donovan as men's basketball coach in 1996, then an unproven commodity without a high profile name just like Zook, has turned out to be an enormous success. Donovan has averaged 20 wins in his six seasons while winning two SEC regular season titles and establishing UF as a national power in basketball.

Women's tennis coach Roland Thornqvist, hired in 2001, amassed a 24-2 record and won the SEC Tournament title in just his first season.

Baseball coach Pat McMahon recently completed a success first season, with an impressive 46-19 record.

The recent hiring of Carolyn Peck as women's basketball coach was considered a coup by many, but, as Foley says, any judgment before the season is premature.

Foley doesn't want to be given the benefit of the doubt based on his track record, though.

"No," Foley said, "it's irrelevant."

Foley said that Zook possessed all of the traits that he looks for in a coach.

"He has the work ethic, the character, experience, recruiting ability and ability to relate to people that you need," Foley said. "Recruiting is a key."

That should be right up Zook's alley as he has earned a reputation as a tireless recruiter. Zook recruits year around, something Spurrier did not do, and has made an excellent impression on recruits and current players alike. The two most important of those players, Rex Grossman and Taylor Jacobs, both of whom spurned the NFL to return to Florida, have certainly helped Zook's popularity with fans.

Coach Donovan has turned Florida hoops into a national power

Foley has publicly compared the Zook hire to the hiring of Billy Donovan, perhaps to alleviate some of the fan's concerns about Zook's big name recognition. Fans need not forget that the NFL wasn't exactly beating down Steve Spurrier's door when he was hired as Gator coach.

But the comparisons between Donovan and Zook do hold some merit. Both are known as fiery recruiters with engaging personalities who also coached under college legends, Donovan under Rick Pitino and Zook under Spurrier. Foley definitely sees some similarities.

"When I talked to Billy the first time, it was only for four hours and it felt like a lifetime," Foley said. "His (Zook's) enthusiasm and work ethic reminded me of Billy."

Foley shows extreme confidence in Zook, though he admits nothing will be certain until this season plays out.

"I've definitely made mistakes in hiring coaches before," Foley said. "It's not exactly a perfect science."

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