Ron Zook Stands Tall

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - He didn't have to be here. He didn't have to prepare, break down film or suffer and hurt through a tough loss. Ron Zook, fired on Monday as head coach at Florida, could have walked away then. His conscience wouldn't let him.

So Saturday he was on the sidelines for the Gators' 31-24 loss to Georgia, just as he will be for each of the team's three remaining regular-season games.

"I promised a lot of these parents that I would treat their sons like I would want my children to be treated. And I wouldn't want anyone to give up on my children," Ron Zook said.

"Coaching's a difficult profession sometimes."

This week certainly qualifies as one of the difficult stretches. Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley, who made an unpopular move when he hired Zook to replace Steve Spurrier in 2001, fired Zook on Monday - two days after the Gators' embarrassing 38-31 loss to Mississippi State.

Zook, an exceptional recruiter, didn't turn those recruiting wins into enough actual victories. Despite a 20-13 record, before the loss to Georgia, Zook was on the hot seat from the moment he arrived, a victim of the enormous expectations left in Spurrier's wake.

Still Foley's decision to fire Zook in the middle of the season, right before, arguably, the Gators' most important game of the year, stunned many.

The week, already ripe with anticipation, dragged on. Reports speculated Spurrier was interested in returning to his alma mater sending the Gator faithful into a tizzy and the players into a funk.

"I couldn't sleep much this week," center Mike Degory said.

Said defensive end Jeremy Mincey, "It was real tough. It messed a lot of us physiologically up."

It also forged the Gators with a certain resolve, taken from their coach who elected to stay and finish out the season.

The players, most who were recruited by Zook, were willing to rally 'round the coach. They respected the way he defended them publicly and the way he "poured his heart and soul into the program," as safety Todd McCullough said.

"Coach Zook told us to keep going and don't ever be a quitter. He didn't quit on us. He stayed and kept coaching," Mincey said.

The longest week got longer Saturday, as the Bulldogs snapped their six-game losing streak against Florida. The Gators fell to 4-4 and 2-4 in the SEC.

But the team, like its coach, did not quit. Georgia scored touchdowns on its first three possessions, perhaps, as Zook suggested, a carryover effect from the troubled week. The Bulldogs led 24-7 midway through the quarter.

Florida battled back, closing to within 24-21 and, later, 31-24. Georgia wouldn't let them get any closer.

"There were a lot of times they could have chased it in, but they didn't," Zook said. "I'm proud of this football team. They fought to the end."

Zook, too, will do so.

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