Ron Zook Head Coaching Analysis: Part I

Illinois football begins in less than a month. New coach Ron Zook is preparing for his first season at the helm of the Fighting Illini, but this is not his first head coaching job. An analysis of his previous experience at Florida can help us to understand him better.

Fall football practice will soon be upon us, and with it will be the excitement generated by having a new coach for the Fighting Illini. But before we begin to speculate on what lies ahead, it is helpful to study Coach Ron Zook's past head coaching experience.

Some frustrated Florida Gators fans have complained publicly about Coach Zook's coaching ability and claimed his teams underachieved. And some Big 10 coaches are already casting aspersions on Zook's hiring at Illinois, both for the preseason football magazines and with prospective recruits. What really happened at Florida, and what if anything can we learn that can help Illini fans anticipate our immediate future?

Ron Zook had never been a head coach prior to his hiring at Florida. There is always a learning curve for new head coaches, so it is likely that Zook encountered some problems in this regard. But by far his biggest struggle was getting the Gators' faithful to believe in him after years of being spoiled by the charmed life of former head coach Steve Spurrier.

Spurrier had great success at Florida, so anyone replacing him was going to be judged poorly by comparison. Spurrier had his flaws, including some disinterest in recruiting, but he reached icon stage before Florida faithful had the chance to evaluate and accept his weaknesses. Thus, Ron Zook was a human being compared with a god. It is no wonder he faired poorly in the comparison.

Zook also had the problem of overcoming a downturn in recruiting success experienced by Florida in Spurrier's last few years. In fact, not one senior on this last year's Florida team was drafted by the NFL. This was Spurrier's last class, and the lack of talent and leadership at the top caused inconsistency in play throughout Zook's time at Florida.

By all accounts, Ron Zook is an amazing recruiter of top football talent. And he recruited extremely well during his three years as head coach at Florida. But he had to play many of these young players, some before they were ready, and all before they were able to compete on an equal level with fourth and fifth-year players on other SEC teams.

Thus, even though they had winning records all three years, they had some setbacks each year that frustrated fans. The arrogant years of Steve Spurrier led many Florida fans to expect superiority at all times, and such perfection is not possible with young teams.

Perhaps an overview of Zook's three years at Florida will help us understand how he might have experienced inconsistency and imperfection. Zook had been able to talk star quarterback Rex Grossman into staying one more year, so he had quality leadership for his offense to begin his head coaching career. And his first game was a route typical for Florida under Spurrier.

But the Gators then had to play the Miami Hurricanes and their 22 future NFL draft choices. Zook's team stayed close for awhile, but Miami's great talent eventually turned the game into a rout. To add insult to injury, the game was played in The Swamp, Florida's home field. This big loss to a major competitor did not sit well with the home fans, adding fuel to the anti-Zook fire. Many Gators fans responded negatively even though Miami had a clear personnel advantage.

But Zook then inspired his team to win a decisive victory at powerhouse Tennessee in his first away game. This game, played on a muddy field after intense rains, may have shown some Gators fans that Zook can overcome adversity. But it didn't do much to appease those who were preprogrammed to see Zook as inferior to Spurrier.

This is especially true since Florida then lost an away game at Ole Miss and a home game to powerful LSU (a team that defeated Illinois soundly in the Sugar Bowl just nine months earlier). But undeterred, Zook and his Gators regrouped and began an important four game winning streak which included major victories over Auburn and Georgia, the latter being heavily favored.

Florida finished the season with an 8-5 record, but they lost their last two games. Nemesis Florida State won easily in Tallahassee, and Florida then lost to Michigan in their bowl game. The Michigan game is remembered for a last second trick play that failed, preventing a Gator victory. But Florida put up 30 points against a vaunted Michigan defense, no easy feat. Fans who blamed Zook for getting too conservative with his offense fail to remember this and other similar offensive explosions during Zook's three years in Gainesville.


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