Ron Zook Head Coaching Analysis: Part II

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.

With Grossman graduated and weak Spurrier recruiting reducing the quality and quantity of upperclassman leadership for the 2003 season, the Gators were forced to use a significant number of youngsters to plug the gaps. Fortunately, Zook recruited a top 3 class, including All-American quarterback Chris Leak, and many of these players lettered as freshmen.

Still, youngsters are inconsistent at best. Relying on them is always a dangerous gambit, so Florida had its struggles. The fact they still won enough to earn a Bowl game is often overlooked by those who expect perfection every year, but few teams make a post-season bowl game with a raw freshman quarterback at the helm.

Zook's Gators started the season 3-3. They lost to Miami at home in a game where the Hurricanes overcame a 23 point deficit to rally for victory. They also lost home games to Tennessee, due to shoddy offense, and to Ole Miss, due to a fourth quarter collapse. Such inconsistency is normal with a first-time quarterback at the helm, but it was not forgiven by many spoiled Gators fans.

Despite an atmosphere of intense confusion, anger and frustration, Zook and his team then rallied to win five straight games. It must be remembered the Southeastern Conference is always loaded with outstanding teams, and this five game victory was no simple feat. Included among the victims were LSU and Arkansas, both of whom were at home and ranked in the top 20 in the country. Also included was powerhouse Georgia. This proved to be the Bulldogs' only loss of the season.

The season finale with Florida State will always be remembered as the "Swindle in the Swamp" because of all the questionable officiating calls that went against Zook and his Gators. Even many of Zook's detractors concluded the Gators deserved the victory against Bobby Bowden, but it was not to be.

The lopsided bowl loss to Iowa was the worst defeat in Zook's three years, and it left a bad taste in the mouths of many Gators fans. But there were circumstances beyond Zook's control that contributed mightily to this defeat (and subsequent Iowa arrogance). For one thing, a number of Florida players were weakened by a bout of flu that worked its way through the team in the runup to the bowl game. For another, several senior players were late for curfew and were suspended from beginning the game. The combination of circumstances prevented Florida from having the confidence and momentum to play well against Iowa.

The absense of senior leadership was most pronounced during Zook's third and final Florida season of 2004. There were only six senior starters, with sophomores manning the majority of positions. The defense was especially vulnerable due to youthful inexperience.

Another major factor contributing to Florida's inconsistency last year was the disruption caused by four hurricanes that lay waist to parts of Florida and caused massive flooding almost everywhere. The Gators lost their bye week as one postponed game had to be made up during the bye week. And they lost much practice time as they adjusted to the unsettled weather conditions. The lack of practice and preparation caused by the hurricanes is especially harmful for young teams, and the Gators were no exception.

Florida fans blame SEC officials for their loss at Tennessee, and they lost a frustrating last-second game to LSU two weeks later. They then won easily against Middle Tennessee State before falling apart at last-place Mississippi State. The Gators scored 31 points against MSU, but a second-half comeback left all Gator fans with nightmares. Ron Zook was fired the following Monday.

Of course, the psychology of that game might explain how such a defeat can occur. First of all, Florida always has a tremendously difficult schedule due to all the powerhouse teams in the South. Likely, Florida's young players saw MSU as a game they could win without being sky-high emotionally. When they had early success, it is common for young teams to relax their focus and assume victory. But when an underdog gets on a roll, reversals are possible. This game should have belonged to the Gators by most accounts, but such a loss has been endured by every college and high school football team at one time or another.

Most coaches do not lose their jobs over a one-game collapse, but Zook did. Some members of the Florida administration, as well as numerous influential alumni, all compared Zook to Spurrier and his practically mythical degree of success, so no loss was acceptable. To lose to the worst team in the league, regardless of the circumstances, was the main catalyst for the sudden firing.

Georgia was heavily favored in the following game, and the emotional extremes of the week leading up to the game took its toll on the Gators. But despite the turmoil and the loss of two starting linebackers to injury, Florida gave the Bulldogs all they could handle before succumbing to them.

Despite the insult of a midseason firing and then being given the option to stop coaching early, Coach Zook remained loyal to his school and players and continued to coach and motivate. The inspired play during the Georgia game continued as Zook rallied his players to win their next three games. The Gators defeated Vanderbilt and South Carolina, the latter handily, before having to travel to Florida State to help them dedicate Bobby Bowden Field in Tallahassee to end the regular season.

Florida was a decided underdog, and they were playing for a lame duck coach. But instead of collapsing under the pressure of the multi-talented Seminoles, the Gators played inspired ball and came away with an improbable victory. ANY victory is rare for a visiting team in Tallahassee, let alone a young team undergoing a traumatic inner struggle. But Ron Zook was carried off the field by his loyal players for accomplishing the miracle despite being fired a month earlier.

Florida's schedule is always tough. Besides all the great talent found in the South and the colleges who benefit from all that athleticism, many of Florida's opponents are coached by top people. So another way of describing Zook's career at Florida is to remind that he beat the likes of Bobby Bowden, Nick Saban, Mark Richt, Lou Holtz, and Phil Fullmer. He may not have won all his games, but he has nothing for which to be ashamed either.

In summary, Ron Zook had both great successes and frustrating losses during his three years at Florida. But his winning record and overall accomplishments are clearly uncharacteristic for a coach who was fired during the middle of the season. He knows how to win at a top level, and he knows how to find and recruit the athletes necessary to compete at that level.

The University of Illinois would love to have had Zook's record for the past three years. If he does as well this year, Illini fans will be celebrating a bowl bid and demanding that Zook receive a nice salary increase. That is the beauty of Illinois fans having fewer expectations and more patience than Florida fans.

If nothing else, Ron Zook knows how to coach, how to recruit and how to hire a quality staff. If given enough time, his methods will work at Illinois. Those who question this statement have never competed in a major conference with a young team.

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