After chance meeting in 2003, Spurrier and Leak may shape Gators' future
Posted: Wednesday October 27, 2004 11:44AM; Updated: Wednesday October 27, 2004 11:44AM
In his 12 seasons at Florida, Steve Spurrier never coached a quarterback as physically gifted as Chris Leak (12).
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In a desk drawer in North Carolina, there is a photograph from the 2003 Quarterback Club Awards Dinner in Rockville, Md. Smiling from the picture are two familiar faces: Then-Florida-freshman-to-be Chris Leak, who was in Rockville that May evening to accept the High School Quarterback of the Year Award, and then-Redskins head coach Steve Spurrier, who was there to present Rich Gannon with the NFL Quarterback of the Year Award.
"Steve had sent a couple hand-written letters to Chris early on in his high school career, but I don't think they'd met before then," said Leak's father, Curtis, the owner of the photograph, on Monday evening. "I remember he came right over to our table, introduced himself and talked to Chris for a long while. He told him that he thought he had made a right choice by picking Florida."
If things go the way the Gator Nation hopes, that forgotten photograph could mark a historic meeting. From the moment Florida announced on Monday the impending end of the Ron Zook era, there has been non-stop buzz about his replacement, and most of it has been directed towards the guy who ball-coached the Gators to six SEC titles and one national championship before he broke bread with Florida's Future.
Certainly, sensible speculation leads to a variety of candidates for the vacancy -- from Cal's Jeff Tedford to Utah's Urban Meyer to Louisville's Bobby Petrino. Moreover, even if Spurrier is the logical front-runner, there's no telling if he is ready to trade back his daily 18 holes for the demands of a collegiate head coach. But if the Gators legend isn't interested in returning to his SEC stomping grounds, he isn't doing a very good job of making that clear.
"I guess there will be some discussions," Spurrier told an Orlando Sentinel reporter who tracked him down Monday at a charity golf tournament. "We'll see what happens." Regarding "what happens," perhaps no player is affected in a more complex way than Leak.
On one hand, the quarterback is as tied to the outgoing coach as anyone on the roster. Zook's biggest triumph in Gainesville was as a recruiter, and no recruit was bigger than Leak. In the winter of 2003, when every school in the country pined after the nation's all-time prep touchdown-pass leader, Zook beat out co-finalists Florida State and Iowa by assuring Leak that he would compete immediately for a starting job. "Zook's excitement made me excited," the quarterback told me that January, by which time he was making regular calls to fellow blue-chippers in an effort to bring the nation's best talent with him to Gainesville.
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"The NCAA has no rules saying that a coach needs to back up his promises," said Curtis, whose oldest son, C.J., a Tennessee senior, failed to make it to the top of the Vols' quarterback depth chart. "But everything that Ron Zook said he would do when it came to Chris' career, he did."
On Monday morning, Chris and Curtis chatted briefly over the telephone, as they do every day. Thirty minutes later, Curtis' phone rang; it was Chris, this time with a shocking report. "He had heard about Zook being fired," Curtis said. "He was extremely disappointed. The whole team was hurting. I tell you what, they're gonna go out against Georgia this weekend and be fired up for Ron Zook."
Players echoed this thought later in the day. "Now we've got extra motivation," kicker Matt Leach said. "We're playing for Coach Zook and the rest of the coaching staff. We're playing for our pride now. We just want to go out there and win these next games." And that, they may just do. Zook is, after all, a player's coach and does a fine job of galvanizing team spirit. However, when Zook moves on in January, any one of several potential successors could galvanize Florida in more meaningful ways. SEC teams may be tougher outs than ever, but a leader such as Spurrier -- or Tedford, Meyer or even USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow -- could push Florida's talent-laden offense to extraordinary heights.
Through seven outings as a sophomore, Leak is 21st in the country in total offense with a 262.9 yard average and 15th in pass efficiency with a 148.0 rating. Those are numbers to be feel good about. Seven games into Spurrier's final season at Florida in 2001, sophomore Rex Grossman was first nationally in total offense (373.3 ypg), pass efficiency (188.84 rating) and TD passes (24). Those are numbers to build a Heisman campaign around. Given his proven work ethic, Leak's arm strength and game sense -- not to mention several of his young receivers -- only will improve. More crucially, a defense that includes six freshman or sophomore starters can't help but get better.
Emotions and rumors may run amok through New Year's, but forward-looking fans can be certain of this: The 2005 Gators will be a force to contend with -- whomever enters the picture.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.