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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Feel the heat

Florida's Zook leads list of coaches on hot seat entering '04

Posted: Friday August 20, 2004 12:17PM; Updated: Friday August 20, 2004 4:12PM
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  Ron Zook
Zook's Gators made a trip to the Outback Bowl last season.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
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Ron Zook is an affable enough guy and a fiery recruiter. Given time and another recruiting class or two, he may even turn out to be a solid ballcoach. But who knows if time is on his side?

When it comes to big-money college football, alumni and fan expectations (and yes, of course, the loud musings of media hacks) can put a coach on the hot seat even before the preseason polls are released. So Paul Pasqualoni would be advised to continue wearing fireproof shorts up in Syracuse. The same goes for Ron Turner at Illinois, Gary Barnett at Colorado and at least a handful of other prominent sideline bosses.

The guy you really feel for, and you wonder if the patience will hold, is the Zooker down at the University of Florida. It seems the guy barely made it to halftime of his first game when a booster with time to spare launched fireronzook.com. Now, after back-to-back 8-5 seasons, which fell a healthy tad below Gator standards, Zook best pick it up if he wants to see another autumn in The Swamp.

Not only are Florida faithful prepared to run him out of town, but also the best ballcoach in school history, Steve Spurrier, opens the season unemployed and could be available to his alma mater should things get desperate. And don't be surprised if his name is floated on a few other campuses, too.

"It's going to be important that we improve," Zook acknowledges matter-of-factly. "Obviously, the fact that Steve Spurrier had success makes the job what it is. It is an exciting conference, an exciting place to play and the expectation level is very high."

And about Spurrier's employment status?

"It really doesn't make any difference," Zook said. "Obviously, we know what we have to do. And I'll tell you about Coach Spurrier. He is the No. 1 Gator. He loves the Gators and he wants to see the Gators successful."

That's on the mark, according to those close to Spurrier. The old coach has been publicly supportive of Zook, going so far as to come clean about the talent level not being what it should have been when he left Gainesville for the Washington Redskins.

Spurrier is also making a conscious effort to avoid the limelight and the speculation on whether he'll coach again. As a Spurrier pal told SI.com, "He is real sensitive to some of his colleagues in college, when a lot of people are saying he's going to get this job or that job. He doesn't want to be out there in August talking about that."

From the sound of things, Spurrier, 59, hasn't even decided if he's up to working the sidelines again after the fiasco in Washington, where he pocketed $10 million despite a woeful 12-20 record. Or if he has decided to return, he has yet to confide in those closest to him.

MAILBAG

That won't lessen the heat on Zook, who continues to juggle his staff, most recently sliding Larry Fedora in as offensive coordinator. Another growing criticism is that Zook is about as soft as rival Bobby Bowden when it comes to addressing players' off-the-field antics. But if it matters any, his players seem to rally behind him amid the "Fire Zook" rhetoric.

"We read a lot of stuff in the paper," defensive end Travis Harris said. "Talking about Coach Zook is like talking about somebody in our family. We stick up for him. People don't know what a guy does, the work he puts in. They are on the outside looking in. And he puts in lots of hours and works hard.

"I don't think he sleeps more than maybe an hour, if he sleeps. He told me he sleeps fast, whatever that means. He's just always thinking football, always thinking better ways to make this team better."

And just like these other coaches suspected of being on the hot seat, Zook's Gators had better improve if he expects to stick around.

Gary Barnett (Colorado): Kept his job after a three-month paid suspension, but still must face findings of a state grand jury probe into Colorado's sex-and-alcohol recruiting scandal as well as federal lawsuits brought by three women allegedly raped by CU football players or recruits since 1997. Another 5-7 season won't help his cause, either.

Mack Brown (Texas): He wins the recruiting wars in February, yet has no Big 12 titles, no BCS bowl bids and no recent wins over Oklahoma to his name. If that isn't be enough to put him on the hot seat, he's one of the three highest-paid coaches in the game, pulling down more than $2 million a season. And on his birthday, Aug. 27, he's due a $1.6 million bonus.

John Bunting (North Carolina): A 13-24 mark in three seasons isn't getting it done, even at a basketball school.

Gary Crowton (BYU): After a 12-2 start, Crawton is 9-15 the past two seasons with Southern Cal and Notre Dame on this fall's non-conference agenda.

Lou Holtz (South Carolina): Stripped his son, Skip, of his offensive coordinator title after consecutive 5-7 seasons. Might a repeat performance convince Lou to step aside?

Paul Pasqualoni (Syracuse): He has survived the heat before, but fans are restless after just 10 wins and no bowl appearances in the past two seasons. Pasqualoni better make hay in the watered-down Big East. Six of the Orange's 11 games are on the road, though, and their non-conference slate isn't a breeze with Florida State, Virginia and Purdue.

Joe Paterno (Penn State): The idea of firing JoePa is unheard of, though let's hope he gets the message and steps down if folks in Happy Valley suffer through a fourth losing season in five years.

Buddy Teevens (Stanford): The program once guided by the likes of Bill Walsh and Dennis Green has just six wins over the past two seasons. Teevens, the offensive coordinator under Spurrier at Florida, had better rediscover the Fun 'n' Gun magic in a hurry.

Ron Turner (Illinois): The Illini closed out last season 1-11. Enough said.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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