Zook for hire
Florida's outgoing coach can still find work -- but not at a major program
Posted: Tuesday November 23, 2004 2:23PM; Updated: Tuesday November 23, 2004 2:23PM
Listening to ESPN analyst Mike Gottfried go on Saturday night, I kind of felt like his old friend Ron Zook was the most maligned and unappreciated football coach since Allie Sherman walked the sidelines in New York. That was even before the Zooker pulled one over on bitter rival Florida State and was carried off Bobby Bowden's field on the shoulders of the Gator players.
Of course, there are no reports of athletic director Jeremy Foley pulling out an eraser or eating his words after Florida upset the 10th-ranked Seminoles. So Zook is done in Gainesville. Foley officially cut his legs out from under him on Oct. 25, and now it's time to throw Gator bucks and outrageous perks at the coaching flavor of the month, which by all accounts is Utah head man Urban Meyer.
For all anyone knows, the Gator brain trust may have already unofficially officially bought into the "Urban Legend." Or Florida people may have told Meyer's people the gig is his for the taking. But before he packs his khakis for Gainesville, Meyer would be advised to fine-tune the buyout language in any contract and understand what he's signing up for.
Let's get this straight. Some Gators faithful walk around like Florida invented football, even though a case can be made that it's been the No. 3 program in its own state behind Miami and Florida State for much of the past two decades. Yeah, Steve Spurrier enjoyed a successful run as the Evil Genius in the Swamp, but the Bowden legend looms larger. And down south, the 'Canes have won and contended for national titles with a succession of coaches, starting with Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Butch Davis and onto Larry Coker.
You can learn plenty about Gainesville by reviewing the three-season soap opera involving Zook. From the start -- though he'll never admit it -- Foley screwed up by hiring a career assistant and trying to validate it with a silly contract well in excess of $1 million a year. Then, when Gottfried and others argued Zook was close to turning the corner, Foley panicked and rendered him a lame duck at midseason, after an embarrassing 38-31 loss at Mississippi State.
I'm not defending Zook or suggesting his firing was wrong. Maybe he is too high-energy on the sidelines, at times acting like a kid fueled by chocolate bars. But it's amusing that Florida forked over all this funny money -- including a $1.8 million buyout over the next four years -- and now that Zook actually may be qualified for the job, he's let go.
Zook is surely better for the part than he was three years ago, and he'll find work if he wants it. First and foremost, the guy hasn't brought NCAA investigators to Gainesville, which is a huge accomplishment unto itself in the Southeastern Conference. And, aside from an ill-advised, profane shouting match with some fraternity members this fall and appearing not to be tough on discipline, he can't be blamed for embarrassing off-the-field headlines.
What Zook does as well as anyone is recruit, and his tireless efforts built up the talent base after the sudden departure of Spurrier. The problem is Zook was maligned from Day One (see: fireronzook.com) and his 23-14 record couldn't silence the critics who likened Spurrier to a college football god.
If Zook had survived this season, he could well have had enough young talent on hand to make a lengthy run in Gainesville. Instead, his final season ended 7-4, with all of the Gators' defeats coming by a touchdown or less. A questionable late call cost them a 30-28 heartbreaker at Tennessee, and a TD with 27 seconds left resulted in a 24-21 loss to defending national champ LSU.
In the afterglow of Saturday's win over FSU and a return to the Associated Press Top 25, Zook still isn't talking about where he'll surface this offseason, but he should have options. The 50-year-old could return to the NFL as an assistant or sit around home, living off the first of four $450,000 payments from Florida. Or he could try to work his way into one of the college jobs that have already opened or may be open soon.
"His attractiveness has increased because he has been in a very high-profile program and his record is good," said Chuck Neinas, who runs a headhunting firm that consults with collegiate athletic departments. "The Florida team played well down the stretch even though he was lame duck. And I certainly think that the win over Florida State will enhance his chances."
But the college ranks are not like the NFL, where fired coaches immediately slide into jobs of relatively equal stature. Zook won't fit into the Washington Huskies' opening or anything comparable. Instead, if he has the bug, he may be forced to consider a step down to someplace like Ohio University, East Carolina, or maybe if he's lucky, Illinois. Or he could wait and see if anything opens at Kentucky, Syracuse or Pittsburgh.
The guy eventually will need work. So, if the Gators have a heart, why not fire up hireronzook.com?
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.