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Stewart Mandel inside.c.football

Gator chomped

In over his head from the start, Zook gone as Florida head coach

Posted: Monday October 25, 2004 1:05PM; Updated: Monday October 25, 2004 1:09PM
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  Steve Spurrier
Will Steve Spurrier put the headset back on to coach the Gators?
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Ron Zook's ouster at Florida became unavoidable following the Gators' humiliating 38-31 loss at Mississippi State on Saturday. That, combined with a last-minute collapse against LSU and Zook's questionable handling of an incident at a fraternity involving his players -- all in the past few weeks -- had dropped the confidence level in Gainesville to an all-new low. With the question of Zook's job security expected to dominate conversation this week leading up to Florida's annual rivalry game with Georgia, AD Jeremy Foley wisely decided to resolve things.

Unfortunately, it was an unwise decision by Foley that put the Gators in this mess to begin with. Blindsided by Steve Spurrier's departure for the NFL in January, 2002 -- just a month before signing day -- Foley had to move quickly and, after getting rebuffed by top choices Bob Stoops and Mike Shanahan, took an enormous gamble handing such a high-profile job to a man with no head-coaching experience who at the time was a largely unsung defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints.

From day one, Zook, whose high-strung ways marked a drastic departure from the swaggering Spurrier, seemed in over his head. While his early struggles -- two five-loss seasons -- were almost inevitable due to the radical nature of the transition (and poor recruiting in Spurrier's latter years), there was no excuse why this, his third team, wouldn't show improvement. With a gifted second-year quarterback in Chris Leak, an explosive tailback in Ciatrick Fason, a veteran offensive line and a horde of talented young receivers, the offense should be scoring points in bunches. And while coordinator Charlie Strong's rebuilt defense was expected to experience growing pains, it's inconceivable how a Mississippi State team ranked dead last nationally in scoring offense could move the ball at will against the Gators.

Now, Foley has a chance to correct his error -- and a whole lot more time to make sure he does it right. While Florida won't be able to officially pursue Zook's replacement until after the regular season, it's no secret that candidates and potential suitors have any number of ways of putting out behind-the-scenes feelers in the meantime. Foley has a full month to get his cards in order and formulate a plan. Here's what that plan should be:

1) Give a call to the ol' ball coach. Florida fans would be irate if Foley's first call wasn't to see whether Spurrier wants to put on his visor and save the day. Since his departure from the Washington Redskins last year, the golf fanatic has indicated he's in no rush to return coaching. "I'm thinking maybe I need two years off. Maybe three," he recently told the Mobile Register. "I really don't know. I'll just wait and see. Maybe I won't coach again." However, in the same interview he also said his family would be moving back to Gainesville once their son, Scotty, graduates from a Virginia high school next summer. Would the timing, plus the pain of seeing his alma mater in such trouble, be enough motivation to get him off the golf course? Money certainly will not be an issue for either side. Spurrier just made about $10 million in two seasons coaching the Redskins for two seasons and Florida will pay whatever it takes to bring him back.

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2) Take visits to Salt Lake City, Louisville. If Spurrier passes, the two obvious choices are Utah's Urban Meyer and Louisville's Bobby Petrino. Not only have both attained enormous success in a short time, but they seem like young Spurriers in the making. Meyer's unique spread offense, which blends high-tech passing with old-school option football, has baffled opponents for two years running, while Petrino's mix of power running with spread passing -- probably more suited to Leak's strengths -- put up more than 500 yards on Miami two weeks ago. One connection to consider: Florida's new president, Dr. Bernie Machen, came from Utah, where he hired Meyer.

3) Whatever else, don't hire another assistant. The job is too important to risk on another unknown. Foley knows he has to make a big splash this time. No coordinators. No NFL assistants. For all of Zook's shortcomings, one thing he did do well was recruit, so the pieces are in place for a proven winner to come in and make his mark. That might mean making another run at Stoops, though he's more firmly entrenched at Oklahoma than ever; trying to convince rising star Jeff Tedford to leave Cal; or, as many schools (USC, Virginia, Army) have done, lure a former NFL head coach. Dave Wannstedt might be on the market soon

In that same Mobile Register interview, Spurrier reflected on his amazing run at Florida, which included four straight SEC championships from 1993-96 and a national title in '96. "I was talking with Danny Wuerffel the other day ... and I said to him, 'When we were winning those four SEC championships in a row and that national championship, it didn't seem so hard to do. Now, when you look back, you see how tremendous an accomplishment that was.'"

No coach, not even Spurrier, can be expected to achieve that level of success in Gainesvile again. With the rise of LSU, Georgia and Auburn and the continued success of Tennessee, the SEC has become too tough to dominate year-in, year-out. But there's also no reason why a program with the talent-base and resources of Florida should be losing four or five games every year. With the right hire, the Gators will be competing for SEC titles again in no time.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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