Coaching consternation

Updated: December 21, 2004, 12:51 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

With the Notre Dame fight song blasting in the background, Tyrone Willingham locked arms with the high school quarterback's mom and danced the Polish hop.

He didn't know what he was supposed to do. He didn't know what he was doing. It didn't matter. When the music came to an end, Willingham got his reward: Tom Zbikowski, the top high school football player in Illinois, a kid with sprinter's speed and a boxer's bite, had agreed to play football at Notre Dame.

Fast forward two years and there's Zbikowski again, sitting in his South Bend dorm room, his neck thicker, his shoulders broader and his mind reduced to mush.

Tom Zbikowski
APTommy Zbikowski and Notre Dame were impressed by new Irish coach Charlie Weis.
The coach who danced his way into his family's heart is gone, fired after an embarrassing 41-10 loss to USC, a defeat in which Zbikowski, a defensive back, was burned for a long touchdown. There are papers to write, finals to prepare for, yet all Zbikowski can think about is who's going to coach him next year and whether the Irish should play in a bowl game.

"We weren't exactly the best mood to begin with after the whole USC debacle," said Zbikowski, looking back. "Then your head coach gets fired. And you feel like you're stuck in the mud for a week or two, not going anywhere. It's frustrating."

One thousand miles to the south, the feelings are different, but the situation is the same. Chris Leak, the nation's No. 1 prep player two years ago and the other subject for ESPN.com's Blue Chip Diaries series, is dealing with the mental and emotional clutter of his own coaching change.

Florida coach Ron Zook was fired back in October after the talent-rich Gators started the season a disappointing 4-3. He coached through the end of the regular season, going 3-1 and leading the team to its victory at Florida State since 1986, but there was no unclapping of the hand on his ouster.

"The whole thing was quite a surprise," Leak said. "I'm telling you -- you never know what can happen. It's a crazy world."

Especially for college football players. In the blink of an eye, they go from courted pieces of royalty to depth chart bottom feeders. They go from the guys everybody wants to hang around to guys nobody knows. They have to adjust to life away from their parents, with new classes, War and Peace-sized playbooks while competing at physical levels they never dreamed existed. All along the way, they rely on the leadership of their head coach for guidance.

When making his college decision in January 2002, Leak didn't settle on Florida until Zook detailed, in writing, his long-term plans for grooming the quarterback prodigy. And despite a lifelong love for Notre Dame, Zbikowski wouldn't have chosen the Irish if he hadn't clicked with Willingham.

Now, less than 16 months after Leak and Zbikowski began the first day of freshman classes, their coach is gone.

It's an early and sometimes cruel reminder that they've gone from playing football for themselves and their family with pride on the line to playing football for boosters and school presidents with livelihoods at stake.

"You learn real fast," Leak said. "That you've got to be prepared for anything. That's the nature of the business."

Leak and Zbikowski, both starters, have been successful in their young college football careers. As a sophomore quarterback, Leak led the SEC with 266.8 passing yards per game, 270.5 yards of total offense and 28 touchdowns this past season. Zbikowski, a sophomore strong safety with freshman eligibility, is fourth on the Irish with 63 tackles and was National Defensive Player of the Week Sept. 13 when he tallied nine tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a 75-yard fumble return against Michigan State.

Now comes the next twist between the prized members of the Class of 2003: The coach that Zbikowski always dreamed of playing for, Urban Meyer, is Leak's new head coach.

"Really?" Leak said. "Well, that's the mark of a great coach. Everybody wants to play for him."

Meyer is a longtime friend of the Zbikowski family, dating back to Meyer's days as a Notre Dame assistant. Zbikowski used to attend Meyer's Bowling Green football camp, where the coach made the then high school junior his first college scholarship offer.

After Notre Dame fired Willingham and Meyer's name surfaced as the top candidate, the Zbikowski family was ecstatic. His dream coach at his dream school.

But then Meyer accepted the job at Florida.

"It's a small world, huh?" Zbikowski said. "Sure it was a little disappointing, but he had to do what's best for him. I don't have any problems with it. I was excited about the possibilities, but this is a business. I understand that. Chris is going to love him."

Leak has yet to spend much time with Meyer, but they've already discussed expanding Florida's offensive attack.

"Like a delayed pitch, to get the quarterback on the edge and give him some options," Leak said. "It'll be another dimension to our offense. I'm excited about it."

Zbikowski said he's equally excited about Charlie Weis, Notre Dame's new coach. Describing Weis as the type of man you could "go have a pizza with," Zbikowski said when the team first met its new coach everyone was in awe of his Super Bowl ring.

Chris Leak
Chris Leak looks forward to the new wrinkles being placed in the Gators offense.
"He walked in and had this big ass Super Bowl ring on," Zbikowski said. "Just by wearing that he commanded everybody's attention. He made quite an impression."

But Meyer and Weis won't fully get their hands on their new teams until after the New Year. Meyer is preparing Utah for the Fiesta Bowl while Weis is scheming the New England Patriots toward another Super Bowl. Until those runs are over, players like Leak and Zbikowski will be playing for lame-duck assistant coaches.

The situation is awkward, with outgoing assistants gathering in one meeting room, prepping for the bowl game while members of the new coaching staff sit in a room next door to work the phones with recruiting calls.

Conflicts of interest are everywhere. Florida offensive coordinator Larry Fedora, who will join Zook in his new job at Illinois, will be in the middle of recruiting for the Illini while putting together the Gators' game plan for Miami. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Kent Baer, who will coach the Irish in the Insight.com Bowl, spent part of last week's preparation for Oregon State interviewing for the head-coaching job at Utah State.

"In the back of your mind, you know that they're leaving," Leak said. "But we've practiced with the same intensity and the same focus as we have all year. The goal is to continue to improve."

Neither player said they considered transferring after the coaching change, but Leak still talks on the phone "as much as he can" with Zook. From here, there's a bowl game to be played, followed by offseason workouts and, gradually, the adjustment to an entirely new coaching regime. Zbikowski will be playing for his third defensive backs coach in three years, Leak his third offensive coordinator in three years.

"Things change so quickly," Zbikowski said. "You learn that. But it isn't easy building all those new relationships.

"Just when you start to click with somebody, they're gone. So hopefully this staff will stick around a bit."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.