Anatomy of a midseason pink slip

Originally Published: October 25, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Now that the boys at FireRonZook.com have gotten their wish, what will they do with their infamous site?

Perhaps they can turn it into a cybershrine of sorts -- to fan ugliness perhaps. More likely, as a shrine to how a guy can turn the professional opportunity of a lifetime into a midseason pink slip in 33 gaffe-ridden games.

They can memorialize a tenure that was doomed to fail from the day it began. Here follows a 12-step Chronology of a Coaching Disaster:

1. Jan. 9, 2002: Zook is hired at Florida.
Reaction ranges from disbelief to dismay.

The Ron Zook Era at Florida
Year Record Bowl
2002 8-5 Loss in Outback
2003 8-5 Loss in Outback
2004 4-3 ---
Total 20-13 0-2
It's never easy to be the man who follows The Man. Ask Ray Perkins, Gary Gibbs, Fred Akers, Ray Goff, Earle Bruce and many others given the thankless task of replacing a coaching legend.

Zook never had a prayer of filling the void left by Steve Spurrier -- not in popularity, not in offensive wizardry, not in charisma. He knew that, but understanding the situation and overcoming it are two distinctly different things.

It was only made worse by the fact that Zook was the third choice of Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley, who took a couple of admirably ambitious cuts at names big enough to ease the sting of losing Spurrier. But when Bob Stoops and Mike Shanahan both said no, Foley's third choice -- a career assistant who was once demoted by Spurrier -- failed to rally the fan base.

Thus we saw the immediate birth of FireRonZook.com, the forefather of the now-trite fan mutiny sites. A not-insignificant slice of the fan base was never going to give this guy a chance.

2. July 2002: Zook's first appearance at SEC Media Days.
Words pour out of the new coach's mouth at roughly the speed of sound.

The first impression: Man, this guy has a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Maybe he can win over Gator Nation with hyperactivity alone.

The second impression, after looking at a notebook filled with sound and fury that signified nothing: Has anyone ever talked so much and said so little?

Spurrier's mouth never moved that fast, but it occasionally uttered a gem (often at the expense of a rival school). The media detected a distinct downgrade at the podium.

3. Sept. 7, 2002: Miami 41, Florida 16 -- in The Swamp.
This was his second game as coach, and this would become a recurring problem for The Zooker -- losses on the very field where the Ol' Ballcoach had nearly been bulletproof. To date Zook has lost six of his 18 games in The Swamp. Spurrier lost five times at home in 12 years.

4. Oct. 5, 2002: Mississippi 17, Florida 14.
This marked the beginning of another Zook tradition -- the October surprise. And never a pleasant one.

The Gators followed that three-point loss to the Rebels with a 36-7 shellacking at home from LSU, dropping to 4-3. In 2003 Florida started 3-3 after another loss to Ole Miss -- this one in Gainesville. This year the record is 4-3.

For a program that grew accustomed to being in the national title chase, the Gators have been out of it (and the SEC race) by midseason every year under Zook.

5. Nov. 30, 2002: Florida State 31, Florida 14.
The first of two straight losses to the rival Seminoles. Stevie Boy had problems beating Free Shoes University, too, but he at least started out 1-1 against Bobby Bowden.

6. Jan. 1, 2003 -- Michigan 38, Florida 30.
The first of consecutive bowl losses. Yep, Spurrier lost bowl games, too -- five of them, in fact. But he didn't lose them in the hare-brained manner Zook lost this one, with a throwback to quarterback Rex Grossman that blew up with the game on the line.

7. Feb. 2003: Chris Leak signs with the Gators.
This was supposed to be the turnaround point for Zook -- the day he gets the No. 1 quarterback in the country and shows that Florida's legacy as a passing powerhouse would continue.

But gifted quarterbacks have not flourished under Zook. He inherited Rex Grossman -- and watched his numbers plummet across the board from the previous season: completion percentage down, 12 fewer touchdown passes and nearly 500 fewer yards in 108 more attempts -- and five more interceptions.

Leak was playing immediately and plugged in as starter midway through his freshman year. He's played well in two years' time, but hasn't shown program-lifting ability yet. Leak's late interception Saturday in the debacle in Starkville helped lose the game for the Gators.

The next guy will get the chance to win big with Leak.

8. Sept. 6, 2003: Miami 38, Florida 33.
The Gators blew a 23-point second-half lead against the No. 3 team in America. It would be the most galling of eight losses by eight points or less to date under Zook -- one of many times Gator Nation wondered whether this guy had the strategic acumen and composure to pull out a close game.

9. Nov. 1, 2003: Florida 16, Georgia 13.
Could an upset of the No. 4 Bulldogs actually hurt? In one way, yes: It was Zook's second straight triumph over a Georgia team in the top five -- and it left fans wondering how Florida could win these games but not beat Ole Miss.

Zook's upcoming third try at the Cocktail Party on Oct. 30 might also have helped Foley push the eject button now: Why give the coach a chance to make dismissal more difficult with another upset win if you're already convinced he can't do the job?

10. Sept. 16, 2004: Zook vs. Frat.
The moment that seems to have really accelerated the coach's dismissal -- even if it didn't become public for another month. Reportedly summoned to the Pi Kappa Phi house to disperse some of his players and head off a potential fight, Zook instead issued threats, according to witnesses interviewed by campus police. When it became public, Zook disputed that, saying he threatened no one, but his handling of the situation was deemed "unacceptable" by Foley.

When the AD starts throwing that around and you've just lost at home to LSU, you're in trouble.

11. Sept. 18, 2004: Tennessee 30, Florida 28.
Controversial as the loss was, it still marked two straight defeats against the Volunteers. You Know Who never lost to Tennessee twice in a row, and made much of his reputation on owning the Vols and the SEC Eastern Division.

12. Oct. 23, 2004: Mississippi State 38, Florida 31.
The end. In 12 years, Spurrier never lost to a team with a losing record. Zook didn't just manage to lose to a 1-5 team. He lost to a 1-5 team that had previously been beaten by Maine -- that had, in fact, scored 31 points fewer against the Black Bears than it did against the Gators.

Think about that a minute and see if that isn't a Florida-level fireable offense on its own, never mind the 33 months of pratfalls that preceded it.

So the old boys at FireRonZook.com got their wish, and fairly quickly. But with or without a push from that web site, the professional opportunity of a lifetime was doomed from the start for Ron Zook.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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