Zook's tenure at Florida hardly smooth

Originally Published: October 21, 2004
By Chris Low | Special to ESPN.com

Ron Zook's first problem is that he's not Steve Spurrier.

His second problem is that he followed Steve Spurrier.

His third problem, outside of losing 12 games in two and a half seasons, could be a bit more complicated.

These are not tranquil times for the third-year Florida coach.

His Gators are seemingly out of the SEC's Eastern Division race for the third straight year. They're losing leads like your grandfather's old jalopy loses oil, and the once dreaded Swamp -- the most vaunted home-field advantage in all of college football under Spurrier -- has suddenly become a day at the beach for opposing teams.

  Will Georgia be able to shake off the loss to Auburn? Can Mississippi State really win five games? Where is LSU heading for the postseason? Is Phillip Fulmer on the hot seat? Our SEC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
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  • Zook has already lost more games at the Swamp (six) than Spurrier did in 12 seasons at Florida. He's just 5-10 against nationally ranked teams and hasn't been especially good in the close games. The Gators are 5-6 under Zook in games decided by less than a touchdown.

    And those are just the football concerns.

    Despite which of the accounts you believe, Zook didn't do himself any favors with the bizarre frat-gate incident two days before the Tennessee game in September.

    It was going to be difficult enough for him to survive with another four- or five-loss season. The Gators (4-3, 2-3) still have three losable games remaining against Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State.

    But now the Florida administration has a different out if it needs one. Zook embarrassed the university off the field with his confrontation with Pi Kappa Phi fraternity members on Sept. 16.

    Any discipline of Zook was handled internally, but Florida president Bernie Machen told the Orlando Sentinel that the incident would be re-visited when he and Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley review Zook's job performance at the end of the season.

    Machen told the Orlando Sentinel that Zook was in no immediate danger of losing his job, adding, "But everything counts. We just don't make decisions in the middle of the year like this."

    The whole timing of when word began to leak that Zook had been involved in a shouting match with fraternity members is, if nothing else, curious.

    The Gators had just blown a 14-point lead at home to LSU in a 24-21 loss when the news broke. And remember, the incident had occurred almost a month earlier.

    Ron Zook
    Despite his best efforts, Ron Zook just could not get the best out of the talented players he recruited.
    As the local Florida media descended upon Zook, already admittedly not sleeping or eating, to get his reaction, he couldn't help but wonder himself about the timing.

    "Is this, 'Beat up on Ron Zook Week?' " he asked reporters.

    Foley has naturally been one of Zook's staunchest supporters. They're long-time friends, and after striking out with Bob Stoops and Mike Shanahan, Foley faced a dizzying sales job to Florida fans that Zook was the right guy to replace an icon such as Spurrier.

    It's a sales job that hasn't gotten any easier.

    Still, Foley was emphatic that Zook's actions that night at the fraternity house were not acceptable nor condoned.

    "It was a mistake on Coach Zook's part," said Foley, adding that Zook went with good intentions, but let his emotions get the best of him.

    According to the university police report, Zook yelled and cursed at fraternity members after being advised by Foley that he needed to get over to the fraternity house to avert a possible altercation between a group of football players and fraternity members.

    That's where the stories begin to differ.

    Christopher Bullins, Florida's assistant dean of students in charge of Greek life, told police he heard Zook say, "I'm not going to let you take the (expletive) football team down." Bullins also told police Zook threatened to "take this house down," according to the police report.

    "I said, "I'm not going to let you guys take this football team down,' " Zook countered. "I don't think I said the F-word. I was mad at my guys for being there. There was no confrontation. If I did say the F-word, I'm wrong."

    According to the police report, Zook threatened fraternity member Jason Bailey. Zook called that claim a "bold-faced lie."

    A day later, Zook was even more apologetic.

    "At the time, I didn't think the exchange was confrontational," Zook said. "If I raised my voice, I apologize. This university deserves to be represented in the right way and in a professional way."

    Ultimately, Zook's future likely hinges on how the Gators finish this season. If they beat Georgia for a seventh straight year and/or win the finale against bitter rival Florida State, it will be much easier for everyone to forget about Zook's "Animal House" exploits.

    But if they lose both and stumble in at 7-4 (or worse), all bets are off.

    By the way, where's Dean Wormer when you need him?

    Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.

    Chris Low | email

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