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New coach, same old dangerous Gators

9/1/2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- The first play was a 58-yard completion
down the sideline -- a sweet pass and catch that not even
you-know-who could have drawn up any better.

The rest of the game was a record-setting rout, and the Ron Zook
era at sixth-ranked Florida got off to a shining start with a 51-3
victory over Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.

"I really wanted to call a fullback draw,'' the coach joked
about the opening play.

But he knows better.

Just like the guy he replaced -- new Redskins coach Steve
Spurrier -- Zook knows Rex Grossman, Taylor Jacobs and Earnest
Graham have the ability to make any coach look brilliant.

Jacobs, who considered leaving when Spurrier did, got one heck
of a reward. With 246 yards, he broke the school's single-game
receiving record of 237, set by Carlos Alvarez in 1969. The mark
had stood as one of the very few not rewritten during Spurrier's 12
seasons as coach.

"This game was bigger for me than any of the other games are
going to be,'' Jacobs said. "A lot of people didn't think me, or
the rest of the receivers could do anything.''

Grossman hooked up with Jacobs on the opening play, and for two
touchdowns in the second quarter. The junior quarterback, who also
made the tough decision to stay when Spurrier abruptly resigned in
January, had 306 yards by halftime and finished with 337.

Zook said Grossman had been pestering him since Tuesday to go
deep to Jacobs on the first snap.

"I don't think they know how fast he is,'' Grossman said. Now,
maybe they do.

Graham, meanwhile, ran for 182 yards and scored two touchdowns,
and this marked the first time the Gators have ever had a 150-yard
rusher and a 200-yard receiver in the same game.

In 1990, Spurrier won his first game as Florida's coach 50-7
over Oklahoma State, and Zook's debut was equally successful. After
the game, Zook got the inevitable shower from a water-filled
Gatorade bucket. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley also was a
happy man. He's the guy who took heat when he hired Zook, who had
never been a head coach.

"It was a great day for the Gates,'' Foley said. "But it's
just one game.''

Indeed, the tough part is still ahead. The Gators play co-No. 1
Miami next week, get a breather against the University of Ohio,
then travel to fourth-ranked Tennessee on Sept. 28 for their
Southeastern Conference opener.

But Saturday was a day to celebrate.

Wearing a white shirt and -- ahem -- no visor, Zook led the Gators
out of the tunnel. As he sprinted out, he turned to his left and
pointed toward his cancer-stricken father, who flew from south
Florida on the school plane to watch his son's debut.

Zook briefly choked up when asked about what it meant to have
his ailing father at the stadium.

"It was big,'' Zook said. "I knew where he was. I wasn't going
to run out of the tunnel in front of the team, because I didn't
want to get emotional. But the fact that he was here -- I wanted to
do that.''

Watching the new coach on the sideline wasn't as entertaining as
watching Spurrier rant and rave, but Zook did have his moments. At
one point, after one of his players took a late hit out of bounds
that wasn't called, Zook sprinted toward the official, got right in
his face and looked like he was poised to attack. He calmed down
quickly, however, and within seconds the new coach was patting the
ref on the back.

And really, there wasn't much to get upset about on this day.
Other than a different coach, everything about this Florida
offense, and this Florida team, looked pretty much the same -- maybe
even better.

The ultimate compliment might have come from the quarterback.

"It looked like a Coach Spurrier offense tonight,'' Grossman
said.

Besides the game-opening play, Grossman's nicest throw came when
he hit Jacobs in stride for a 45-yard score and a 27-0 lead in the
second quarter. After the play, Grossman calmly walked off the
field and looked toward the scoreboard, admiring the replay on the
big screen.

Graham broke a 50-yard run late in the first quarter, and a
63-yarder in the third. He averaged a 14 yards a carry, and became
the first runner to break 100 against UAB in 26 games.

The defense, revamped under new coordinator John Thompson, gave
up a couple big runs, but the Blazers were no real threat. Nick
Hayes made a 32-yard field goal in the third quarter to keep the
Blazers, who lost 12 starters from last year's 6-5 team, from
enduring the shutout.

Besides the opening moment with his father, Zook said he forced
himself to hold back the emotion. It had to have been difficult,
though. This has long been Zook's dream job, and it took a long
journey -- 25 years of coaching -- to finally get here.

"I really just would not think about it,'' he said. "I said
from the beginning, I wanted to stay focused on the job at hand.
Obviously, it was a great rush coming out there. It's a great honor
and a privilege to be the coach here.''