Updated: Apr 24, 2020
“It felt like a mistake on many fronts, not the least of which was the impossible task the likeable Zooker had of following a legend. Which was too bad, because Zook became a whipping boy and was treated shabbily by many. Whoever followed the HBC was doomed to failure, however, and destined for blame.”
The ‘Greatest Coach’ in school history walked out unexpectedly, so what could Jeremy Foley do?
Norm Carlson will never forget that fateful January 2002 day when Steve Spurrier showed up at his condo in Crescent Beach to tell him the bad news. They had just gotten back from the 2002 Orange Bowl victory over Maryland, 56-23. When Steve and his wife Jerri arrived at the Carlson’s condo, they suggested to Norm: “Sit down. You’re probably going to need a glass of wine.”
Could it be that the greatest coach in Florida football history was leaving his alma mater to coach in the NFL?
"I thought he was kidding," Carlson later said. “He told me to sit down. He probably thought I would faint."
Steve then told his longtime friend and chief sports information aide that after 12 years he was resigning at Florida and wanted to call Athletic Director Jeremy Foley to tell him. “Why don’t you sleep on it and let’s call him tomorrow,” Carlson remembered suggesting. And they did. But tomorrow came and nothing changed. “Once he makes his mind up there’s no talking Steve out of it,” said Carlson, as he was reminded of the incident recently.
Yes, the most famous Gator in history was gone.
Spurrier shocked everybody by stepping down to try the NFL, signing with the Washington Redskins as the highest paid coach in all of football, walking away from an annual $2.1 million contract at Florida. Turned out that was mere chump change. It sucked the breath out of some people.
“At one point when he was talking to me he asked me if I was still there because I was gasping,” Foley told the Gainesville Sun. “I really thought he was kidding. He's made the decision. It's his time. Certainly, there was surprise. There is sadness. This is a new day. More than being our coach, he was our friend.”
It felt a like a nightmare. The gutting of the Fun’NGun. The end of the all-time best era in Florida football. The winningest coach in school history who had guided the Gators to their first national championship and first SEC title (six times) was leaving for the nation’s capital to sign a 5-year, $25 million contract. Years later he would admit that taking a job for the money was probably a mistake, but he also wanted a whack at the NFL.
But would the transition to the NFL work? Spurrier had chances to leave for the NFL before when he was offered the head coaching job by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Back when I was covering the Denver Broncos and dealing with some high-strung personalities, I visited Spurrier in Gainesville one day and remarked how lucky it was for him that he didn’t have to deal with prima donna pro athletes.
“Why, you don’t think I can coach in the NFL?” he said feistily, somewhat rhetorically. I assured him that was not the case.
Meanwhile, how was Jeremy Foley going to replace a legend?
Foley knew the priorities were to hire a proven winner, preferably with a previous tie to Florida, who could also recruit well. So he hopped the school plane and headed to see Mike Shanahan (former quarterbacks coach for Charlie Pell) in Denver and Bob Stoops (former defensive coordinator for Spurrier) at Oklahoma – with a media contingent in hot pursuit.
After striking out in both places, he flew to New Orleans, where Ron Zook was an assistant coach for the Saints. In a matter of days Zook became the 20th head coach in Florida history.
It felt like a mistake on many fronts, not the least of which was the impossible task the likeable Zooker had of following a legend. Which was too bad, because Zook became a whipping boy and was treated shabbily by many. Whoever followed the HBC was doomed to failure, however, and destined for blame. Zook was a piñata. Two days after he was hired, he was introduced to the Mean Streets of the Internet when fireronzook.com was born.
Zook may not have been Vince Lombardi, or Steve Spurrier, but he was a decent man (still is), a pretty good coach and helluva recruiter. And we all know that Urban Meyer benefitted greatly from the talent he left behind. But it was never going to work for him at Florida.
Furthermore, Zook had walked right into a double ambush, bookended by a steel vice not of his own doing. New university president Bernie Machen, hired in January of 2004 from Utah, already had his eye on the Utes’ coach. In the fall of 2003, Urban Meyer’s team had gone 12-0, one of three unbeaten teams in the country. Definitely he was the bright shiny thing.
With four games to play at Florida in the fall of ’04, following a loss to Mississippi State that dropped the Gators’ record to 4-3—previously posting back-to-back 8-5 seasons—Zook was fired. But he would stay to coach the last three regular season games, and win them all, even renaming FSU’s stadium to Ron Zook field.
Unquestionably Meyer was targeted as Foley set out on another coach-hiring mission. This time, Foley would land the prize catch, even though at first Meyer had decided to take the Notre Dame job.
Draw your own conclusions about whether Zook was treated fairly. More on that later. But first we pause for this commercial on Steve Spurrier’s 75th birthday.
Raise your hand if you were blessed with the opportunity of watching the evolution of “Orr”—as he is called by his closest friends—help transform a sleeping college football giant into a national power.
Today, in the week of his 75th trip around the sun, I feel especially blessed to have witnessed both Steve Spurrier Heisman Trophy winner and Steve Spurrier Genius Football Coach. And all that was in between.
It has been a privilege for over a half a decade to chronicle hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of words spoken and written about maybe the single most interesting, colorful, flamboyant, honest, smart … well, you know. I think I have finally run out of words to describe Stephen Orr Spurrier.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Foley was in a quandary
Foley’s actual journey to hiring Spurrier’s replacement was rife with uncertainty and plane rides. Spurrier leaving all happened so fast that the relatively new AD didn’t have a contingency plan. Remember that Spurrier was hired in 1990 by the contingent of Interim President Bob Bryan. Foley, not named AD until two years later, didn’t have a playbook yet when Spurrier exited.
“That was the first football coach research search I'd ever gone through,” Foley recently told me, “and I had zero experience.”
So he fired up the UF plane and traveled semi-incognito to Denver where he met with Shanahan amidst much speculation and trepidation by the Bronco media and fan base. The undercover aspect made it even more intriguing. But there were no puffs of white smoke, indicating an anointment of the new Gator coach. Next came the stop at Norman, OK. No puffs of white smoke. And then on to New Orleans.
“I had three candidates,” Foley said, recounting his plight. “Mike Shanahan was one of them. Bobby Stoops was one of them. And Ron Zook, over here, was our good friend.”
However, there was some baggage because Zook had been demoted by Spurrier as defensive coordinator to become special teams coordinator, before being wooed by Michigan State and finally being resurrected and re-promoted as Spurrier’s Associate Head Coach. Would that work against him as the new Gator head coach?
Foley pointed out that some people defended Zook’s defensive scheme, which featured a go-to element of “prevent” that later would become highly unpopular with fans.
Said Foley: “You could find people on both sides of the coin whether he did a good job as a defensive coordinator. I think he did. I think he did a very fine job.”
Foley liked Zook’s “incredible” work ethic – “he worked his tail off and was very respected in the building” – so he talked himself into Zook as his choice after being turned down by his No. 1 and No. 2 candidates. Besides, Zook was a recruiting machine and Foley was getting pressured by people who felt that was an area of concern.
Although Zook had asked for a chance to coach in the bowl game his last season, having won three straight as a lame duck after a loss to Georgia, Zook says he wasn’t allowed. By then, anyway, he had already been hired by Illinois. Florida went on to lose to Miami in the Peach Bowl under interim Charlie Strong, 27-10, to go 7-5 on the season. Zook’s overall record at Florida was 20-13.
“In the final analysis, it was apparent to me that something's not working here,” Foley told the media. "I know that's kind of nebulous, but it's the truth. It's hard to put a finger on it exactly, but it certainly just didn't appear to be working as we all envisioned.”
When I spoke with Zook recently he was not bitter about what happened at Florida but still a little bit mystified. He stopped short of saying or admitting it, but Ron Zook really had no chance of success.
“It just became apparent that this wasn't going to work out,” explained Foley. “Which is unfortunate because there was an incredible amount of effort going into trying to get this thing to work out—especially on Ron's part.”
I asked Foley about how he handled having to succumb to the pressure. About that time the Mean Streets of the Internet began taking their toll.
“You know, you sit in the chair … you kind of get a sense of is this all about,” Foley told me.
“And that's what happened here. You kind of get a sense that this thing is not going to turn. You know, we've got to clean up the incredible amount of division within the Gator Nation and the ugliness.
There were unexplained consequences which Zook talked about off the record: How and why he ended up at fraternity house to break up a potential brawl involving some of his players – something he says was “blown out of proportion” – is not clear. He said he was called and asked to step in, although there was a verbal confrontation with Zook and a fraternity member. Some speculated that it may have been a “set up” to make him look bad at a time when the program was struggling and Zook was already venerable, but that has never been proven.
In the end, Ron Zook packed his bags and left for Illinois, where in just his second season, he took the Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl. They lost to Southern Cal 49-17.
“Worst thing that happened to us was going to the Rose Bowl that soon,” said Zook.
“Expectations got too high. We had a lot of players drafted by the NFL after that season and we never did catch up with the loss of underclassmen.” He was fired after seven years with a record of 34-51.
As for Urban Meyer, who Zook handed off the reins to, he says he has great respect for Zook and denies there was ever a rift with him.
Meyer says Zook did “a really good job recruiting. And he's a good coach. He became a friend. People tried to make something out of it. We've always had great respect for the previous coach we followed.”
He gives Zook credit for leaving something special in the cupboard, especially on defense. With players like this: Quarterback Chris Leak, Safety Reggie Nelson, DT Joe Cohen, LB Earl Everett, TE Tate Casey, DE Jarvis Moss, DE Ray McDonald. Just to name a few.
Yes, Ron Zook left a little something, indeed.
A few others who weighed in on Zook
Last week when somebody posted a fake Sports Illustrated cover on Facebook with Zook’s picture on it as “Worst Coach in The Swamp,” it raised the ire of some who came to his defense:
Mic Huber, former Sarasota Herald-Tribune Columnist: “Ron Zook was a fantastic recruiter and he was not a bad coach. It would have been hard for anyone to follow Spurrier. The Zooker is a good guy and deserves better.”
Mark Whicker, former Orange County Register columnist: “I saw Illinois play in a Rose Bowl. Coached by Ron Zook.”
Steve Young, Gator Fan: “Ron Zook deserved more time in my opinion! 8-5 for three (two) years wasn't terrible, we were just spoiled rotten by Spurrier and how in the world were we going to replace him? You can't, period! With the players he was recruiting and getting I believe we would have improved record wise . I am glad we ended up with Meyer and 2 Nattys but I will always wonder given more time would Coach Ron Zook have won a Natty here? I will always appreciate Zook’s class, love and loyalty to the Gator program!”
Gerry Odom, former Gator player and coach: “This is Awful. Coach Zook was a good man and a darn fine coach. This kind of stuff ticks me off. Ridiculous!”