Florida, Zook to part ways at end of season

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 29, 2004

The Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Florida coach Ron Zook was fired Monday after two-plus years and a stack of embarrassments on and off the field, satisfying a growing groundswell for his ouster that began the day he replaced Steve Spurrier.

Zook will finish out the season while athletic director Jeremy Foley and school president Bernie Machen search for another coach.

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''In the final analysis, it was apparent to me that something's not working here,'' Foley said. ''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.''

The Gators are 20-13 under Zook with four games left - that's just 14 losses fewer than Spurrier had in 12 seasons.

Zook's latest debacle, a 38-31 loss to Mississippi State, sealed his fate and brought jubilation among those in Gator Nation who turned www.fireronzook.com into their Internet home page. The site posted this message Monday: ''It's happening! It's happening! Oh my God it's happening!''

Spurrier's return would be welcomed in Gainesville.

''I'll cross that bridge if it comes to that,'' Spurrier told the Orlando Sentinel. ''The thing I've tried to do all this year is not be lingering around, acting like I'm waiting for another guy's job. I don't believe that's the right way to do it. But now that he doesn't have a job, I guess there will be some discussion. We'll see what happens.''

Foley planned to talk with Spurrier soon but said he won't discuss the opening with coaches with jobs until after the season.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Utah coach Urban Meyer also could be possibilities. Stoops was Spurrier's defensive coordinator for three seasons at Florida, and Machen hired Meyer at Utah following the 2002 season.

Machen and Foley decided Sunday morning that Zook's tenure was over. They informed the coach Monday morning at Machen's home.

Zook agreed to coach the remainder of the season - something Foley was counting on.

''I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate and respect these players,'' Zook read from a statement, making little eye contact and pausing several times to collect his emotions. ''They work hard and they do what we ask. I take a lot of pride in the fact that we leave this program in very good shape, with a lot of good young talent and good people.

''The future of Gator football is very, very bright.''

When Spurrier left for the NFL, Foley shockingly hired Zook - a close friend he called ''The Zooker'' - after being turned down by Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and Stoops.

Almost all the concerns about Spurrier's former defensive coordinator - that he was in over his head, had never been a head coach and wasn't composed enough to manage a game from the sideline - became reality.

''When the situation starts going downhill, it's hard sometimes to push it back up,'' Foley said. ''I think the situation got out of control, even for him.''

Just weeks before the Mississippi State loss, reports surfaced that Zook had a heated confrontation with fraternity members on campus. Zook initially downplayed his role, saying he went there to defuse the situation, but Foley later acknowledged that Zook yelled at students and called the behavior ''unacceptable.''

Foley said the same thing about the mounting losses - many of them late collapses.

The Gators blew fourth-quarter leads against Tennessee and LSU this season, and did the same against Miami, Mississippi and Florida State last year. There also were two near meltdowns against Arkansas.

There were other debacles, too, including consecutive Outback Bowl losses to Michigan and Iowa - games in which Florida looked unprepared at times.

Zook showed resiliency through it all. He led the Gators to four straight wins in 2002 and five in a row last season - after it looked like they could finish with losing records. He also has two big wins over rival Georgia, the Gators' next opponent.

Foley even extended Zook's contract after last season, saying he felt the program was on the right track.

The latest problems, however, were too much to overcome.

Foley said he kept Zook for the rest of the season because it was ''something he deserves.''

''The guy has been here for three years; this is his football team,'' Foley said. ''He's worked extraordinarily hard. It would be inappropriate for him not to finish the season. It would be inappropriate for the kids, too. We didn't think that would have been right in our opinion.''