Close the door on this season and look ahead

Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 12:46 a.m.

If you are through grinding your teeth, I have some advice for you Gator football fans.

Flush it, file it, forget it.

The season is over, an 8-5 disappointment that began with a bang and ended with a whimper. Close the door and look ahead.

If you want to remember anything, just wrap yourself in the knowledge that your team cost Georgia a shot at a national championship.

Let the rest of it go.

Because this isn't the football season that will make or break Ron Zook as a head coach anymore than it did Bob Stoops or Mark Richt in their first seasons.

You may think it should. Your definition may already be set in stone, but be more open-minded.

Zook isn't going anywhere. One season does not define a first-year coach.

But how much Zook has learned from this season will.

We won't know what that is until well down the road. Next year, the year after. How he applies it, how he gets better from it.

How he deals with it.

Zook's first year is almost up. The one-year anniversary of Steve Spurrier's stunning departure is today. Spurrier had his own learning process in the NFL.

Both coaches found the going tough. Spurrier heard his share of criticism and doubts. For Zook, it started the day he took the toughest football job in America.

I saved a couple of dozen e-mails received the day Zook was hired by Jeremy Foley. The Gator Nation was split. That much hasn't changed.

I've felt throughout the year that there were three groups of Florida fans. There was a pocket of Zook supporters who would stay in his corner regardless of what happened. There was a pocket of anti-Zookers, led by the guy who flew the "Told You So:" banner over the stadium Wednesday, who wanted the coach canned no matter what went right.

Then, there was the majority.

These Gator fans wanted to wait and see what Zook did in his first year. After that double reverse pass, some of them slid into the negative column.

But all of you should be patient. I know, I know, you don't want to be patient. You are used to success and you are baffled by this team. You can't understand how this happened, how your team could be so bad on special teams, have incredible lapses defensively, how the offense could be so inconsistent. You can't understand how your team could lose five games, two of them at home by embarrassing scores.

You can't understand that trick play at the end of the Outback Bowl and you feel like it was the last straw.

It's far from it.

It will take a lot of straws for Foley to pull the plug on his good friend.

Here's one thing Zook should have learned from Wednesday.

If you call a trick play and it works, you're the flavor of the month.

If you call a trick play and it doesn't work, you will be second-guessed.

If you call a trick play and it costs you the game, people will think you've lost your mind.

Zook has had to learn on the job and many of the critics will point out that shouldn't have to happen at a big-time program like Florida.

Let it go. The point is moot. Ron Zook is your coach. He will be your coach for awhile.

How long that is depends on how much he did learn on the job.

Some of it is obvious. He learned that he needs to go out and get a bang-up special teams coach, that he needs to find a punter who doesn't line-drive 30-yarders with backspin. He learned about his players, about the SEC, about FSU and Miami. He learned about manufacturing depth.

Hopefully, he learned a little something about the media, the fans and the boosters and about the fact that excuses no longer cut it at UF.

You hope he learned to be more assertive when it comes to using his veto for offensive and defensive calls.

As Rex Grossman said after the game, coaches usually get better in their second season. That second season will include another tough schedule with games at Miami and LSU with FSU and Tennessee at home and Georgia in Jacksonville.

Of course, after watching the bowl games, maybe this schedule wasn't as tough as we thought. FSU and Tennessee were obviously nowhere near as good as anyone thought before the season, combining for 10 losses.

But Zook did learn how important it is to get your team ready each week. One thing you hope he learned is to go for the kill, to shake that NFL mentality that every game has to be close.

As Zook approaches his second year, he has to know what you should know - that this isn't easy. But it should be easier this year.

He can never lose his father again.

He won't have to hear as much about the previous era because his career as a head coach has its first watermark.

He will never again look at a group of players and be unable to distinguish between current Gators and recruits as he did in January last year.

His players will have had a year to get to know him, what he expects, what he will do in certain situations.

He knows now, too.

The definition of Ron Zook as Florida's football coach begins today. It will go through his most important recruiting season ever (and his first full one), into a spring of practices that should be more comfortable, to Gator Clubs in the summer that won't be and on into a season where the expectation level will be the lowest in the last 14 years.

If Grossman decides to leave, where do you think Florida will be ranked in August? In the top 15, top 20? Top 25?

But your expectations should not be lowered. If you allow that to happen, you're doing a disservice to your favorite team and to your head coach.

And he is your head coach.

Live with it.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at or by calling 374-5053. You can hear Pat on the radio Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "The Pat Dooley Show" on WTMN "The Team" AM-1430.

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