Trip to bowl game takes UF backward


Published: Friday, January 2, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 10:47 p.m.

Tampa - Ron Zook probably wishes he had never heard of the Outback Bowl.

Last year, it was the reverse pass to the quarterback that hounded him through an offseason. A year later to the day, it wasn't about one play.

It was about almost every play.

Florida failed to show up for the Outback Bowl. That was the bad news. The worse news was that Iowa played like it mattered.

The result was a 37-17 thrashing as the Hawkeyes went through the Gators like they were plowing for the spring crop. It was ugly, it was over early, and it was the worst thing that could have happened for Zook's coaching career.

Two days after Steve Spurrier once again became a free agent, Zook's team went on the field and gave a lifeless, heartless, passionless performance.

The team that wanted to make a statement did - that no matter how they got here, they're no better in the record book than last year's team. And that's not good for the coach who talked about the noise in the system when his team was 3-3.

Now, it's louder than ever because of the guy playing golf in St. Augustine. It's not fair to Zook that even before this game there were plenty of Gator fans ready to make the change immediately, bring Stevie Wonder back and zook Zook.

This was Zook's chance to calm the Gator Nation. Instead, it's stirred up again.

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley talked to Spurrier on Wednesday, but they talked often during the season. Foley mentioned to Spurrier that there would be plenty of questions about the old ball coach riding into town on a white horse to save Florida.

"Just tell everybody I'm not coaching for awhile," Spurrier told Foley.

But the noise is going to be there. It's going to be loud and incessant, making Zook's job - whether it be recruiting or keeping his team together - that much more difficult.

Because in just one perfectly beautiful afternoon, progression gave way to regression.

Now, he has to come back for the most important season of his head coaching career, his third at Florida, with 14 senior starters gone to the NFL and every loss being dissected and criticized.

In other words, Thursday was not a good day for Ron Zook. Actually, it wasn't a very good week.

Two of his seniors, one of them an All-American, missed a curfew. He suspended them for only a quarter because their teammates wanted them to play. He put them both in the game shortly before the quarter ended with Iowa driving.

His kickoff specialist was also suspended for much of the game - not that Florida had to do a lot of kicking off - for an incident at the team hotel.

Then, Spurrier quit on the Redskins, and two days later Zook's team quit on him.

"Some guys just didn't want to be out there," said freshman linebacker Channing Crowder. "You could see it."

Anyone could see it. Florida had no heart, no character. And yet, this team showed so much of it during the second half of the season. Where did it go?

"I don't know, but this sucks," said senior Shannon Snell. "Guys were worried about bowl week, all the stuff we were doing. They lost focus. Some guys were worried about not getting hurt."

Bowl week beat them. The layoff beat them. Iowa beat them.

It was humiliating. Zook apologized to Florida fans just two days after Spurrier apologized to Washington fans. Ironic, eh?

Florida was bad on offense, bad on defense, bad on special teams. Some days, the wheels just fall off, but the timing was awful.

Zook's seniors didn't play like seniors.

His freshmen played like freshmen.

Nothing Iowa did surprised him.

Everything his team did surprised him.

"The responsibility of having this football team ready to play is mine," Zook said. "We'll look at things. Did we practice too much? Did we practice too hard? Should we have practiced harder?

"There's no question in my mind we're on the right track. There's no question we're going to be where we want to be."

But not now. Not 16-10 over two seasons. Not 0-2 in bowl games. Not covering ears to keep the noise out.

"This is going to be a great team next year," said Snell. "Nine, 10 wins at least. That's my prediction."

It was almost a great team this year. But in the end it wasn't very good at all.

It was just about as bad as Ron Zook's week.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can hear Pat weekdays from 4-5 p.m. on WGGG 1230-AM in Gainesville and WMOP 900-AM in Ocala.

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