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Foley takes hit with last-choice pick

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 9, 2002

You can see it now. Crowded room. Lots of orange. Lots of cameras.

Jeremy Foley steps to the microphone and grins. He thanks people for coming, particularly the ones who make hefty donations. And without further to-do, he introduces the next Florida football coach ...

Ron Zook?

All together now: Who?

It is down to disappointment now for the Gators. It is down to backup backup plans and third choices who sound like ninth choices. It is down to fishing a shallow pond and talking about the ones who got away. It is down to Zook, an amazingly uninspiring choice as head coach.

A few hours ago, it seemed as if Florida could name its coach. No name was too big, no phone number was out of reach. That was an eternity ago.

Bob Stoops said no.

Mike Shanahan said no.

After that, did it really matter who said yes?

It has been a disappointing week for the Gators. Has any program lost three coaches the level of Steve Spurrier, Shanahan and Stoops in one week?

Say this much for Foley: The guy reaches toward the stars. Most of us pictured him spending the rest of the week on a Jet Ski, trying to chase down Jimmy Johnson's boat. Or approaching Al Davis, armed with a cross and a wooden stake, to get permission to talk to Jon Gruden.

Instead, he's hiring Zook, who spent much of his years as a Florida assistant going backward. For once, Florida fans seem to be pleading for the reports to be wrong.

But there is a problem with asking Halle Berry and Cameron Diaz to the prom. Once they say no, are you really going to think your date is pretty?

Oh, there still were a lot of nice coaches around, coaches who are fun at parties, coaches who have great senses of humor, coaches who have wonderful personalities. Those coaches are fine ... if you're hiring for Ole Miss.

At Florida, they expect a little more. They expect to lose the best coach they've ever had and still upgrade. If you're from the outside, you call it arrogance. If you're from the inside, you call it standards.

So the past few days have been spent with Gator fans debating whether Shanahan, with his two Super Bowl rings, was more attractive to a recruit than Stoops and his two national championship rings (one as a Gator assistant). Surely, both would walk across broken glass to take the job. Wouldn't they?

The darndest thing is this: They almost pulled it off. Those close to Shanahan say he gave the job real consideration. Most of us are convinced that if he hadn't, if the Gators had chased Stoops and Stoops alone, they would have landed him.

But when the most attractive coach in the NFL says no, when the most attractive coach in the NCAA says no, where do you go?

Who was out there to satisfy the Gator faithful when they were teased by such recognizable names? Who can convince high school players to come and Gators to stay? Who can make sure the standards remain high?

Zook? You've got to be kidding. When I first heard Zook's name, I thought it was as much malarkey as the other choice, Pittsburgh's Mike Mularkey. And furthermore, baloney.

This is Florida, one of the top five jobs in the nation. It isn't a training ground for an NFL assistant in his first head coaching job. You might as well bring back Galen Hall. Or Gary Darnell, who, one suspects, is still in the nation.

It is a precarious time for the Gators. The entire offense, including Rex Grossman, appears to be lining up for this year's NFL draft. The entire recruiting class is looking up Bobby Bowden's age once more, just to be sure. And don't you think Miami is in great shape to recruit these days?

Then there is this. Florida has been a success for a long time now, but not so long that fans can't remember what it was like before Spurrier. It wasn't pretty. It was a program that became so frustrated with underachievement that it turned renegade in its attempts to find success.

Spurrier allowed everyone around him to swagger. That was his gift to the Gators. Once, on an airplane, a Florida fan asked me what I thought of Spurrier. A heck of a coach, I said. Yeah, the guy said, but do you like him? I shrugged and said I didn't find a particular warmth there. So I asked the booster if he liked Spurrier.

"Oh yeah," the guy said. "He's conceited and arrogant and full of himself, just like the rest of us."

It might have been the truest statement one person ever said about another.

In the end, that's what Gator fans want. They want someone who will keep the swagger in motion. If Zook is the guy, he has a lot of proving to do. So does Foley, for that matter.

That's the thing about the bronze medal. Evidently, anyone can win one. There are medium-sized names out there. You hear about Rick Neuheisel, for some reason. Who knows? Maybe Foley could have gotten an up-and-comer such as Mike Bellotti or Gary Crowton.

Who knows? Maybe this whole thing is a bluff. Maybe Foley is using Zook to make someone else jealous. Since Florida fans remain convinced they can hire anyone they want, maybe they'll still get the one guy who would be perfect for the job.

Guy by the name of Steve Spurrier.

He's unemployed, I hear.

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