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Showing fire while under fire

Demoted by Spurrier? Doubted by Gator Nation? Ron Zook stays intense, confident.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002


GAINESVILLE -- It was October 1985 and Tennessee was playing Alabama. Ron Zook was defensive backs coach for the Volunteers, who with a win would be in good position to win the Southeastern Conference.

Trailing late in the game, Tennessee shanked a 6-yard punt, giving Alabama the ball near midfield. It brought out the Zook that fans and players have come to recognize on the sideline.

"If he had punted normal, we're probably in great shape," said Charles Davis, a former defensive back at Tennessee who played for Zook from 1984-86 and is now an announcer for Sunshine Network. "Well, the punt goes short and our bench explodes. It's sound and fury over there. I'm on the punt team and I look over to the bench because I'm waiting to get the call from Coach Zook about the secondary call.

"I'm looking for Coach Zook and I can't find him because he had come out of his headphones and he wanted a piece of the punter too. He got refocused and snapped right back into it. He's an emotional guy and that was a huge play."

When Tennessee won 16-14 on a field goal, the highly charged Zook was right there again.

"I'll never forget looking over and seeing Coach Zook in the middle of the crush," Davis said.

Intense. Driven. Emotional. Passionate. Workaholic. High-energy. Motivator.

Those are the words most often spoken by colleagues and players to define Zook.

When Zook was named Florida's 20th head coach Wednesday, replacing the legendary Steve Spurrier, many questioned why athletic director Jeremy Foley would turn a highly successful program over to a man with no head-coaching experience, no marquee-type success to exhibit.

His former players weren't among the doubters.

"This guy is really going to be good for us," said Michael Gilmore, a Florida defensive back from 1991-95 who played under Zook when he was defensive coordinator. "Anybody that ever played for him I think realizes the importance that he did have here and all that he did accomplish, and it really went right down the chain to us. He instilled that confidence in us. And no matter whether you're playing pro football, you're a doctor or out doing business somewhere, there are a lot of intangibles that Ron Zook instilled in all of us that we take with us and we apply every day. He is phenomenal."

"He lives and dies football," former Florida defensive tackle Brad Culpepper said. "As a player, you didn't want to disappoint him. ... Each week, whether we were playing Auburn or Georgia or Northwest whoever, he's as enthusiastic about that game and as uptight about it as if it were FSU. I'd always say, "Coach, relax. We can bring our C game and beat these guys.' I'd do it to tease him. He'd get all bent out of shape, as all good coaches should.

"I guess the Gator Nation isn't thrilled because he's not a big name, but he's a great fit."

Zook, 47, began his playing career at Miami of Ohio as a walk-on, earned a scholarship and became a three-year starter, mostly at strong safety. He played on three Tangerine Bowl winners and was captain of the 1975 team.

His mentors include some of the biggest names in the college profession. Zook said he is a combination of every coach for whom he ever played or worked. That list includes Bill Mallory and Dick Crum at Miami of Ohio, Mike Gottfried at Murray State, Cincinnati at Kansas, Johnny Majors at Tennessee, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, John Cooper at Ohio State, Bill Cowher at Pittsburgh and Jim Haslett at New Orleans.

"Obviously this is the beginning of my head-coaching experience," he said. "I know a lot of people question this, here I am a first-year head football coach at what I consider the No. 1 coaching job in America. But the people that I've worked for and the people that I've been fortunate enough to work with, I've been able to take a little bit of their qualities and use it to my personality. I'm not Steve Spurrier ... but hopefully I'm going to keep the program going as it was."

Gottfried, now an ESPN football analyst, likened Zook to coaches like Miami's Larry Coker and Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, longtime assistants who waited for their chance to be the top man.

"I think Ron will be just as successful as those other coaches have proven to be," Gottfried said. "He has a strong desire and will to win and to do things in the right way."

Zook has spent 24 years in the coaching profession, 18 in college, and the past six in the NFL.

But his last tenure in Gainesville had mixed success. Zook was the Florida defensive coordinator from 1991-93 but was demoted to special teams coach by Spurrier in 1994. He worked back into the role of associate head coach before leaving for a job with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1996.

Zook doesn't shy away from that negative part of his coaching history. He said he didn't agree with Spurrier's decision, but in retrospect believes it helped him in the long run.

"As a football coach, you always learn more in the face of adversity," Zook said. "A lot of times when things go well, you're winning, you don't see things under the microscope like you do when things aren't going quite as well. You're judged by your past achievements. Obviously, I'm in a situation where I've proved I can take a (negative) situation and move forward, and I think that was the biggest thing that helped me in that experience."

During the trying time of his demotion, Zook's friendship with Foley was strengthened. Zook's handling of the situation impressed Foley enough to have him on his list of potential coaching candidates and seek him out six years later.

"A boss has a right to make those decisions and those changes ... so you've got to accept that," Foley said. "It's real easy to get off course -- to get mad or go a different course and just leave. Or you can put your nose to the grindstone and come to work every single day, you respect the fact that the guy has made a decision, he's the boss, and he might have a reason for it, and you stay focused.

" ... And that's what I told Ron, that's exactly what he did. And you remember, our special teams was leading the country when he was coaching them. So that is what he did and that impressed me."

Ron and Denise Zook have been married five months shy of 21 years. She believes she knows him better than anyone. And what she knows is that while many are surprised by Zook's hiring, this is something he has wanted for nearly as long as she can remember.

"Let me tell you about Ron Zook," Denise said, prompted only by the question, "Do you have a minute?' "Ron Zook is goal oriented. He has a list of goals ... and one of the top goals he had on his list of goals was to be the head coach of the Florida Gators. This was before he ever was considered for an assistant coach here. We all have to have a dream and this has been a dream, and it came true." The night Zook was hired, neither he nor Denise could sleep. There was too much to talk about, so many things to consider. Foley had left their New Orleans home about 5:30 p.m., having made Zook an offer. But he still had "channels" to clear, Denise said. The definitive phone call came later that night.

"It blew my mind," she said. "But God loves impossible situations. At the very beginning I remember Ron saying, "It'll be by the grace of God if I get this job,' and I said, "Oh, well, you've got it.' "

Denise Zook isn't sure where the family will live in Gainesville or when they'll move. Daughter Jacquelyn, 18, is at college. But Casey, 14, is a soccer and track star in New Orleans. Denise will give her the option of deciding whether to leave now or wait until the end of the school year.

While she's unsure of what the next few months will bring, one thing she has no doubt about is her husband and his new job.

"I think Ron deserves this," she said. " ... He'll do a great job."

The fact that two big-name coaches, Denver's Mike Shanahan and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, turned down a chance to succeed Spurrier has cast a cloud over Zook's hiring.

Foley insists Zook always has been among his top three candidates.

"I didn't settle for anybody," Foley said. "I can't be any more emphatic about the fact that I am very excited about where we're headed. You have to go with your instincts and I trust my instincts on this guy. You get a sense and you get a feel. Time will tell if the sense is right."

Zook said he feels no pressure but realizes that a lot is on the line -- for him and Foley.

"The University of Florida has already proven itself," Zook said. "Now I've got to prove myself."

-- Staff writer Brian Landman contributed to this report.

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