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With football just around the corner, here's what I think

By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002


This being a column, it's what I think. A newspaper editorial. Not intended to be a pontification. Still, almost every paragraph could be preceded by I think. It's a privilege, hopefully earned.

This being a column, it's what I think. A newspaper editorial. Not intended to be a pontification. Still, almost every paragraph could be preceded by I think. It's a privilege, hopefully earned.

We're into July, so the I think the season officially is under way for college and professional football. I think it's a wonderful respite from the draining swelter of summer.

You do not need a license. There's no tax. No need not go through metal detectors or security pat-downs. Millions soon will be plunging into "I think" comments about teams that most interest us.

I think it'd be fun, even before NFL camps open and college beefstuds regroup on campus, to kick around a few thoughts on (a) Tony Dungy, (b) Ron Zook, (c) Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, (d) Jon Gruden (e) Larry Coker and (f) Steve Spurrier.

What do you think?

I think, despite Dungy feelings of anger and being shortchanged in being fired by the Bucs, the beyond-classy Tony has wound up being dealt a better hand, considering his strengths and question marks.

Getting double his old salary.

Dungy is a defensive whiz, I think, who should make notable strides in repairing Colts inadequacies. His offensive department, the sector that destroyed Dungy with Tampa Bay, has Indy guns too ample in the power legs of Edgerrin James and dynamic arm of Peyton Manning to be a frequent nag in the life of the departed Bucs coach.

Let's move on. . .

I think any signs of the Gators struggling will trigger "Oh, do we miss Spurrier!" comments among University of Florida masses, a predictable extra vat of pressure for a coach replacing a giant (see Paul "Bear" Bryant, Ara Parseghian, Vince Dooley, Woody Hayes and Vince Lombardi, whose followers would be tormented).

Zook has big zeal. He may work twice the hours of Steve, but things never are going to be the same at the big house on University Avenue. Spurrier's shadow is immense. I think 8-3 and 9-2 seasons, and surely the dread of 7-4, will bring Ron more agony than joy.

It will be a major challenge for Zook to fend off critics his first couple of seasons. If that is managed, Zook can rekindle the Gators into SEC contenders. Maybe even making the occasional national championship run. It is unfair and just plain wrong to expect the unique Spurrier sauce to be recreated in Gainesville.

Even so, it'll happen.

I think Bowden and Paterno will die wearing their coaching boots. Boring into their 70s, the chaps from Florida State and Penn State will continue Saturday jockeying to see who finishes as the all-time winner of NCAA games. Neither gives any hint of retiring. Both appear afraid to take on a world without football.

I think the sad thing would be to see Joe and/or Bobby experience nasty skids. Paterno has a larger challenge than Bowden. FSU will keep on shining. But if and when slumps occur, followers will scream about Joe's age or Bobby's. About them "losing it" while suggesting it's time for the 'Noles and/or Nittany Lions to move on.

Neither deserves that.

I think the Gruden years will be powerful for the Bucs. They should be picked to win the new NFC South, a less-spicy venture than the NFC Central. Jon's biggest challenge will be maintaining the old Dungy defensive excellence.

Offense is unquestionably headed for a big uptick. Love the new, bigger group of receivers. I think Tampa Bay will be at least as strong as in Dungy's time, but winning more often by 28-21 and less by 14-10.

I think it would be ludicrous to suggest the Miami Hurricanes will not continue to be America's finest collegiate program. Coker picked up the Butch Davis whip and did spectacular work. Nothing is apt to deflate the 'Canes but slippage in recruiting.

Anybody see any signs?

I think the Spurrier chapter is hardest to predict. He won at Duke, where football coaches go to rot, so Steve long ago convinced me he had the brains, courage and leadership to succeed at any plateau.

Yep, including the NFL.

I think he will take early tumbles. Spurrier's critics are voluminous, as were aroused college enemies from Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, FSU and several other schools that enjoyed seeing every S.O.S. misfire.

It will be no less true among the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants.

He cultivates the hatred of rivals. Works at it. Right now, among Washington fans, there is a quiver of uncertainty. Some fright that owner Dan Snyder's expensive sling with the old Gator will become a travesty. A professional laughingstock.

I think not.

His division isn't all that strong. Spurrier's biggest barrier could be developing a quarterback who can maneuver a contender.

Philly should be the NFC East favorite as Dallas and New York appear wobbly. Spurrier should go 9-7 or better, helped massively by a well-stacked defense coached by Marvin Lewis, the dandy coordinator of a Baltimore bunch that dominated a Super Bowl.

I think it's going to be a wonderful, intriguing '02 football season. Can we start now?

-- To contact Hubert Mizell, e-mail mmizell02@earthlink.net or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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