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As introductions go, not bad at all

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2002


GAINESVILLE -- If you judge by opening arguments, there is a lot to like about the new guy.

Nice offense. Nice defense. Nice first impression.

Say this much for Ron Zook. The guy knows how to say hello. He ran onto Florida Field Saturday night, and more or less, he promised the winning would continue. His offense attacked. His defense swarmed. And his Gators chewed up Alabama-Birmingham by 51-3.

On the other hand, you're probably thinking this:

Steve Spurrier would have scored 100.

This is how it works in the precarious profession of Legend Replacement. It isn't just about how good you are. It's about whether you're as good as the guy who used to work here. It isn't just about what you do. It's about what the other guy might have done.

One game in, and Zook didn't even throw his visor. He didn't even wear a visor. He didn't roll his eyes with that annoyed grimace. He didn't blister his quarterback's face.

So, it bears asking again.

Are you sure Stevie did it this way?

For Zook, this is the task at hand from now until, oh, his first national championship or so. No, that isn't shade. That's Spurrier's shadow, and it covers this part of Florida like a solar eclipse.

Take Saturday, when Zook got off to a spiffy start. On the first play of the game, quarterback Rex Grossman hit a 59-yard pass to Taylor Jacobs.

Huh, you thought.

For Spurrier, he would have scored.

Actually, that isn't true. In Spurrier's debut with the Gators, against Oklahoma State in 1990, it took Florida five whole plays to score. Sure enough, Zook's team took five plays to score, too. Not only that, but Zook ended up with 51 points in his first try, and Spurrier had a mere 50. Of course, Zook was playing with Spurrier's leftovers and Spurrier with Galen Hall's, but that's nit-picking.

The message was important, however. It suggested the Gators still are going to be an offense that, no matter how far away the end zone may be, still considers it a local phone call.

That isn't a bad place to begin. Florida fans love fast starts and quick strikes. You know. Like Coach What's-His-Name. Deep down, they want a coach just like the coach who married dear old Jerri.

Such is the preoccupation with Spurrier. Some Florida fans are leaving the porch light on, just in case the old ballcoach wants to come home. And it's going to take more than a win against UAB before people forget his face.

Had Spurrier coached Saturday night, some will suggest, the Gators would have thrown for 500 yards and there wouldn't have been as many penalties, and UAB would have whined about him running up the score. And, on the way off the field, Spurrier would have told a great joke about Bobby Bowden.

Hey, it's early. Later on, perhaps Zook can insult Tennessee and belittle Georgia and suggest FSU hits late. Later on, he can change quarterbacks from one play to another. Later on, he can make people talk about his arrogance.

For now, it was a nice first step.

You get the feeling Florida fans, most Florida fans, want to love Zook. What's not to like? He's sincere, committed, enthusiastic. Hey, the guy considers lunch a waste of time. That's something for Florida fans to discuss, well, over lunch. The guy is so organized, he can tell you not only how much practice time his team has had, he can compute the square root.

There also is a human element to Zook, something that makes you pull for him. For instance, there is the story of Pete Zook, his 75-year-old father. Pete has cancer. He attended Saturday night's game.

For most of the night, Zook fought back his emotions to focus on the task at hand. Because of his father, however, he ran onto the field ahead of his team, pointing into the stands toward his father.

It was a rare glimpse inside of Zook, a man who doesn't seem overwhelmed by the size of the job of replacing Spurrier. A lot of coaches would be, because those kind of comparisons can devour a career. Spurrier had become the face of this program. A successor can win an awful lot of games and still fall short of expectations.

Of course, you replace a legend only a little bit at a time. Beating a team such as UAB might have been worth, oh, one hair on Spurrier's head. A little one, maybe one on the back of his head.

Face it. Games such as this one are the nearest thing college football has to a preseason. As tests go, beating Alabama-Birmingham is like remembering to sign your name.

There is work to do. There were times during the game when the Gators sputtered, times when you wondered if they will be able to hold up when the Hurricanes run onto the field Saturday. Zook has a week to make things right.

No, no one expects Zook to be as good as Spurrier. That's silly.

They expect him to be better.

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