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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2002
GAINESVILLE -- He left the field with a sober look and a purposeful stride. There was no hesitation or sign of emotion. Ron Zook continues to hold his chin high, which is impressive considering he may be in over his head.
Seven games into his tenure as the coach who replaced a legend, Zook has reached a crisis point.
He as much as said that after Saturday night's 36-7 loss to LSU when he acknowledged it has been years since a Florida season was in such dire shape.
You sensed this before LSU confirmed it. You listened to what LSU players said last week and you understood the Gators no longer were feared.
Of all the defeats suffered by the Gators, the loss of expectation is clearly the worst. No one seemed surprised by the outcome Saturday night and that is a chilling indictment of the program's direction.
By now, you have come to understand the Gators are something less than they used to be. And you have a growing suspicion why that is so.
What this team needs is a scowl. Followed by a hissy fit. And, heaven willing, a look of utter disgust.
Considering all the challenges faced in the transition between coaches, this was among the least expected.
Who knew the Gators would miss Steve Spurrier's personality?
Further, who knew Spurrier had a personality?
This is a team unsure of itself. The Gators play as if they have no confidence in their direction and little faith in the people who are supposed to be pointing the way.
There was no way to predict this. No way to guard against it.
It was hard to detect any allure in Spurrier's personality, and now you find it was actually an asset. If it wasn't so cruel, it might be funny.
This is a man who could be abrasive and demanding. Petty and petulant. He had an enormous ego and a short attention span.
Yet it worked for Spurrier. He took antisocial traits and somehow made them productive qualities. He was single-minded and his teams reflected this.
The Gators had a swagger. They had an arrogance. They fed off Spurrier's delusional belief the world was somehow plotting against UF.
The Gators occasionally lost to an inferior team, but it usually took you by surprise. And you could usually depend on them to immediately bounce back.
Already that feeling is gone in Gainesville. It was difficult to know what to expect entering the game against LSU.
And that is today's most disappointing reality.
You would like to believe this is a new era and not an old error. Yet there is something familiar about this. Something so 1980s. Close your eyes and you can almost hear Galen Hall bemoaning another upset.
But, back then, the Gators had the good sense to wait for Auburn or Georgia before burying their season.
It's almost as if the advancements made during the Spurrier era have been wasted.
Spurrier was in his fifth season before he lost an SEC game at home. Zook did it in his second try. Spurrier was in his 11th season before he lost to an unranked team. Zook did it in his fourth shot.
The last time the Gators were unranked was Spurrier's first week on the job in 1990. He got them in the Top 25 in time for his second game and kept them there 202 polls.
Seven weeks into the new regime, that streak is in jeopardy.
This is not about game plans or play calling. This is not a question of receivers running one direction and the quarterback throwing another.
Florida clearly misses the genius of Spurrier's offense, but a playbook can be replaced. Mystique and aura are harder to come by.
That is Zook's challenge. It may be his salvation.
If he can convince the team to follow, Zook may have a future. If he can assure the players he has a plan, he may come out stronger.
Surely, Zook deserves better. He deserves a chance to grow as coach. Unfortunately, Spurrier's success created a burden on those who will follow.
"It's not fair," left tackle Max Starks said. "Things are not going to be as sharp after seven games as they were 12 years into a system."
Fair or not, reality is setting in. The few fans who remained behind the Florida bench were calling for Zook's head Saturday.
"You hear it on the sidelines," tailback Ran Carthon said. "Coach Zook is our guy. He's a damn good coach. He takes a lot of blame for his mistakes. I don't think a lot of people realize that. But we're sticking with him."
Zook is a nice guy. Everyone seems to agree about that.
He's working hard and remaining upbeat.
He says these players have done everything he has asked of them.
And perhaps that is the problem.
You see, Spurrier always asked them to win.