GAINESVILLE - As Florida football coach Ron Zook tries to move beyond the public relations nightmare that has engulfed him since a dispute at a fraternity house came to light this week, university president Bernard Machen has weighed in.
Machen is publicly supporting the "internal" action taken against Zook after his confrontation with Pi Kappa Phi fraternity members last month.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Machen said he "approves of the way Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley handled the situation."
Zook was called to the fraternity house to intercede when a group of his players went there hours after two football players allegedly were assaulted.
Foley has no plans to comment further on the issue, saying the matter is closed as far as he and Zook are concerned.
HAUNTED: As the Gators prepare for Saturday's game against Middle Tennessee, last weekend's loss to LSU in the final 27 seconds still is on their minds.
The biggest concern? Florida's inability to close out games. The Gators, who led by 14 against the Tigers, also lost in the waning seconds against Tennessee and barely hung on in a win against Arkansas.
"I've spent a lot of time since the end of the game thinking about it," Zook said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. "I know how close we are, and if I didn't believe in these guys or see it in their eyes, I might be concerned. Are we capable of finishing like we're supposed to? Yes. Now we have to do it."
Zook said he got little sleep early this week and knows fans are growing restless.
"Everyone is searching for answers," he said. "I feel confident in what we are doing. We've gone back and evaluated our play calling to make sure we're not in situations where people have a bead on us. Basically, guys have to make plays. I'm not going to back off the statement I made before that we're a good football team. ... We have to get over the hump. There comes a point in time when you have to stand up and make the play."
THE MADNESS BEGINS: The men's and women's basketball teams open the 2004 season tonight with the annual Midnight Madness.
"I love the energy and the excitement of it," senior guard Tamia Williams said. "It's the first day of knowing we're really going to get started with the season. It's just a lot of fun."
Doors at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center open at 8 p.m. The volleyball team kicks off the festivities at 9 with a match against LSU.
The first 1,000 fans receive free T-shirts, and the players will sign autographs from 10:25 to 11:35. Because of NCAA rules, only posters provided by the University Athletic Association will be autographed.
A talent show to crown a "Gator Idol" also is planned. Since Sept.18, a campuswide competition has been held in the tradition of American Idol. Three finalists compete at 11:30, and there will be performances from a former American Idol contestant throughout the evening.
Several fan-friendly events will be held, including a shootout, skills competition and a wheelbarrow race. At midnight, the women's team takes the floor, followed by the men's team at 12:25 a.m. The women will run through their drills and have a short scrimmage, and the men will hold a slam dunk contest.
"I have a good feeling about this year," senior forward David Lee said. "I think we've definitely got the talent. It's just a matter of putting it together."
DEJA VU: Middle Tennessee has had two weeks to prepare for Florida, if you count the four days spent getting ready before the game was postponed six weeks ago because of Hurricane Frances. Quarterback Clint Marks thinks the date change has been a bonus for the Blue Raiders.
"I think it's going to help because going into this game now I know so much more than I did the first time we prepared for them," Marks said.
Marks is a former teammate of Gators offensive lineman Randy Hand; the two played together at Estero High in Fort Myers.
"I don't talk to him often, but I'm going to talk to him this week," Marks said. "He's a great player and he blocked great for me in high school. Hopefully he doesn't block as well this Saturday."
Antonya English covers Florida athletics. She can be reached at 813 225-3389 or firstname.lastname@example.org