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College football

Nothing to lose or nothing to play for?

The Gators are angry and hurt over Ron Zook's firing, but they say they're finally motivated to put it all together.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 30, 2004

From the moment he took over at Florida 21/2 years ago, Ron Zook was under pressure to prove he could be a head coach and to continue a program with a decadelong winning tradition.

Today, Zook finds himself under a different kind of pressure: to persevere.

He was fired on Monday, two days fter a loss to the SEC's worst team, Mississippi State. He will coach the final four regular-season games, beginning today with the annual interstate rivalry with Georgia in Jacksonville.

But exactly how do you motivate a team when it knows you won't be there next year? How do you continue with your duties as if nothing has changed?

"You try not to think about it," Zook said. "The thing you try to do is focus on the game. If you're involved in the game and focused on the game, then you can concentrate on that. And that's what's important right now, the games. ... Our coaches and players will be ready to go."

But the reality is the players are hurt and angry. The coaches are in a state of confusion. The fans are torn. And yet the season remains unfinished. Run the table or go winless, either way you're still fired. So just how do you dig deep once you've been told it's over?

It's not easy. Just ask Alabama coach Mike Shula, who was an assistant with the Tampa Bay Bucs when Ray Perkins was fired 13 games into the NFL season. Shula and the staff stayed on the remainder of the season with Richard Williamson at the helm.

"It's just the obvious, you come to work every day knowing that at the end of the season you're not going to have a job," Shula said. "That's pretty challenging. You don't know what the future holds. You know you won't be there, but you take a lot of pride in what you do and the work that you do and you feel like you have a responsibility to the players and you show up every day and do the best that you can."

Which is exactly the approach Zook and the players want to take.

"Once you get out on the field, all this stuff doesn't matter," receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "You just think about competing. We went out and practiced and it was like a normal practice. We weren't really out there thinking about the coaching situation. Everybody that's here is here for a reason, they are here to compete regardless of the situation."

ESPN analyst Bill Curry was fired as the Kentucky coach with four games remaining in the 1996 season. The team went 3-1 in those final games.

"I'm not going to tell you it isn't difficult and embarrassing," Curry said. "But we all know what the deal is when we get in the business and we're all grownups."

They're also human.

Emotions have run high this week. The players have accused the administration of acting without their best interest in mind. Zook is concerned about keeping the players' emotions in check, not wanting them too sky-high before today's game.

"It's no telling how this team might play now," junior safety Jarvis Herring said. "It might be one of the best games you've ever seen us play since Zook has been here. Everybody is real angry and I guess you'll see all of the anger taken out (today)."

Georgia coach Mark Richt said the Bulldogs are meeting Florida at a dangerous time.

osh, if you're playing for your coach and your coaches, the men that recruited you and they spend a lot of time with you on a daily basis to try to help you become a better man and a better football player and a better student, I'm sure it'll be very emotionally charged," he said. "They'll be highly motivated."

The players have talked of winning their final four games, particularly Nov. 20 at FSU, where the Gators haven't won since 1986.

"Regardless of their chances of running the table, you would have to think a decision like this would demoralize players," said ABC analyst and former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, who resigned midway through the 1999 season amid rumors he'd be fired at the end. "Assistant coaches will have to worry about their jobs and their futures and it will take away from the effort that they would like to have without distraction the rest of the season."

Several assistants have admitted it has been tough this week to stay focused, but ultimately they believe they'll be able to do their jobs. The players said their anger, loyalty to Zook and pride, will be a unifying force.

"What do we have to lose?" senior linebacker Travis Harris said. "Nobody thinks we're worth anything anyway. You fire our coaches in the middle of the season, and you're basically saying, "Who cares about the rest of the season?' ... When you don't have any pressure, you don't have anything to lose."

[Last modified October 30, 2004, 01:58:19]


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