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SEC 2000-2010: The Zook Experiment (2002-04)

Sometimes I wonder if people forget how much Steve Spurrier blindsided everyone when he resigned from Florida to try his hand at the NFL. The announcement came just two days after his 56-23 win over Maryland in the


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Orange Bowl, and the returning personnel looked like it set Florida up for another great run in 2002. More importantly, it came after the season's coaching carousel had gone 'round and only about a month before National Signing Day. Athletics Director Jeremy Foley had to find a replacement quickly.

The first call by all estimates was to Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Spurrier's defensive coordinator from 1996-98. Two years off of a national title of his own in Norman, Stoops said no. The next call was likely to the Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan, Charlie Pell's offensive coordinator at Florida from 1980-83. A few years off of consecutive Super Bowl titles, Shanahan said no. With the two obvious marquee names out of the picture, he turned to an old friend.

New Orleans Saints' defensive coordinator Ron Zook became the new head coach in Gainesville, partly due to his ties to the school as a former Spurrier assistant and partly due to his reputation as an ace recruiter. If anyone could save the 2002 class, it was Zook. He salvaged the situation to bring in what Scout and Rivals both agreed was the nation's 20th best haul, including 10 players who would go on to be starters or key contributors on the 2006 national championship team.

Gator fans weren't that interested in recruiting back then. Spurrier routinely got beat out for great players and still won anyway. Some accused Foley of settling, or worse, nepotism in regard to the hire. Others felt that the Florida job was too high profile a position for a first time head coach. Most, including the guys, couldn't believe Foley had hired a guy who Spurrier had demoted from a coordinator position back down to just special teams coach.

When you combine all that with the negative emotions surrounding Spurrier's quick departure, the conclusion was not obvious but in hindsight inevitable: Zook never had a shot. It made matters worse that the man seemingly refused to help himself.

No one was quite sure what to expect, but he got a boost when Rex Grossman decided to return to school for his redshirt junior season. The result was that expectations for 2002 remained as high as if Spurrier never left, with Florida opening up at No. 6 in the polls. Things started off as planned as Florida firebombed UAB 51-3 in a manner that prompted the AP to use the headline "New coach, same old dangerous Gators." Believe it or not, UF was actually favored to win the next one at home against No. 1 Miami, the same Hurricanes who would lose the epic Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State in that year's national title game.

Florida crashed hard, losing 41-16. Two weeks later though, Florida would beat No. 4 Tennessee in Knoxville 30-13. Two weeks after that, the top ten ranked Gators lost to unranked Ole Miss. The following week LSU cleaned Florida's clock 36-7. Two weeks later, UF ruined eventual 13-1 Georgia's perfect season with a 20-13 win. The season finished with a flurry of weird decisions in a Citrus Bowl loss to Michigan, including a trick receiver-throw-to-quarterback play with time winding down deep in UM territory while down by eight. Noticing a pattern? Gator fans certainly did.

That first season showed that consistency was not one of Zook's strong suits. It never would be either.

The 2002 team beat that 13-1 Georgia team and a 9-4 Auburn team. Zook became the first head coach in Florida history to win three straight games over teams ranked in the top 11 at the time as he knocked off No. 6 LSU (the eventual national champion), No. 11 Arkansas, and No. 5 Georgia in consecutive weeks (and all away from home to boot). That team also gave away a 33-10 third quarter lead against Miami and fell again to Ole Miss. The 2004 team, after having lost to every notable opponent up to that point, found a way to beat FSU for Florida's first win in Tallahassee since 1986.

Everyone knows Zook was fired after losing to Mississippi State in 2004. That Bulldog team had lost 9-7 to I-AA Maine earlier in the season, yet it put up 38 in the win. Needless to say, "never beat a team from Mississippi" features prominently on his headstone at Florida. It was at that point that Foley decided that what must be done eventually must be done immediately.

As you might imagine, Zook is not remembered fondly by Gator fans. It's not just the 15 losses in three years, more than half of what Spurrier had across his 12 seasons. His players tended to get into a lot of off field issues, and his recruits account for a good portion of the arrests that have happened during Urban Meyer's coaching term. Zook also got involved a fight at a fraternity party, never a good thing for the highest paid school employee.

For all his faults, Zook never fell below .500 overall or in conference play. He recruited 22 of the 24 starters on the 2006 national championship team. He took the following-the-legend bullet so that someone else could come in and have success. He also got from Florida three years of head coaching experience, something he's parlayed into at least six seasons of head coaching at Illinois, and about $6 million not counting his buyout. In that sense, it ended up working out for both sides.

It's hard to imagine things going much differently. In January 2002, Foley didn't have the luxury to stage a multi-week coaching search. He had to find someone who would take the job quickly, and all of that off season's hot coaching names had already taken jobs elsewhere. Zook has also shown at Illinois that he has not really learned from his mistakes and is basically the same coach now that he was then. This thing in Gainesville was never lasting that long.

It's still one of the defining eras of the decade in the SEC. Despite the Zooker's 2-1 record against UGA, this was the time period when Georgia eclipsed Florida in the East. It marked a fall to earth after a decade plus of success at UF while laying the ground work for the new era of winning there.

It was also when we all learned that if you sleep for five hours really fast, it feels like eight. You win some, you lose some.