Sunday, October 5, 2003
Pressure on Zook heats up as losing continues
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The yard outside the fraternity house
across from The Swamp was dotted with couches, empty cups, trash
cans -- all the remnants of a big celebration on one of America's
most fervent football campuses.
But only a few hours after the game ended, the party was over.
And attached to the doorway, posted on a 20-foot-high sheet of
black crepe paper so everyone could see it, was a handmade sign
written in huge, white letters. It read:
There are losses, and then there are LOSSES, and Saturday's
20-17 setback to Mississippi -- Zook's eighth in 19 games since he
took over the program -- certainly fits into that second category.
"It's embarrassing," said tailback Ran Carthon, who called a
player's-only meeting for Monday.
It's not like Florida (3-3, 1-2 SEC) hasn't fallen to teams like
Ole Miss before. In fact, the Gators lost to the Rebels in Oxford
last year. But this was nothing like years past, when lesser teams
played the games of their lives to sneak up on the clearly superior
The Rebels merely played efficient football, nothing
spectacular, to get a win against a team that couldn't have been
overlooking them -- not after last year, and certainly not after
last week, when the Gators had to overcome an 18-point deficit for
a 24-21 victory over league doormat Kentucky.
It was Florida's first home loss to an unranked team in 61
games, dating to 1989, when the same Rebels won 24-19 in the season
"I'm sure it's heated up good," Zook said Sunday, when asked
about the fanning criticism being directed his way. "I can't waste
energy dealing with things I have no control over."
Even Zook wasn't trying to spin this as a success story, as he
has after past losses. And why try? This wasn't some loss to a
highly ranked rival (Tennessee), or some game where the Gators
played well but blew a 23-point lead in the final 20 minutes
Nope, these were the Rebels, a team with a potentially great
quarterback in Eli Manning, but not much else of note. Ole Miss
hasn't won the SEC since 1963, and this year's Rebels came into
Saturday's game with the country's worst pass defense.
At this point, nitpicking Florida's game plan would just be
piling on to Zook and his somewhat callow staff. Suffice to say
that, even though its young, Florida's roster was stacked with more
talent than Mississippi's, and the Gators coaches felt they could
win their way -- by establishing the run and not worrying about
exposing the obvious flaws in an defense that allowed 661 yards
passing the previous week.
The Gators ran 35 times, passed 27 times and Zook could defend
his run-first theory by pointing out the three fourth-quarter
interceptions thrown by freshman Chris Leak.
Despite the bad finish, Zook said Leak would remain the starter.
"The pros are, he's very talented and can make things happen,"
Zook said. "The cons are, he lacks experience and makes mistakes
you don't want to see."
Thanks to Tennessee's loss to Auburn on Saturday, the Gators
head into the meat of their schedule just one game behind the Vols
and Georgia in the SEC East. Zook reinforced to his team that the
conference title is still a possibility, however farfetched that
Several more losses are also possible. The Gators still have
games at No. 6 LSU, at No. 7 Arkansas, against No. 8 Georgia in
Jacksonville and at home against No. 5 Florida State.
Barring wins in any of those games, the highlight of the 2003
calendar year will remain Feb. 5, national signing day, the day
Zook brought in one of the top three recruiting classes in the
So far, it's good recruiting that gives the Gators hope, and
allows calmer heads to prevail in athletic director Jeremy Foley's
office. Foley has consistently stood by the first-time head coach,
insisting he deserves at least three seasons to turn the program
Whether the growingly impatient group of Gator fans will accept
that is another matter. They know that when Steve Spurrier left,
the Gators were coming off a 10-2 season, much of which was spent
in the Top Five of The Associated Press poll.
Florida is now out of the poll -- the Gators didn't even get a
vote Sunday -- and seriously staring at a losing record for the
first time since 1979.
"If this doesn't hurt you deep down inside, then you don't love
the game of football," defensive end Bobby McCray said after the
Clearly, this does hurt -- the coach, the players and the fans.
The toughest part is that, right now, it's hard to know when the
pain will stop.