Zook handles departure with dignity

Give Ron Zook credit. He's not going out kicking and screaming.

For a man who's been castigated from the time he was introduced three years ago as Florida's coach, he's been remarkably composed in his final hours.

He hasn't taken any shots at an administration that pulled the plug on him during the middle of the season. He hasn't allowed his emotions to spill over. And most of all, he hasn't forsaken his players.

If only some of his coaching decisions had been as sleek, who knows?

"I've gone back over the last three years, and there are a few things I would change," said Zook, who was fired on Oct. 25 following a 38-31 loss to Mississippi State. "Hindsight's 20-20. If I would have known the outcomes of things, obviously you'd do some things differently.

"I've been around a lot of pretty good coaches, and I've seen them make some decisions that didn't work out. Maybe sometimes my decisions get questioned because they say I didn't have any head coaching experience, which has nothing to do with it.

"It's whether you make the right decision or not."

The Ron Zook era will ultimately be remembered for his wrong decisions.

He was a tireless worker, relentless recruiter and fiercely loyal to his players. He just simply didn't win enough games.

Heading into Saturday's regular-season finale at Florida State, Zook has lost 14 of the 36 games he's coached in at Florida.

Some would say he never had a chance replacing an icon like Steve Spurrier.

The standard that Spurrier set at Florida was dizzying, and it didn't help Zook any that he was essentially the third choice to replace the ol' head ballcoach and came to Gainesville without any previous head coaching experience.

The perception was that Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley turned to his buddy in a pinch after being turned down by Bob Stoops and Mike Shanahan.

It was going to be difficult enough for Zook to be accepted by the Florida fans in the first place. But when he went 8-5 in his first season, the odds grew even longer.

A second straight 8-5 season made those odds seem insurmountable, and the Mississippi State debacle this season was the final straw.

The nauseating thing for Zook was that the Gators were tantalizingly close to being 6-0 going into that Mississippi State game. They lost the Tennessee game 30-28 after the officials didn't re-start the clock on time, allowing the Vols about 20 extra seconds to move in position for the game-winning field goal.

Florida also couldn't hold a lead against LSU, which scored the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes. Quarterback Chris Leak came up about a half-yard short on a third-down run that would have given the Gators a first down and allowed them to run out most of the clock.

That next week, news leaked out about Zook's frat-gate incident, and two weeks later, the Gators gave up 38 points to a Mississippi State team that had lost five in a row and scored a total of 33 points in its previous four games.

Zook has steadfastly declined to discuss his future. He doesn't want anything to take away from this team and these players.

He's yet to decide whether or not he will coach the Gators in their bowl game.

"When we find out if and when we're going to a bowl and all those things ... right now I want to think about one thing," Zook said. "I want to think about the Florida State game."

Florida safety Jarvis Herring would gladly recommend Zook to anybody looking for a coach. Zook's buyout clause in his contract calls for him to be paid $1.8 million over the next four years.

But there's no doubt that he wants to coach again.

"If you want a players' coach and if you want what's best for your kids, he's the best coach for it," Herring said. "He focuses on life, and he focuses on trying to get you better in the future."

Zook just hopes people appreciate what this team has endured. He said words can't begin to express his gratitude.

"I want to believe that there are going to be people that are proud of this team," Zook said. "They have nothing to hang their head about. As I told them when we got the news a few weeks ago, they didn't fail and the coaches didn't fail.

"For whatever reason, this happened. Let's get ourselves ready to go out and finish strong."

And maybe even win one for the Zooker.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.