“And we’re a pretty good football team too,” is what I heard from the podium Saturday night after Florida beat Georgia for the 13th time in 14 years. The speaker was Gators Head Coach Ron Zook, and that quote made my ears perk up. It’s the first time I’d heard Zook say he thought his team was pretty good, or had a chance to get there.
“I don’t know if it’s the first time I’ve said it publicly,” Zook answered when I pressed him on it, “but it’s not the first time I’ve thought it, I can tell you that.”
The post-Georgia press conference was pretty impressive on Zook’s part. There weren’t a bunch of quick answers or quick responses where it seemed Ron wanted to say the last thing in the sentence before the first thing was finished. And it wasn’t measured or vengeful. It was just Zook. It was the first time I’d seen him in public comfortable in his own skin. Comfortable in his own accomplishments, with the confidence that he’d shown to every coach who employed him before Jeremy Foley named him the head of the Gator Nation. And he’s the undisputed head of the Gator Nation. Despite websites calling for his ouster and newspaper columnists wondering in print if he’s the right guy for the job, Zook has proved his worth both in Gainesville and on a national scale. He can recruit and he can coach. No matter what happens the rest of the year, he’s taken a young team and taught them how to win. For once, Gators can really mean it when they say, “Wait ‘till next year!”
Forty-four different players in orange and blue this year have seen their first action as Gator football players. They’ve played 33 freshmen, including at quarterback, where Chris Leak has made a believer out of just about everybody. He’s smart, sees the field, is just mobile enough and makes good throws. The game winning drive against Georgia was the perfect spot for a freshman to make a mistake and send the game into overtime. Instead, Leak delivered perfect passes, including the big one to Ben Troupe that put them in field goal range.
Having won at Baton Rouge and Fayetteville, and beaten Georgia in a half-hostile environment, it won’t matter where these young players go in the future, it won’t bother them. And credit Zook for that. He’s solid when it comes to game preparation, and motivation, but probably doesn’t get enough credit when it comes to the psychology of coaching. You might have seen the television shot of him walking by and saying something to Matt Leach when Florida was marching down the field at the end of the game against Georgia. What could he possibly say in that situation that might help a guy, especially one who struggled in the past, make that kick? “I’d give a thousand dollars to do what you’re about to do,” was the one line he delivered. That’s not Head Coach-speak. That’s a guy to a guy, and the perfect bump to a not-so-sure kicker. A Head Coach sometimes has to be a CEO, and other times he has to be your best friend. Zook seems to have figured out how to use the “velvet hammer” when necessary.
Winning the rest of their games is important for Florida in the SEC race. Not just the obvious SEC games, but a win against FSU would go a long way in allowing the AD’s to vote the Gators as the East Division representative in case of a three way tie including Georgia and Tennessee. How strange is that? The Gators have to root for Georgia against Auburn, while Tennessee has to root for Florida to beat both Vandy and South Carolina.