- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Most of the citizens of Gator Nation hungrily devoured the juicy piece of news yesterday morning: The University of Florida fired its beleaguered football coach, Ron Zook. Now the big question on which to chomp: Will the Ol’ Ball Coach become the new ball coach?

Less than a year after Steve Spurrier resigned following two unhappy, unproductive seasons with the Redskins, many (but certainly not all) Florida fans are clamoring for Spurrier to return the program to the glory it enjoyed during his dozen years in Gainesville.

Still, it might be a long shot, especially if university president Bernie Machen and athletic director Jeremy Foley decide to look ahead, not back. On the other hand, the other name Gators fans are salivating over is Bob Stoops, the successful Oklahoma coach who once was Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida and declined the job that went to Zook in 2002. Stoops, however, figures as a more unlikely choice than Spurrier. Among other names being tossed around are Utah’s Urban Meyer and Louisville’s Bob Petrino.

“We’ll discuss this job with a number of coaches,” Foley said at a press conference yesterday. “Obviously, if Coach Spurrier is interested, we’ll sit down with him. … The bottom line is that’s way down the road. I’m trying to find the best football coach for the University of Florida.”

For his part, Spurrier, who has remained in Northern Virginia as his son, Scotty, finishes his senior year of high school, might look elsewhere. When he left Florida after the 2001 season, Spurrier groused about trying to meet unrealistic expectations. Following a national championship in 1996, 10-win seasons and lesser bowl games seemed insufficient to many. Spurrier also tired of recruiting and hobnobbing with boosters, and he and Foley did not always see eye-to-visor.

Corralled by TV reporter Pat Clarke after playing in a charity golf tournament near Orlando, Fla., yesterday morning, Spurrier predictably danced around the issue of whether he would consider coming back.

“I’ve tried to stay low and out of everybody’s way and not linger around,” he said, looking a lot younger than his 59 years in cool shades and a backward visor. “I’ve tried to stay out of the way during this football season. I’ve had no contact with anybody anywhere. This thing will play out in due time, and we’ll go from there.”

Clarke persisted, asking whether Spurrier would rule it out. He turned away, grimaced, made kind of a groaning sound and said, “There will be a time to make those statements down the road.”

On the air, Clarke called Spurrier “conspicuous in his noncommittal attitude.”


Later, Spurrier told the Orlando Sentinel, “I’ll cross that bridge if it comes to that. The thing I’ve tried to do all this year is not be lingering around, acting like I’m waiting for another guy’s job. I don’t believe that’s the right way to do it. But now that [Zook] doesn’t have a job, I guess there will be some discussion. We’ll see what happens.”

“It would be great to have him back, but I don’t think he’ll go [to Florida],” said George Valenzuela, president of the Florida Alumni Association of Washington, D.C. “Steve did what he wanted to do down there.”

Spurrier’s 12-20 record with the Redskins and the fact he generally seemed in over his head in the NFL apparently did not diminish his reputation among Gators loyalists. It might be like a family member who got involved in something unpleasant and now has seen the light. “Oh, yes, Steve. He had to, uh, go away for a couple of years. But he’s fine.”

Valenzuela called Spurrier a “brilliant coach” and said other Florida fans who congregate at Joe Theismann’s restaurant in Alexandria to watch the Gators play feel the same way. During Saturday’s shocking loss to Mississippi State, Valenzuela heard people saying things like “Spurrier would never let this happen.”

Zook, who preceded Stoops as Spurrier’s defensive coordinator and held the same job with the New Orleans Saints, was a controversial choice from the moment he was hired. A Web site, fireronzook.com, sprung up almost immediately. Zook had some success (his teams are 20-13) but in 21/2 years never came close to duplicating Spurrier’s accomplishments.

A few weeks ago Zook got into an altercation with some fraternity members on campus, and then came the disaster Saturday, a 38-31 loss to Southeastern Conference doormat Mississippi State, which earlier scored seven points in a loss to Maine and lost by 18 to Vanderbilt. This was the final straw; Zook’s firing was inevitable.

So was all the Spurrier chatter. Newspaper columnists took each side of the issue. Message boards hummed, and fans called in to Steve Russell’s talk show on Gainesville radio station WRUF (“The home of Gator sports for over 70 years”) yesterday afternoon to share their thoughts.

“I saw this coming for a long time,” a caller named Gene said. “Spurrier’s gonna be our coach.”

Not so fast, caller Mike said.

“Steve quit on us once,” he said. “What’s to say he won’t do it again?”

Hold on there, another guy named Mike said.

“I don’t see that he quit on us,” he said. “I think he followed his dream. … I would love to see him come back.”

Another endorsement on Russell’s program came from ESPN commentator and former coach Lee Corso, who called Spurrier “the best football coach in America not coaching right now” and added, “I’d take him in a heartbeat.”

But Russell, who has watched the Gators for more than 30 years, remains skeptical.

“I think some fans would take him back in 10 seconds and others who feel he shouldn’t come back,” he said. “A majority of Gator fans would love to see him come back, but I don’t think it would be a good thing. Not because of him. Not that he wouldn’t turn the program around and win, but if the problem was replacing an icon like he was, it would be a problem again.

“You’d still have to replace him. The only way I would take Steve back is if he told the university, ‘I’ll give you eight or 10 years.’ … But right now, he’s like he was when he left here. He’s the ultimate free agent.”

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