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Aug. 1, 2005
By Dennis Dodd
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- Ron Zook knows his place in college football history. One of the most famous URLs in college football history is still only a couple of keystrokes away.
Ron Zook brings a .621 winning percentage to Illinois after guiding the Gators to 7-4 in his final season. (Getty Images)
"I took off from New Orleans, and before I landed in Gainesville, they had that," Zook said reminiscing (sort of) Monday at the Big Ten preseason media days. "(Pittsburgh Steelers coach) Bill Cowher told me, 'Man, you screwed this game up. Now everybody has 'Fire Bill Cowher.'
"I said that's my legacy to coaching."
Pretty much. For now. The infamous website now exists only to proclaim "VICTORY" in huge headline type through a doctored front page. Dwight Eisenhower is smiling out from a picture on A1, as if to suggest a battle of World War II proportions had been won.
The going-out-of business-sale for fireronzook.com gear ($9.99 for the thong panties, who knew?) is supposedly concluded. The site, in case you're wondering, supports the hiring of Urban Meyer and proclaims Saturdays are worth waking up for again, "with a Bloody Mary, of course."
Coaches have been fired, run out of town and disgraced, but seldom all three, and practically never with a .621 winning percentage.
Just so you know where this column is heading.
What could have been called ronzookfiresback.com debuted Monday -- Zook, the new Illinois coach, taking some not-so-veiled shots at his old employers. Which was great. It's about time. The guy who delivered more filibusters than big victories at Florida isn't a boob or a fool. He's merely the latest guy-to-follow-the-guy, that unfortunate cradle of coaches that counts Bill Guthridge, Gary Gibbs and Gene Bartow among its exclusive group.
In order, those three followed legends Dean Smith, Barry Switzer and John Wooden. Zook followed The OBC (Ol' Ball Coach), the Florida icon who won six SEC titles and a national championship. No, he wasn't athletic director Jeremy Foley's first choice. No, he had no head coaching experience. And yes, frz.com was literally fired up and running before he left the New Orleans Saints to touch down in Gainesville.
"What did you want me to do, tell them no?" Zook said.
Exactly. What would you do if a super-rich major-college power dumped its football program in your lap? Delivered you from life of assistant coach servitude? Gave you that one chance that 99 percent of coaches never get?
"People say, 'Why would you follow Steve Spurrier?'" Zook said. "It's an opportunity."
Zook is approximately $4.5 million richer for having taken the plunge at Florida. He will make $1 million per year at a Big Ten school that won the conference title only four years ago. That's a million he never would have gotten had not Foley flipped through his Rolodex and finally found Zook to say yes.
The former coach in Champaign, Ron Turner, became the Illinois version of Zook at Florida -- a nice-guy former pro assistant who couldn't win enough.
Illinois has beaten exactly one I-A team since November 2002. It's probably staring up at another Big Ten title through about 10 other teams this year, but at least it's a job. Not a terrible one. A job he earned. Zook showed he can recruit with back-to-back top 10 classes at Florida.
It was inconsistency on the field that got him in trouble. But just think how Illini fans would react to a 7-4 record, Zook's final mark at Florida. Illinois has gone 9-26 since winning the league three years ago.
The difference? At Florida, Foley alone wanted Zook, at the time a no-name. At Illinois, they've just woken up from a magic Final Four run and are flattered. It's almost like, "Gee, we're able to get Florida's coach?"
"It's a lot easier when you stay positive, when the players hear some positive things instead of constantly negative things," Zook said. "That's why you hear so many positive things down there (in Florida) now. They're trying to spin it back the other way."
We've been waiting for The Zooker to say stuff like this since he was dumped by Florida on Oct. 25. You can't say the man screwed up Florida. The Gators are favored by some to win the SEC this year under Urban Meyer. Zook handed his replacement Heisman candidate Chris Leak at quarterback. The receivers might be the best in the country.
Make fun of him "failing" at Florida. Mock his landing at moribund Illinois. Now sit back and take some, Gator Nation.
"The expectation level is more in line with reality," Zook said of Illinois. "When we first went down there (Florida), the expectation level was not the same as the talent there. I think it's more in line with the talent level we're at now."
Translation: Spurrier didn't leave him much.
"It ain't going to get any better," Zook said of Florida.
Translation: There's a reason Florida is favored by some to win the SEC. The cupboard has been left full.
"He should be (favored)," he said of Meyer. "Them and LSU are probably the most talented teams in the SEC."
OK, OK, we get it. No translation needed. The man can still talk.
"I've got an athletic director, he understands the game of football. He was a coach. He played there, he coached there," Zook said of his new boss, Ron Guenther.
Translation: Foley turned against his coach only when it became obvious the tide had turned.
"Oh, Jiminy Christmas, overblown?" Zook said of the infamous confrontation with the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity two days before a loss to Tennessee. "I'll tell you exactly what happened. I don't want to say it on tape, but ..."
And so, off the record, Zook gushes about his frustration. How he was hung out to dry. How he had no idea it was like that in Gainesville. How he deserves some credit.
Yes, the firing was probably inevitable after the loss to Mississippi State. But no coach in recent history has twisted in the wind like this. Remember that Zook stayed after the firing, went 3-1 and walked into the sunset with his head high -- having helped wean Gator Nation off Spurrier.
Someone had to do it, fall on the visor, er, grenade. No one could live up to or live in Spurrier's shadow. That Zook did it with such class should be his true legacy.
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