The Ron Zook Era (2002-2004)
- Overall record: 23-15 in three seasons.
- 2002: 8-5 overall | 6-2 vs. SEC | 5-0 vs. SEC East | 1-2 vs. SEC West
- 2003: 8-5 overall | 6-2 vs. SEC | 4-1 vs. SEC East | 2-1 vs. SEC West
- 2004: 7-5 overall | 4-4 vs. SEC | 3-2 vs. SEC East | 1-2 vs. SEC West
- SEC records: 16-8 overall | 12-3 vs. East | 4-5 vs. West
Ron Zook. “The Zooker.” Ron…Zook…
Well, what can I say?
Although lacking the ability to articulate fluid, coherent sentences—often stumbling and mumbling through halftime interviews—Zook never lacked emotion and enthusiasm, both on and off the field (just ask the Pi Kapp Fraternity boys).
Zook, I believe, really loved the University of Florida, also. If you saw footage of his press conference after being fired, you’d get that sense too.
That’s the biggest shame of his short-lived tenure at Florida (short, unless you’re a Gator fan…those were three long years) . He really loves UF! I think Zook will always be a Gator to some degree, as he spent multiple years at Florida; first as an assistant under Steve Spurrier, second, of course, as Commander in Chief of Gator Nation. He was a players’ coach, a master recruiter, but a horrible game manager.
Many believe Zook never had a chance to succeed at Florida. Most say he was treated unfairly—I agree with both, to a certain extent at least.
I mean, come on, do you all remember FireRonZook.com? I was a huge fan of FRZ…I can still remember laughing to the point of tears reading one of the posts after we lost to Ole Miss when I was but a young Gator, maybe 11 years old:
“I’m still so pissed off I can’t even think straight. I sit here trying to write a decent blurb to convey my feelings, and I just want to throw my laptop across the room…call me whatever the hell you want to…but after yesterday you can no longer call my opinions unfounded. I was embarrassed to be a Gator yesterday. The last time that happened, at least we were tied 31-31 at the end of the game against a worthy opponent.”
Man, I loved me some FireRonZook.com. Good times.
Although the site has been shut down for years, it has recently been somewhat salvaged. By the way, these jokers have now dedicated the site to firing Will Muschamp! We’ll talk about this another time.
Back to Zook.
Was he treated unfairly? Sure. Did he suffer a ton of bad luck? Yeah, probably. But I will say in no uncertain terms, that firing Ron Zook is the best move Jeremy Foley has made since hiring Billy Donovan in 1996.
Zook had absolutely no chance to succeed at Florida, however, not because of the fan base or anything related to outside the football program. Zook had no chance to succeed at Florida because he is not a capable head coach, especially for major college football program.
Anyone who has followed Gator football the past 25 years knows that Zook was incompetent. He served as defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier from 1991 to 1993, and was demoted to special teams coordinator by Spurrier after the ’93 season. Florida had great teams in those three years, but the Gators gave up a lot of points and had a secondary famous for blowing coverages and missing assignments.
That’s why Gator fans were so puzzled when Foley announced that Zook would be the man to take over the program; a program that for the previous decade under Spurrier, fiddled and toyed with the Southeastern Conference—racking up wins, records, and rings.
So Foley decides to replace Spurrier with a coach that Spurrier himself basically ran out of Gainesville. Needless to say, it was an awful hire on Foley’s part.
I have to mention, when I discuss the Zook years with Gator fans, some of them try to tell me that Zook didn’t have a chance because Spurrier left the cupboard bare. That’s absolutely ludicrous (Luda!)…in Zook’s first season, he inherited the Heisman runner up in QB Rex Grossman, a 3,000 yard rusher in Earnest Graham, a quality group of receivers led by All-SEC WR Taylor Jacobs (one of the most forgotten and underrated players UF has ever had, in my opinion), and a defense loaded with veterans such as Keiwan Ratliff, Gus Scott, Robert Cromartie, Bam Hardmon, Mike Nattiel, and Bobby McCray. The Gators were loaded, ranked sixth in the nation prior to the 2002 season.
Granted, the Zook Era had it’s great moments, but those were overshadowed by fourth quarter collapses, multiple defeats to teams Florida had never lost to in the 90’s, and the astonishing fact that Florida never beat a ranked team in The Swamp under Coach Zook.
Think about this: In Spurrier’s 12 seasons at Florida, the Gators lost just five games at home, and at one point from 1994-99 boasted a 30 game home winning streak. In just three seasons, Zook’s Gators lost six games in The Swamp.
The numbers speak for themselves…Zook was a coach that had nothing but good intentions for UF, just terrible hire—amplified by the fact that he had to replace the man that will probably have the field named after him one day. Within 10 years I bet Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field becomes Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Steve Spurrier field. Eh, not much of a ring to it, but I bet it happens. Who could’ve replaced Spurrier? It would have been a demanding task for any coach, but Zook certainly should not have been the man to do it.
So, without further ado, here are the best moments of the Ron Zook Era. I’m saving the worst moments for later…
Top 5 Best Moments
This game still amazes me, as Gator fans remember it game as “The Triumph in Tallahassee at Ron Zook Field.” The unranked Gators, at 6-4 and without a single victory over a ranked opponent, invaded Tallahassee on the night in which FSU would dedicate the field to legendary head coach, Bobby Bowden. It seemed like an ideal night for the dedication—Florida hadn’t beaten FSU in Tallahassee since 1986; nearly 20 years of frustration for Gator Nation. Florida State came in at 8-2 overall; this wasn’t one of Bowden’s vintage Seminole squads, but it was still a top 10 team with a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. To add more, the Gators’ previous three trips to Doak Campbell Stadium (’98, ’00, ’02) all ended with double digit losses. FSU was going to murder Florida, and everyone knew it.
QB Chris Leak, RB Ciatrick Fason, and a relentless Gator defense apparently didn’t get the memo, as Florida never trailed in the ballgame. The Gators struck first, capping off a 14 play, 97 yard drive when Leak hit Chad Jackson for a 13-yard touchdown strike late in the first quarter. That drive set the tone for the rest of the game.
Ironically, on the day in which the field was named in his honor, you could argue that FSU lost this game solely because of Bowden. Bowden chose Wyatt Sexton over streaky-hot-and-cold Chris Rix as his starting quarterback, and Sexton was ineffective all night. Rix, a reckless but talented player always played well vs. Floirda…by the time Bowden inserted Rix, it was too late.
Ciatrick Fason ran for 117 yards, including an eight-yard touchdown rush to give the Gators a 20-10 lead in the 4th quarter. Rix would do his best to salvage a comeback, but was picked off by Gator Safety Jarvis Herring, sealing the greatest moment in the Ron Zook Era, and perhaps Florida’s most memorable victory in Tallahassee ever.
2. 2002: Florida 20, #5 Georgia 13
My dad is a University of Georgia grad, and this game was the one and only time that I’ve ever felt bad about winning the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. This game is not to be mentioned in the Joost household.
Steve Spurrier dominated the Georgia Bulldogs in his 12 seasons at Florida. He went 11-1 in that span, enjoying many blowout victories and Gator celebrations at the Cocktail Party. 2002 was going to be different. Spurrier was gone. Zook was already reeling just eight games into his first season. Florida was unranked at 5-3, its worst record entering the Georgia game since the 1980’s. Georgia, on the other hand, was a rare prohibitive favorite—ranked fifth in the country and undefeated. The Gator curse was going to be trounced one and for all, except it wasn’t. Rex Grossman set a Florida-Georgia record with 36 completions and threw for 339 yards against the David Pollack-led Junkyard Dawg Defense.
The ‘Dogs would take a 13-12 lead into halftime, but Florida would take over in the fourth quarter—Grossman led the Gators on an 89 yard drive, capping it off with a touchdown pass to TE Ben Troupe, and then diving into the endzone for the two-point conversion. The Gator defense would close the game out, and Florida delivered one of the most shocking and frustrating losses to Georgia in the history of the rivalry. The loss to the Gators would be the only blemish on Georgia’s season; UGA may have played for a National Title if not for the fightin’ Zookers.
3. 2003: Florida 19, #6 LSU 7
I’ll never forget watching this game at my Nana and Papa’s house in Atlantic Beach. I recommend watching the highlights above—the video was made by the official UF athletic YouTube channel and has play-by-play audio of Mick Hubert at his finest. LSU, led by Nick Saban, was undefeated and would later go on to win the National Championship despite losing to Florida at home.
After Tiger WR Syler Green returned a punt for a touchdown early in the game, I remember my brother Jason looking at me and saying, “Well Nick, there’s gonna be plenty more of that today.” Jason was wrong. The Gator defense would pitch a shutout, as a Freshman named Chris Leak would calmly lead the Gator offense into Death Valley, throwing two touchdowns.
This was also the coming out party for Ciatrick Fason, who played high school ball at nearby Duncan U. Fletcher in Neptune beach—the same high school my mom, aunt, uncle, and Jason graduated from. This was a great day to be a Florida Gator.
4. 2002: #10 Florida 30, #4 Tennessee 13
A biblical flood came through Knoxville on September 21st of 2002, and the waterworks continued with the flowing tears of 100,000 Tennessee fans after Florida upended the Vols in blowout fashion. After 25 minutes of scoreless football, the Gators would create a storm of their own—scoring 24 points in the final 4:55 of the second quarter.
Tennessee would fumble eight times in the game, losing three of them which propelled the Florida onslaught. Florida handled the swamp-like conditions like Gators do, totaling more than 400 yards on offense, 324 of which came from the right arm of Rex Grossman.
This was just weeks after the Miami Hurricanes decimated Florida in The Swamp , 41-16…needless to say, this one was a much needed rebound.
5. 2003: #23 Florida 16, #4 Georgia 13
My Uncle Stephen is a great man. He’s the youngest of seven children; my dad’s baby bro. Uncle Steve had a lapse in judgement you could say on November 1, 2003. He got married that day. Mass panic ensued throughout the family…we were going to miss our first Florida-Georgia game in years. I was able to listen to some of it on the radio before the wedding and by the time we arrived at San Jose Catholic Church, the score was even at 13 a piece. Remember, folks, this is 2003. No smartphones, no nothin’. Here’s how I found out the Gators won: As my dad walked down the aisle, I gave him a little Gator chomp to see his reaction. Papa Joost gave me a look that would probably make most men nervous; a look that pierces one’s soul and injects it with venom—it was the look I was banking on!
I would later learn that Matt Leach kicked a field goal in the closing seconds to give the Gators a 16-13 win over undefeated Georgia. By 2003, Florida had won 13 of the last 14 meetings in the seires…ouch! Losing three in a row to the Pups is hard enough for me…I can’t even imagine. And dad, if you’re reading this…I’m sorry.
Stay tuned for the worst moments of the Zook Era!
Thanks for reading! Until next time, Go Gators!