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Hopes not sinking in Swamp


GAINESVILLE, Fla. - From the outside, life in The Swamp doesn't seem to have changed much for the Florida Gators under new coach Ron Zook than it had been during the past decade under Steve Spurrier.

Fans still stand in the middle of town holding signs that read "Need Tickets" - four days before games, such as the one this afternoon against top-ranked Miami at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The talk show callers are still asking about how the beloved Gators are going to fare against the hated Seminoles of Florida State - nearly three months before their game will be played over in Tallahassee.

And Florida is still throwing the ball deep, as quarterback Rex Grossman did in hooking up with receiver Taylor Jacobs for a 59-yard completion on the first play from scrimmage in last week's season opener against Alabama-Birmingham.

The idea for starting the season with a streak play belonged to Grossman and Jacobs, who pestered Zook and offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher until they agreed.

"We wanted to start the season with a statement, and that's what we tried to do," Jacobs, who caught eight passes for a school-record 246 yards and two touchdowns, said after a practice earlier this week.

One play straight out of Spurrier's "Fun 'N Gun" offense might not be enough to shroud the truth: from the practice fields to the news conferences, from the meeting rooms to the locker room, life here has been altered dramatically.

Just listen to Grossman, the junior All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate, talk about Zook's sideline demeanor in his successful head coaching debut.

"He was extremely calm," said Grossman. "I didn't notice him at times."

Or about Zook's play-calling during his team's 51-3 victory, and Grossman's sudden surge of confidence in switching things up at the line of scrimmage.

"I had the ability to audible where I saw fit and I saw fit a lot," said Grossman, who estimated he changed the coach's play about 15 times - a dozen times more than he would have had the nerve to do under Spurrier.

And listen to junior nose guard Ian Scott talk about Zook's hands-on style of coaching compared to Spurrier, who rarely talked to anyone but his quarterbacks.

"Coach Zook actually spends more time with special teams than anything," Scott said. "He does everything. He sometimes sits in on your individual meetings. He pops around everywhere."

But it will make no difference if the Gators, ranked sixth in the country but only third in the state, don't beat the defending champion Hurricanes today and the fifth-ranked Seminoles to close out the regular season.

A national championship in 1996 lifted Spurrier's status from mere folk hero to sainthood around these parts, and his shocking departure last January to the Washington Redskins put whoever was going to follow him on the proverbial hot seat.

That it was Zook, a low-profile college and NFL assistant who spent five seasons here under Spurrier, rather than big-name head coaches Bob Stoops of Oklahoma or Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos, also put athletic director Jeremy Foley directly in the line of fire.

"I think Ron is a perfect guy to follow Steve because he's different than Steve," Foley said earlier this week. "He's not trying to be Steve. He's trying to be Ron Zook. He's different in that he coaches a different side of the ball, the defensive side of the ball.

"All that will take care of itself if you're successful. If you're not successful, then obviously the comparisons will keep being made. And even if he is successful, for a while they're going to be made. But that's OK. That's a challenge we've faced since the day I hired him."

Zook, 48, is the latest career assistant thrust in the overzealous scrutiny that accompanies head coaches in most big-time programs, especially in this football-crazed state.

It was there for Zook's sideline opponent today, Miami's Larry Coker, who followed Butch Davis last year and led the Hurricanes to an unbeaten season in his first try. It was there for Stoops, who led the Sooners to a national title in his second year.

"Obviously they weren't following a Steve Spurrier, that's probably the only difference in the equation," Foley said. "I think it shows that people who are talented and even though they haven't been head coaches before, when they get in the big chair, they can make it work."

For his part, Zook is not backing down to one of the biggest challenges any first-time college football coach has ever faced.

"You take it a day at a time, you do what you know," Zook said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. "I've been in a lot of big games before. It's not going to be the first time. I've made some decisions in big games before. It's not too far removed from where I've already been."

Zook won over a bunch of skeptical players shortly after arriving on campus. Part of his off-season routine was going to the weight room at 5:30 a.m., something most new coaches do to bond with their players. But Zook took it one step further by matching Jacobs with a 340-pound bench press.

"Do you think you're the only one who can lift that?" Zook asked his star receiver.

"If you feel you can do it, get on down here," Jacobs answered.

It wasn't the only bit of heavy lifting Zook has done since taking over for Spurrier.

As calm as Zook was on the sideline in his debut, he was as maniacal as Spurrier ever was getting there. He spent more time recruiting his first month than Spurrier did for most of his 10 years, visiting 71 high schools in one 13-day stretch.

Asked by local reporters back in May where his newly purchased home was located, Zook told them, "I don't know the address. I don't even know the name of the street it's on, but I can get there. I don't even know where the light switches are yet."

The one that will be turned on here today could be blinding, if Zook and the Gators are not prepared. They will be facing a Miami team that is, again, bulging with talent, from All-America quarterback Ken Dorsey leading the offense to a defensive line that is unmatched in college football.

Not that Spurrier left the locker room bare. Aside from Grossman and Jacobs, Florida's offense will be helped by the renewed health of tailback Earnest Graham, whose injuries were a factor in losses to Auburn and Tennessee last year. A rebuilt defense is solid, but is also the biggest question mark.

Or maybe the second biggest.

That's what happens when you replace a folk hero who achieved sainthood in the eyes of many around here.

"I guess that's part of what Steve Spurrier was, he deserves everything he's gotten and all the attention for that," Grossman said. "At the same time, we're still a good football team and we still have good coaches and that shouldn't have any bearing on how the season turns out."

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