Saturday, November 16, 2002
Gators again contenders after sticking with Zook
College football notebook
The Associated Press
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - When things were going bad at Florida this season, seniors such as Todd Johnson and Earnest Graham could have turned on new coach Ron Zook. They didn't.
"They haven't ever come in and said, `Coach, we've won a lot of games doing it this way.' And they could have," Zook said.
Zook believes that's a big reason the No. 20 Gators still will have a chance at the Southeastern Conference East title today when they play South Carolina in the last home game for their 15 seniors.
If Florida (7-3, 5-2 SEC) defeats South Carolina (5-5, 3-4) and Auburn beats Georgia, the Gators will earn their eighth trip to the SEC title game in 11 seasons.
Then all the criticism of Zook will be muted, and the seniors will see the payoff for believing in a new system that not all fans have liked and not all players have adapted to easily.
"People don't like change, and that's just human nature," Graham said. "But most people like it when you win. Hopefully, we can go out this year winners and play in the SEC championship game. People can't complain about that."
Graham has struggled as the season has progressed. Florida's goal of playing more power football and running more has been put aside because of problems with the offensive line.
Still, the senior from Fort Myers has little to complain about. He has 802 yards rushing this season, a career high, and is fifth on Florida's career rushing list. He needs five more touchdowns to tie Emmitt Smith for the school record.
His rushing average has dropped to 3.5 yards per carry in the last five games, but Graham says he's still happy he stayed, and happy with the new coach.
"Sometimes you get frustrated because you have certain expectations that don't work out," he said. "But you've got to look at the positive."
On defense, the Gators have done everything they can to allow Johnson to continue as the big playmaker. He has nine interceptions and eight fumble recoveries in four years.
Asked why the seniors stayed behind their coach, Johnson said: "We took the road that may not have been the easiest, but the road that was best for this team, especially for the young guys."
When he was hired, Zook scored a major public-relations coup when senior receiver Taylor Jacobs decided to return.
Seniors Aaron Walker, Mike Nattiel, Bam Hardmon, Bryan Savelio and David Jorgensen have all been key starters, and have bought into a system that hasn't always worked.
Truthfully, Zook needed their confidence more than they needed his, and that's why the coach actually got teary this week when asked what their support means to him.
"I know I didn't recruit them, but in a 10-month period of time, I've gotten pretty close to these guys," he said. "And to see them hang in there and fight. I mean, I want it for these guys."
SACRAMENTO STATE: The Big Sky Conference reprimanded four defensive linemen who greased their jerseys for a game against Montana last week but did not suspend them. The players - Brad Osterhout, Bilal Watkins, Ben Fox and Eric Broden - can play against Weber State today.
FEMALE KICKER: An appeals court threw out a $2 million award in a lawsuit filed by former Duke kicker Heather Sue Mercer, ruling punitive damages are not available in private actions brought to enforce Title IX, the law that bars sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds.
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