Friday, January 3, 2003

Gators disappointed, Grossman may leave

Zook better produce next season

Florida Today

TAMPA, Fla. - The critics asking for the head of first-year University of Florida coach Ron Zook will probably be louder than ever this offseason, not necessarily for the 8-5 record but how the Gators got there.

"I think overall the season, obviously it's not where we have to be," Zook said after UF's 38-30 loss to Michigan in Wednesday's Outback Bowl.

"It's not the standard that's been set there. It's not the standard that we're going to have there, but that's where we are right now."

The Gators are limping back to Gainesville trying to reload for 2003 - with the knowledge that quarterback Rex Grossman will likely announce in the next few days that he is leaving school after his junior year for the NFL - after a bowl loss filled with controversial play calling.

The last was a wide receiver getting intercepted trying to throw a trick pass back to Grossman late in the game. Florida also went for a two-point conversion after a touchdown early in the game and tried a reverse on a kickoff that backfired.

The Gators lost back-to-back games to LSU and Mississippi and were 4-3 at one point. Add a lackluster effort in a loss at Florida State and a humbling defeat to Miami and it's clear Florida is a long way from the excellence it has grown to represent.

As for Grossman, he was in Clearwater Beach on Thursday with his family debating what to do next.

"I think he'll make a decision within the next few days on what he feels like is best for him and his career," Zook said. "He knows this: he's always a Gator."

Those who are definitely staying behind left Tampa with a bitter taste in their mouths and the knowledge that things aren't the same.

"After we watched the Heisman ballots thing I called all my linemen and let them know from January on, we're going to do everything it takes to get the job done to where one of our players from our team can be up top, contending for it next year, whoever it may be," Florida tailback Ran Carthon said. "I made a commitment to my linemen, and my linemen made a commitment to me so we're going to stick it in, we're going to grind out and we're going to try to come out hard and focused next year."

The Gators' return to the top isn't about individual awards. It's about the fact the offense was inconsistent, the defense had holes and the special teams were awful. Defensive coordinator John Thompson is departing for the head coaching job at East Carolina. Special teams coordinator Jerry Odom left with him.

Charlie Strong, the new defensive coordinator, has produced solid units the last few years. But he faces the challenges Thompson left behind - a front seven that doesn't match up with physical, running teams. The special teams need a complete overhaul.

"Zook's done a good job," said defensive end Clint Mitchell, who's also debating whether to leave for the NFL. "He had to come in here with a lot of fire. That's a brave man to come in here and do that after Coach (Steve) Spurrier left. I don't think Gator fans are a little bit spoiled but as much as we're expected to win, that's a good season pretty much anywhere else, except for the big powerhouses like us. We're going to bounce back and we're going to have a great year next year."

But Florida players realize 8-5 won't be OK next fall. If it happens?

"I think things will get ugly, especially in the state of Florida at the big three schools, like you see with (FSU coach) Bobby Bowden, a lot of people are starting to question whether he should stay or not. After everything he's done at that university and two bad seasons, everybody's down on the coach," cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said. "So if we come out and have five losses again next year, I think everybody will look at that as unacceptable."

In other words, the grace period is over for Zook.

"Nobody expected us to come out and have a national championship team with the change of coaches and things like that," Ratliff said. "But people expected us to come out to compete and be a good football team, which we were, so next year people's expectations will go up a step further than this year because they've seen what we can do and they've seen the caliber players we have. So it's only natural that the fans of Florida expect the best out of their athletes. ... It was a learning year for us, I think."

But the message is simple and understood, from Zook to the players, that 2003 could be a season of change - in many ways - if Florida is 8-5 again.

"I feel bad for the seniors because it's a bad way for them to go out, but the guys coming back, we know (what) we've got to do next year, and I already told them that we're not coming back to this bowl again," Carthon said.

Call it the Gator rallying cry for 2003.

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