The University of Florida fired football coach Ron Zook yesterday, opening the door for former Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier to return to his alma mater. Spurrier, who led the Gators to six Southeastern Conference championships and the 1996 national title before leaving for the NFL three years ago, didn't immediately defuse speculation that he would be interested in replacing his successor.
Spurrier, 59, is out of work after he quit as the Redskins' coach last December. He still lives in Northern Virginia while his son, Scotty, finishes his senior year at Loudoun County High. Scotty Spurrier is considering playing football at the University of South Florida in Tampa, which is about 130 miles from the Florida campus in Gainesville. Spurrier still owns homes in Gainesville and Crescent Beach, Fla., and his mother, Margaret, lives in Brandon, Fla.
Spurrier would undoubtedly be the most popular choice among Florida fans, most of whom never embraced Zook, a longtime NFL assistant who also served as Spurrier's defensive coordinator. Zook, who has a 20-13 record in his three seasons at Florida, will coach the Gators' four remaining regular season games, beginning with Saturday's game against No. 10 Georgia in Jacksonville.
Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner as Florida's quarterback, rescued the Gators from NCAA probation in 1990 and then transformed the way football is played in the South. In the rugged SEC, where "three yards and a cloud of dust" still reigned, Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun, pass-happy offense dominated the conference for more than a decade. In 12 seasons at Florida, he won 122 of 150 games, most of them in convincing fashion, and earned the moniker "Coach Superior" from rivals' fans.
"I'll cross that bridge if it comes to that," Spurrier told the Orlando Sentinel yesterday, before playing in PGA golfer Chris DiMarco's charity golf tournament near Orlando. "The thing I've tried to do all this year is not be lingering around, acting like I'm waiting for another guy's job. I don't believe that's the right way to do it. But now that he doesn't have a job, I guess there will be some discussion. We'll see what happens."
Spurrier didn't return messages left on his cell phone and at his homes in Florida last night.
During the news conference yesterday announcing Zook's firing, Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said: "Obviously, if Coach Spurrier is interested, we will sit down with him. We obviously will sit down with other coaches. . . . We'll talk to Steve. It may be Steve. We'll have some honest, open conversation with Steve."
Yesterday, while Spurrier putted out one of the holes at Heathrow Country Club in Seminole County, Fla., a banner hung on a nearby fence with the message: "Steve -- UF Needs You." Sources close to Spurrier said the coach has become increasingly eager in returning to coaching and was interested in coaching again at Florida. But the source also said Spurrier has interest in returning to the NFL. Spurrier walked away from $15 million -- what he was owed by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for the final three years of his contract -- after compiling a 12-20 record in two seasons with the team. Spurrier has been linked to a potential opening with the Miami Dolphins, where Coach Dave Wannstedt is under tremendous pressure following the team's 1-6 start.
Two other coaches believed to be on Foley's list are Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Utah's Urban Meyer. Stoops, who was Florida's defensive coordinator during the national championship season in 1996, was Foley's first choice to replace Spurrier in 2001. Stoops, 44, is college football's highest-paid coach, earning between $1.5 million and $2 million annually, and his contract has a buyout of $250,000.
Meyer, 40, is one of the sport's brightest young coaches and has led Utah to a 7-0 record and No. 7 ranking this season. Meyer, a former assistant under Earl Bruce at Ohio State and Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, has a 34-8 record in four seasons as coach at Bowling Green and Utah. The Utes restructured Meyer's contract after last season, and he earns about $500,000 annually, with a buyout of $200,000. Florida President Bernard Machen was the University of Utah's president for six years before he was hired at Florida last October.
Zook was fired two days after the Gators were upset, 38-31, at Mississippi State, dropping their record to 4-3 and 2-3 in the SEC. He has four years remaining on his contract, after Foley extended it two years in December, and the school will pay him a $1.8 million buyout. Zook was hired by Foley after Stoops and Denver Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan turned down the job. Before Zook coached his first game, Florida fans launched a Web site -- FireRonZook.com -- devoted to his dismissal.
Zook was known as a tireless worker, who signed three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes at Florida. But his tenure also was marked by several late collapses in games and last month he was involved in an altercation outside a fraternity house on campus, which Foley called "unacceptable behavior."
In the end, Zook couldn't escape his gaffes and Spurrier's capacious shadow.
"I want to thank him for the extraordinary effort he's put into this program in the past three years," Foley said. "It just appeared to me that something was not working here."