It's been two years since Steve Spurrier jilted them for the NFL, but Florida Gators loyalists--like the hapless protagonist of some chick-lit novel--are still fixated on the Visored One as the only man who can make them happy. Witness their euphoria after the university fired head coach Ron Zook on Oct. 25, a move that prompted giddy speculation about Spurrier's imminent return to Gainesville. Breathless columnists couldn't resist demanding that he be rehired on the spot. Fans blitzed the message boards at hirestevespurrier.com with a torrent of please-come-back missives. (One poster actually wrote, "I have desperately longed for you. Your flashy style, your temper tantrums, your big strong arms.") The clamor grew so loud that two days after Zook got sacked, athletic director Jeremy Foley, who had vowed to conduct a nationwide search for a successor, found himself squelching a rumor that he'd offered the job to Spurrier and given the coach 24 hours to respond.
Not much has gone right for the Gators since Spurrier made the ill-advised decision to go pro with his Fun 'n' Gun offense. Last weekend's loss to Georgia dropped Florida to 4--4, its worst record through eight games since 1986. Now in his third season, Zook has 14 losses, more than half the number Spurrier had in 12 years. Worse, Zook is winless against in-state rivals Miami and Florida State. After the Gators' 38--31 loss on Oct. 23 to a 1--5 Mississippi State team that ranked last in the country in scoring offense--"The worst loss in our entire history," one booster calls it--Zook was done. (He will, however, finish out the remainder of the season and collect $1.8 million over the next four years.)
In his short time at the school, Zook showed himself to be a first-rate recruiter, but he never found his feet as a game-day coach, perhaps because Gators backers, suspicious of his lack of head coaching experience, kept trying to take him out at the kneecaps. One day after Zook was hired, in January 2002, the website fireronzook.com was launched. Halfway through his first season, hirestevespurrier.com went up. Florida, of course, isn't the only school with Internet gadflies--Penn State's Joe Paterno has by now surely heard of joepamustgo.com, and Texas head coach Mack Brown must contend with firemackbrown.com. But trends in coach-bashing meant little to outraged Gators players, who berated their AD in a meeting Foley characterized as "hostile," and voiced their displeasure over Zook's firing to the press. "We're the ones who [put on the show]," says free safety Jarvis Herring. "But it's all about the fans and the boosters."
It was that same element that made Spurrier's life difficult the first time around. The 1966 Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback came back to Florida in 1990 and became the big man on campus all over again. The Gators at that point had averaged just six victories a season since World War II and had never won an SEC title. Spurrier's success--six conference championships and an average of 10 wins a season--made him wildly popular, but it also spoiled the faithful. By 2002, the year he left to become coach of the Washington Redskins, Spurrier was eager to escape the weight of unrealistic expectations, the belief that anything less than an SEC title equaled disaster.
Now, after two years of frustration in the NFL and a year on the sidelines, Spurrier, who turns 60 next April, seems eager to feel the love again. Though he respectfully kept his distance during Zook's tenure, he did not dismiss the prospects of a return once the ax fell. "I'll cross that bridge if it comes to that," he told The Orlando Sentinel last week. "I guess there will be some discussions. We'll see what happens."
Back in Gainesville, the conventional wisdom is that Spurrier can have his old job back if he wants it. The truth is, it's hard to imagine any of the other choice candidates for the position, such as Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Utah's Urban Meyer, getting a fair shake from Gators fans as long as Spurrier is available.
The problem is that Spurrier's old job doesn't exist anymore. Things have changed in the three years since he left for his $25 million NFL deal. The SEC is stronger from top to bottom. While the main competition for Florida's conference supremacy during the '90s came from SEC East rival Tennessee, today he would face weekly challenges from the Vols, Georgia, LSU and Auburn. Would a merely good season be good enough? "I think most fans are reasonable about their expectations," says Rex Farrior, a Bull Gator booster, who donates at least $10,000 a year to the football program. "But it depends on who you're listening to. Is it the loyal Gators boosters, or the guys who run the websites?"
Oh, yeah, the websites. Perhaps before he makes any decision the coach should check out firestevespurrier.com. The sign there says, "Under Construction."
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TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS
ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER