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Time to Double Back

High-profile programs Florida, Nebraska and Notre Dame try to turn it around.

August 15, 2004|From Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With his fate entangled among the accomplishments of the past and the promise of the future, Ron Zook stays faithful to one promise he made when he got his job: No coach in America will work harder than him.

But hard work may not be enough.

Entering his third year as coach at Florida, Zook has gone 8-5 in each of the last two seasons. During that time, there have been wild swings of success and failure, the term "fireronzook.com" has become a familiar college-sports catchphrase and there has been a general sense that not all is well.

He has company.

Bill Callahan of Nebraska and Tyrone Willingham of Notre Dame are also coaches stuck in conundrums. They're trying to lead struggling, high-profile programs back to a level their fans got used to under more successful coaches, but they're forced to do it on a much more level playing field than their predecessors had.

"It's a challenge that gets me going every day," said Callahan, who replaced Frank Solich after his six-year stint as Tom Osborne's successor.

Of the three coaches, Callahan may have the most unique challenge. He takes over for Solich, who went 58-19 with the Cornhuskers but couldn't get his fans or his athletic director to shake the feeling that Nebraska was losing ground.

"If you're afraid to play for the championship, that's a tough way to go through life," athletic director Steve Pederson said when he hired Callahan. "We're going to continue to strive to be at the top of college football. At Nebraska, that's the way it should be."

Indeed, while Solich led Nebraska to the Alamo and Independence Bowls in two of his last three seasons, Oklahoma won a national title and two Big 12 championships after Bob Stoops came aboard in 1999.

One reason for the Sooners' success was Stoops' willingness to change the offense and make Oklahoma multidimensional instead of run-oriented.

Callahan, whose expertise is in the West Coast Offense, is being asked to do the same thing. Any college football fan knows throwing the ball around the field at Nebraska is about as familiar as a heat wave there in January.

"You almost think that the world is coming to an end when you see that," Willingham said of the new approach at Nebraska.

A record crowd of 61,417 attended Nebraska's spring football game, a sign of the unwavering devotion to football, but possibly also a warning of how seriously they take it.

"I don't feel pressure," Callahan insisted. "Getting the program back to the position it has been at historically is an awesome responsibility, one I look forward to."

Zook's challenge wasn't so much to get the program back to where it had been as much as to keep it where it was.

Over 12 seasons preceding Zook, Steve Spurrier turned the Gators into one of the most successful, exciting programs in the country, and when he left, they were ranked third in the final Associated Press poll.

Since Zook took over, hearts have continued to race around Gainesville, but not for all the right reasons.

Zook's first two seasons have almost been a primer on mistakes that first-time head coaches can make as they feel their way into a leadership position. Zook has been guilty of public-relations gaffes, bad calls on the sidelines and running an offense many people feel is unsuited to the talent.

All that aside, he has also notched some huge wins -- twice against Georgia, and a big win at LSU last year that saved his season -- and has brought in some of the best recruiting classes in the country, including Chris Leak, who is widely regarded as one of the best high-school quarterbacks ever.

Zook will need to do something with those recruits soon or else the obvious calls for Spurrier will be heard. The former head coach of the Gators is unemployed and still has a house in Gainesville, even though his return is thought unlikely.

"Even when you win them all, not everyone is happy," said Zook, a former assistant for Spurrier. "I remember them getting upset with Coach Spurrier about things. It's just the nature of the beast. You can't take it personally. It goes back to the expectations, and if they didn't have them, that wouldn't be good, either."

Willingham enjoyed a love affair at the beginning at Notre Dame. He was a calming influence after the debacle of the George O'Leary hiring, and when he won his first eight games, the Irish faithful thought they had their next great coach.

But lately, the record that has been bandied about is 7-10, which is what Willingham has gone since that 8-0 start. They went 5-7 last year, posting their third losing season in five years -- the first time that's happened at Notre Dame.

Indeed, they've been restless at Notre Dame for a while -- ever since Lou Holtz retired and Bob Davie took over in 1997 -- and nobody there wants to hear excuses about tough schedules or academic standards.

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