GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- What would normally be tuneup time for Florida is instead a major happening.
The Ron Zook era officially begins Saturday, when the sixth-ranked Gators take the field for the first time in 12 years without coach Steve Spurrier on the sideline.
The opponent is Alabama-Birmingham, and the Gators are 32-point favorites. But for the first time in a long time, it's hard to really know what to expect when Zook leads his team out the tunnel and puts on the headset. He'll be the man in charge for the first time in his 25-year coaching career.
"I feel like everyone's a little uncertain of exactly how good we are," quarterback Rex Grossman said. "I'm sure all eyes will be on Florida for Coach Zook's first game. That's the sense we've got. We need to prove to ourselves we can play well, too."
It's bound to be an emotional day.
Zook was an assistant at Florida in the early 1990s, and ever since he stepped onto campus, he felt this was the place for him. He moved to the NFL as an assistant for six years, but it wasn't because he didn't like Gainesville. He moved on simply to hone his resume so that someday he might return as Head Gator.
Adding to the emotion: Zook's father Pete, who was diagnosed with cancer around the time Zook got the job, is scheduled to travel from Lake Worth to see his son coach his first game. The school is sending an airplane to bring him to The Swamp, and Pete Zook will make it only if his health permits.
"My fight, it's nothing compared to what my dad is fighting," Zook said recently.
The coach is seeking acceptance from a fan base that grew to tolerate only the best, most exciting brand of football during Spurrier's dozen years.
Spurrier transformed the Gators from not-so-lovable losers into risk-taking, entertaining winners. Taking over for such an icon might be the most difficult coaching assignment in football - at least since Ray Perkins took over for Bear Bryant at Alabama in 1983. For the record, Perkins won more than two-thirds of his games, but was never fully accepted by the Tide's fans.
"I have something to prove, our staff has something to prove, our players have something to prove," Zook said. "When you have something to prove, you work a little harder, you focus a little bit more - and that's kind of the exciting thing about it."
New offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher will call the plays, and he is bound to draw as many comparisons to Spurrier as Zook. Zaunbrecher has made two divergent promises this offseason - to run a passing-style offense, a la Spurrier, but also to put more balance into an attack that ran only 41 percent of the time last season.
"People come up to me and ask if we're going to run the ball," Zaunbrecher said, tongue in cheek. "I say, 'Yeah, we're going to try to run with it after every time we catch it."
John Thompson, formerly of Arkansas, replaces Jon Hoke as defensive coordinator, and he has promised a more aggressive, blitzing style. But it's hard to know what he'll throw at UAB, if only because the Gators have a big game next Saturday against defending national champion Miami.
Since he got the job, Zook has been bombarded with almost as many questions about the game against the Hurricanes as he has about the magnitude of the job he undertakes.
Most Florida fans are used to looking at the opener as an appetizer of sorts, a sure victory that sets the stage for bigger games to come.
Zook, however, can't afford to be so nonchalant about UAB. This is, after all, his debut in his dream job. "Right now," he said, "it's the biggest game of my life."
Given the circumstances, it's hard not to believe him.
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