Originally created 11/27/02

Zook pays PR price for Florida's zipped lips



GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The jury is still out on Ron Zook as a football coach. As a public relations guy, however, the Florida coach still needs work.

What could have been a fairly placid news conference Tuesday instead turned into a day for Zook to say he's sorry. He did it six times, to be exact, during a 31-minute question-and-answer session with hostile reporters.

His offense: An unprecedented decision to ban players from talking to the media this week, as the 15th-ranked Gators (8-3) prepare for Saturday's game against No. 23 Florida State (8-4).

Zook said he was sorry to inconvenience reporters, many of whom drove several hours to interview players for stories this week. But to hear Zook tell it, there are way too many touchy subjects for the players to be bothered with during this, the buildup to a big rivalry game.

"You've got Thanksgiving," Zook said. "There's a lot of things going on this week, anyway. I wanted to make sure we were focused on this football game."

Although Zook never got specific about which issues - besides Thanksgiving - he fears his players might have been confronted with this week, there are some obvious candidates.

This could be Rex Grossman's final regular-season game with the Gators. Chances are he would have been asked about that and would have deftly handled the topic, as he has all season.

Florida State is in a public relations nightmare of its own after dismissing quarterback Adrian McPherson in the midst of a police investigation. Those questions certainly would have come up, and Zook might have been concerned about the potential of politically incorrect responses. Zook did, however, say he made the decision before McPherson was dismissed.

Then, there's the lightning-rod issue of the week - the Earnest Graham-Darnell Dockett knee-twisting debate that dates to last year's game. The irony there is that neither player sparked that controversy. Instead, it was Florida's former coach, Steve Spurrier, who brought it up and wouldn't let go.

To think it wouldn't be rehashed this week is unrealistic.

But that's one big difference between Spurrier and Zook. Where Spurrier never shied away from a good tussle when he felt he had been wronged, Zook is going out of his way to avoid one.

"I think sometimes, things get brought up that don't affect the game, or are outside of the game," he said. "And I just thought it was important that we not do that."

So, in one respect, the move will pay off. No players will say anything they regret this week.

But in another, Zook has failed, because he has alienated media, shut out fans and sent a message to his players by setting this game apart by operating under different rules.

"This is not standard procedure," Zook said. "Obviously, next week, everything is going to be back the way it was."

There is a game next week - the Southeastern Conference title game - but the Gators aren't playing in it.

Winning the SEC title was Florida's No. 1 goal this season, and now that it is out of reach, Zook wants a victory over Florida State to keep his team in line for a 10-win season.

That, he claims, is a big reason he took the unprecedented step of canceling player interviews. And that's why there might be more than a win and a loss at stake come Saturday.

"Hey, this could blow up in my face, and I know that," Zook said of the possible PR backlash. "I understand that. And I think when you make a decision, that I'm willing to take that. This is important."