One of the most accomplished signal callers in Florida Gators history, quarterback Chris Leak led the charge in Gainesville, FL from 2003-06, a career that spanned two head coaches, three offensive coordinators and plenty of ups and downs for the team.
A four-year student-athlete, Leak started nine games as a true freshman in 2003 (racking up a 6-3 record) and made 47-straight starts to end his career with a 35-12 record as a starter, playing in all 51 games in which he was eligible. He compiled 11,213 yards, 88 touchdowns (adding 13 additional scores on the ground) and 42 interceptions while completing 61.4 percent of his passes,
With the 2006 Southeastern Conference Championship and 2007 BCS National Championship titles under his belt, Leak was also named SEC Freshman of the Year in 2003, SEC Player of the Week (four times), National Quarterback of the Year in 2006, and Most Valuable Player of the 2007 BCS Championship, all while being a four-time member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll.
He bested Danny Wuerffel, Shane Matthews and Rex Grossman to own school records for career pass attempts (1,458), completions (895) and yardage (11,213); boasts the third-best career completion percentage in school history (behind Tim Tebow and Wayne Peace); has the second-most passing touchdowns at Florida (88, tied with Tebow); and holds the Gators’ record for consecutive completions (17 vs. Wyoming in 2005).
Leak has also seen the field for the second-most plays at UF (1,636) and totaled the second-most combined yardage (11,350), falling only behind Tebow in both categories.
After bouncing around the NFL and spending most of four seasons playing in the CFL, where Leak won a pair of Grey Cups with Montreal, he spent last season playing mostly for Orlando of the AFL and expects to return to the team next year. He is also currently working as a broadcaster with SiriusXM College Sports Nation and CBS Sports Network.
Leak sat down with OGGOA for 45 minutes last month for a wide-ranging two-part interview that encompasses his recruitment, career with the Gators, thoughts on his coaches, professional career and aspirations for Florida going forward.
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: So let’s jump back to the beginning and start with your recruitment. I know a lot of people always assumed you would wind up at Tennessee because of your brother. Was that truly the case for a while? And as the process broke down, what made you wind up choosing Florida in the long run?
CHRIS LEAK: “I started off at an early age being offered in eighth grade by Jim Caldwell at Wake Forest; he was the head coach at the time. So I got started pretty early. I saw my brother, who back in 1998 was the No. 1 run-pass quarterback in the country…I got to see him go through the heavy recruiting process as well. Recruiting started off for me at a very early age. My parents did a great job of managing it for me, my meetings with coaches, school visits – unofficial and official visits. Tennessee was the leader because my brother was there after he transferred from Wake Forest. I wanted to have his mentorship during my time in school. That was kind of the plan.
“I felt like, with Tennessee, after what happened with my brother in the Georgia game, I just felt like my heart wasn’t in it. [His brother, C.J. Leak, was promised a chance to start when he transferred to UT. When Casey Clausen got injured in the game, he was given two series before being pulled.] It was a trust factor and I wanted to commit somewhere where I felt like I could trust the coaches to take care of my future, take care of me while I’m there as I’m away from home. It would have to help me obviously get a good education and do everything I want to accomplish at the collegiate level.
“I was going to go through the recruiting process anyway, the full recruiting process. Though Tennessee was the leader, Florida was always a close second. My parents told me they wanted me to go through the entire recruiting process to make sure that I am sure and that Tennessee was the right fit for me. Obviously as I went through the recruiting process and went on my official visits, I just felt like Florida felt more like a home away from home for me. I just felt like, when I visited the campus when Florida played Auburn back in 2002, a game which they won in overtime, it just kind of hit home. I really felt the love from the fans and the coaches. Ron Zook, I really felt like I could trust him with my future as well as the rest of the coaching staff moving forward.”
Read the rest of OGGOA’s exclusive interview with Chris Leak…after the break!
AS: The players that have been interviewed here have various thoughts on how Zook performed as a coach but unanimously say they got along great with him personally, noting that communication and trust were two big factors. What is your relationships like with him these days and do you feel the same way?
CL: “Absolutely. I talk to Coach Zook about once or twice a month, just to catch up and see how each other is doing. Our relationship really goes beyond football. To me, that’s one of the marks of a great coach – relationships and the effect that they have on players through football but also in the respect of life, in that perspective. He really definitely made a mark on me as far as being someone who represented the hard work and dedication he brought to the game. On and off the field, the balance he had with his family off-the-field was incredible. He was one of the coaches that you could really get a sense that he had his priorities in line. He really had a great balance in football and his faith and his family. I really just fed off of that. It made me want to become a better player but also a better person. He definitely made his mark on me personally.”
AS: You got a chance to do what a lot of young players only hope and started your freshman season. You also went 6-3 as a starter that year while playing in the SEC. Can you discuss what it was like to get thrown into that type of situation and what you attribute your early success to?
CL: “The coaches really helped me prepare from week to week. Obviously defenses playing against a freshman are going to throw a lot at you. I just believed that I could do it through being a student of the game, having good study habits, hard work and dedication. The coaching staff – Zook, [Ed] Zaunbrecher, [Larry] Fedora – their confidence in me and their game planning, that really helped me have confidence to go out there and just play my game. The one thing that Coach Zook always would tell me is, ‘All you have to do is be Chris Leak and that’s enough.’ That’s what I went out every Saturday to do. I went out to be myself. I didn’t try to do too much. I didn’t try to push the envelope too hard. And I ended up having some success.”
AS: After Coach Zook was fired in the middle of the 2004 season, there were rumors that you were considering transferring. How serious did those thoughts get and what made you stay in the long run?
CL: “To me it wasn’t an issue at all. I really felt like I made a commitment to Florida when I signed that I was going to bring Florida back to its national title dominance. I really wanted to get Florida back on that national title stage. With the help of our recruiting class and my teammates, we were all bonded together to do that together. We were on a mission throughout our four years. Once we finally got that championship trophy our senior year, it was pretty much like, ‘Mission accomplished.’”
AS: The players now are obviously going through a major program transition like you did when Urban Meyer took over. Obviously there were growing pains then just as there are now. What was that situation like for you guys, having everything changed around?
CL: “It was definitely a transition period for us. Any time you have a coaching change, you have to restart all the relationships. Relationships, in my onion, are based on trust and communication. So we had to pretty much just start from scratch and gain the trust of the coaches. The coaches and the players – we had to gain trust within each other and continue to communicate with each other in order to be successful and for the relationships to grow. Your relationship off the field as a player with a coach, that affects you on the field tremendously as far as decision-making during a game, play calling and everything else that you can think of. It was a very important time. That 2005 offseason was definitely one of the biggest transition movements, I would say, in Florida football history.”
AS: Some people outside of the program saw you somewhat as the guy that didn’t fit in Coach Meyer’s system, yet you threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Did you feel like the square peg in a round hole that people made you out to be on occasion or was it really more a matter of just getting adjusted to the system?
CL: “I’ve been able to adapt to a lot of systems. Even under Coach Zook I had two offensive coordinators. I always felt like I had the confidence to adapt to being in an offense and making it work. The thing about Coach Meyer, from the day he walked in, he told me that this team would go as far as I took them. That meant a lot to me. That gave me a lot of confidence. A lot of people that obviously don’t know a lot about football, they hear the term ‘spread option offense’ and automatically see that square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation. The one thing about Coach Meyer is that his offenses have always been player-driven. He’s obviously consistent in what he does strategically, but his offenses are player-driven. He’s going to do what his players do best. That gave me a lot of confidence in what we were doing offensively.
“The coaches had a lot of confidence in me. Even through game-planning, they would let me install the offense to our players in meetings. They really put me in charge and helped me feel the accountability and responsibility of being in charge of the offense. It definitely helped me a great deal with my confidence level going into the season and obviously the next season, having a year under my belt in the offense. The offense – it continued to grow throughout because obviously it was a transition year for our coaches, too. This was the first time that a lot of them – expect obviously Charlie Strong – coached in the SEC. That’s obviously a huge step for a lot of coaches that have come from conferences out west. It was a transition year for us obviously strategically and mentally, but it was definitely a transition year for the coaches as well. We understood the situation and we knew there were going to be bumps in the road. We knew LSU and Alabama, they had sustained their coaches for probably some time by then, so we knew there were going to be some tough times. But we knew we had the talent and leadership on that team to come through and get things done.”
AS: Let’s talk about the national championship game. You didn’t just post an MVP performance in that game. You completed 70 percent of your passes and just dominated their defense. I know the preparation the team put in was on another level but was that the most in-tune you’ve felt on the football field?
CL: “Honestly, no. I’ve always been big on being consistent at quarterback. I just remember, I think I completed 25 passes that game as a senior. I remember against Kentucky my sophomore year I completed 25 passes. Consistency was always something that I strived for. The thing about the national championship game was that we had 30 days to prepare. I really had the time to get back healthy and to really just study a team for an entire month. You don’t get that opportunity obviously during the season because it’s week-to-week.
“I really felt like, during that period of time, that our coaching staff and our players really got back healthy because we had a lot of guys that were dinged up. That obviously helped us a lot with our speed in that game, as you saw. Just the game planning aspect of it – any plays that we had doubts about during the week we got to work on or just kick them out of the entire game plan. It was one of those things that, really, the entire game plan was solid. There were no questions about it. Everybody went into that game just focused and ready to play. We were just reacting and playing football and everything was just happening second-nature, as they say.”
AS: Obviously a lot of people going into the game had the Gators as huge underdogs. Some even thought Michigan should be in there. As you were preparing – because I know some say you did and others say you didn’t – did the team use that underdog mentality as additional motivation or was it preparing so well that you guys felt like the favorite going in, like it was your game to lose?
CL: “Urban Meyer – he’s really big on the mentality and the big picture aspect of going into a game. He definitely posted up in our team meal room in the hotel everything that was being said about us being underdogs. Urban Meyer is one of the best motivational coaches in college football. He really knows how to motivate his guys and get them prepared to play. That’s one of the reasons that he’s been so successful everywhere he’s been. He’ll tell you himself, ‘The two keys of football are motivation and preparation.’ We were definitely 100 percent of both for that game.”
Photo Credits: Associated Press, Bing Images