GAINESVILLE, FLA. -- If Florida defensive coordinator Jon Hoke is going, he's going out with a smile.
In the town where he lives and coaches football, he has been criticized with more harshness than Darnell Dockett, the Florida State defensive tackle accused of intentionally injuring Gators tailback Earnest Graham in Florida's victory over the Seminoles last month.
To many Florida fans, Hoke is the reason their team gave up too many yards, too many points and - especially - too many big plays against Tennessee on Dec. 1, a loss that ended the Gators' Rose Bowl hopes. As far as they're concerned, three years of Hoke have been a joke.
Fans have called into coach Steve Spurrier's weekly talk show to ask about Hoke. Fans have sent letters to Spurrier and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley about Hoke. So much for holiday spirit: Some fans want Hoke gone shortly after New Year's Day.
Hoke hears his critics, but he has become immune to it all. He has gone into the holidays with his priorities in order and a smile on his face.
"The only person I really have to answer to is the head football coach," Hoke said. "That will be about the only person I listen to because, heck, he's all that really matters. ... He hasn't said much. He's been good.
"He's like most coaches. When something's wrong, he wants to know why it's wrong. And if it's going good, then he doesn't have much to say."
To a lot of fans, though, every time a Gator misses a tackle, Hoke is the goat - though his supporters say he has been made the scapegoat.
Publicly, at least, players say the criticism is unfair. Until Florida gave up 34 points in that home loss to Tennessee, Spurrier said this was one of the best defenses since his arrival in 1990, and the statistics back him up. The Gators led the Southeastern Conference in total defense, scoring defense and third-down conversion defense, and were second in rushing defense and third in passing defense.
Detractors point to other stats. In the three seasons Bob Stoops was defensive coordinator (1996-98), Florida allowed 30 points or more in only one of its five losses. In the three seasons Hoke has been coordinator, Florida has allowed 30 points or more in eight of its nine losses.
Before the loss to the Volunteers, the Gators had given up more than 20 points once this season - a 23-20 loss at Auburn in which the offense sputtered.
"Blame should fall to the players. We have to make the plays,"sophomore nose tackle Ian Scott said.
Senior defensive end Alex Brown echoed those sentiments.
"Coach Hoke can't make tackles," Brown said. "[Against Tennessee] he called some great plays and put us in great position. We just didn't make the plays."
Asked what he thought happened to his defense, Spurrier said, "I don't have the answer to that. All I know is we got blocked and we didn't tackle real well. They ran right through us."
Heading into the Tennessee game, the Gators had made marked improvement in several areas, including run defense and sacks.
When things were going good, much of the credit was given to two first-year assistants - defensive line coach Ricky Hunley and inside linebacker coach Jerry Odom - and Hoke was sort of in the background. But when Florida lost to Tennessee, all the blame fell on Hoke.
Actually, if not for intervention from Foley, Hoke would have been elsewhere this season. After last season, Hoke was asked to interview for the job as secondary coach of the Oakland Raiders. He told Spurrier about the opportunity, but Spurrier told Hoke not to return if he interviewed for the position (Hoke didn't). Then, Spurrier decided to make a change anyway until Foley talked him out of it.
This season, Spurrier has praised Hoke, though there's no question he's not as close to Hoke as he was to Stoops.
Though Spurrier has not commented publicly on Hoke's job status, Hoke's next game with Florida - the Orange Bowl against Maryland on Wednesday - could be his last.
"We need to go play again," Hoke said. "That's what I'm excited about - we've got a chance to go play again. People remember the last thing you did."