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100 Things Florida Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Pat Dooley
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Pat Dooley
All rights reserved.
The 1996 National Championship
Florida football had long been referred to as the "sleeping giant" of college football, a term first coined by legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant and sharpened by sportswriter Dan Jenkins. ("Florida has the arrogance of Alabama and the tradition of Wake Forest," he wrote.) Things changed a little in the 1980s and a lot in the 1990s. But there was one goal that eluded Florida until a series of events led the Gators to the sweetest path possible.
Florida's first national title was built as much on failure as success. Following a perfect 1995 regular season that included an SEC Championship win against Arkansas, the Gators were humiliated in the Fiesta Bowl by Nebraska 62–24 with a national championship on the line. For weeks they heard the joke, "Hey Gators, Nebraska just scored again."
It fueled them. "The entire offseason, the whole summer, everything we did was to keep that from happening again," said James Bates, a senior linebacker on the 1996 team. "We knew we had the talent to get back into that position again, and this time we were going to make sure we were prepared."
Florida lost some key players from the 1995 teams — most notably All-SEC wide receiver Chris Doering and left tackle Jason Odom. But quarterback Danny Wuerffel was back along with receivers Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard. The defense was solid, and Florida had added defensive coordinator Bobby Stoops to the staff.
For a good part of the season, it looked too easy. The Gators won in Knoxville, Tennessee, jumping out to a 35–0 lead before holding on for a 35–29 win. They went through an amazing stretch against rivals LSU, Auburn, and Georgia, winning the three games by a combined 154–30.
Then it got hard.
Florida went to Tallahassee where the local paper's front page read "WAR!" in giant type. FSU was ranked second — one spot below the top-ranked Gators. The Seminoles were physical and relentless. They pounded Wuerffel and stifled Florida's offense. A late UF score made the final a respectable 24–21, but there was no doubt which team won the day. After the game Florida's sports information staff had to help Wuerffel into a chair for interviews. The dream was over. The team was beaten and its leader battered.
Those who covered the game knew that Wuerffel had taken a beating. Spurrier made sure the media knew just how bad. On the Tuesday following the game, he brought a handful of journalists into the coaches film room and showed them clips of the hits Wuerffel had taken from both the side view and the special end zone camera. Spurrier was incensed that so many of the hits came well after the ball had been thrown. When Chris Harry of the Tampa Tribune laughed at one of the more egregious late hits, Spurrier snapped, "Nothing funny about that, Chris. It's criminal."
Florida had to regroup just seven days later to play Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. It was that day that things started to happen. Texas, a 20-point underdog, stunned No. 3 Nebraska in the first ever Big 12 Championship Game. The Cornhuskers had played in three straight national title games, but the loss would eliminate them from the chance to play FSU in the Sugar Bowl and give Florida a chance to play in the game.
The Gators still had to win that night, and Wuerffel responded by throwing six touchdown passes against the Crimson Tide in an epic 45–30 victory.
Florida still needed some help because Arizona State, which would play Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, stood at No. 2 with an undefeated record. The night before the Sugar Bowl, Spurrier moved his team to little Gonzales, Louisiana, halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, to get the players away from the hoopla of Bourbon Street. There the team watched Ohio State score a late touchdown to beat Arizona State. Players spilled into the hallways of the Gonzales Holiday Inn, screaming and hugging. It would be Florida vs. FSU for the national title. "We were excited," Wuerffel said. "But we also knew that none of it mattered if we didn't take care of business."
Gators fans stormed Bourbon Street after the Rose Bowl. The Florida band marched past the T-shirt shops and strip clubs while playing the fight song. The celebration began before the game had been played.
One night later Spurrier had a new twist for the Seminoles — the shotgun. The coach has been leery of the formation because he felt that a quarterback would be at a disadvantage if he had to take his eyes off the defense to see the ball coming to him. But he had tinkered with the shotgun in the weeks leading up to the Sugar Bowl.
He had something else, too. "I had my tackles back," Spurrier said. Both offensive tackles Zach Piller (before) and Mo Collins (during) had been injured when the two teams played during the regular season. With both players healthy and with the shotgun, Spurrier felt his offense could hum again.
And it did.
Wuerffel hit Hilliard with two first-half touchdown passes — the second on an amazing stop-and-go play where Hilliard caught a deep pass, put on the brakes, and let two FSU defenders fly by before cruising into the end zone. "I got hit right after I let it go, so I didn't realize what had happened until I looked at the big screen," Wuerffel said. "It was a phenomenal play by Ike."
Florida led only 24–20 after an FSU field goal early in the second half, but from then on it was all Florida. Wuerffel threw another touchdown pass to Hilliard, threading the needle from eight yards out. Terry Jackson punctuated the night with a 52-yard touchdown run that included a forward somersault into the end zone and later scored on a one-yard run.
As grown men wept in the stands, the Gators celebrated the 52 — 20 win on the field amidst the falling confetti. Wuerffel was mobbed by reporters when all he wanted to do was hug his teammates. "I was running all over the place," he said. "And the media guys were chasing me."
After the Gators retired to their Superdome locker room, Spurrier remembered something. It had been his custom to get a team picture after a championship was won, so he hustled the team back onto the artificial turf for the sweetest picture yet.CHAPTER 2
The Tebow Promise
The wait was longer than normal for the media assembled in the bowels of The Swamp. Urban Meyer had been in to explain what happened to his No. 1-ranked team. A handful of players had stopped by to answer a few questions in somber tones.
But where was the quarterback? Where was the unstoppable force who had been stopped on fourth-and-1 with the game on the line? Where was the young man who was not only the face of this Florida team but the face of college football?
The junior quarterback was in the locker room for a lot longer than normal. This was something he had not expected to experience. Sure, Florida had lost four games as a sophomore when he won the Heisman Trophy, but that Gators team wasn't ranked at the top. That team wasn't supposed to be one of the best ever at UF. "I sat at my locker for an hour, thinking about what I wanted to say," Tim Tebow said later. "I learned a long time ago that in any situation, you have to find the positive. I wanted to let the Gator Nation know something good was going to come from this."
As the media grew restless and wondered if Tebow was going to show, he strolled through the back door and in front of the cameras and tape recorders. Florida had just lost to Mississippi 31–30. Tebow had seemingly rallied the Gators late to avoid the unthinkable, but a blocked extra point left them short. The final rally ended at the Ole Miss 32-yard line with 41 seconds to play when Tebow was stuffed on a run to the right side.
Wearing a black T-shirt that matched the mood of the day, Tebow answered questions about the play, the loss, and the pain. "I want this to stay in our hearts and keep hurting," he said. "I don't want this to ever happen again." He looked down while he spoke, and his eyes glistened with the tears of disappointment. The last question came and went, and then he delivered what is now known as "the Promise."
"I just want to say one thing," he said. And then he paused to compose himself before delivering his speech with passion, poise, and a little bit of anger. "To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, I'm sorry, extremely sorry. I promise you one thing — a lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season, and you will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season, and you will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless."
At the time, it was a glorious clip for ESPN and juicy fodder for the few columnists in the room. Had Florida ended up in the Outback Bowl at the end of the season, it would hardly be remembered as a defining moment in Gators history.
But Florida won out. The Gators won what was a de facto national semifinal in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama when Tebow rallied Florida in the fourth quarter — something he had never done before. And Tebow and the Gators finished it off by beating Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game.
The Chosen One had delivered on the Promise.
Soon after the celebration to honor the 2008 championship, a stainless steel plaque was placed on the wall of the stadium near the entrance to the coaches offices and football museum. Tebow's speech was immortalized as a tribute to one of the greatest leaders the game has ever known as well as an inspiration to anyone who needs one.
Coaches at all levels — even rival SEC schools — have replayed the speech for their players when they need a boost. Before No. 1 Alabama's against Ole Miss in 2012, Tide coach Nick Saban had his team watch the Promise so they would not only understand the drive necessary to be successful but also the despair that comes with an upset loss.CHAPTER 3
The Heisman Fraternity
The way it has worked out, you might wonder why Florida would recruit any quarterbacks who are not the sons of preacher men. Three Florida quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy, college football's most coveted individual award. All of them had fathers who were ministers.
Steve Spurrier was the first to win the award in 1966. He had all of the necessary elements for a Heisman winner: gaudy statistics (for the time), a Heisman moment (a 40-yard field goal to beat Auburn), and a great publicist (UF sports information director Norm Carlson). He also had the perfect initials — S.O.S. When the Gators were in trouble, the fans would send up a distress call for Stephen Orr Spurrier.
It would be 30 years before Florida would have another Heisman winner, and this time Spurrier would be coaching him. Danny Wuerffel was an Air Force brat whose father, Jon, often moved the family. The minister and his family finally settled in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, where Wuerffel became a high school phenom and a Florida State fan. But he was drawn to Spurrier's offense at Florida and as a senior put up numbers that were impossible for the voters to ignore.
Tim Tebow grew up a big Wuerffel fan and even had a poster of the Florida quarterback in his bedroom. It wasn't just the way Wuerffel played for the Gators, but the way he lived his life that was inspiring to Tebow. Tebow's father, Bob, has his ministry's home base in Jacksonville, Florida, but he also cared for children in the Philippines. Tebow was homeschooled but played for St. Augustine Nease High and was heavily recruited. He chose Florida over Alabama and spent 2006 as a situational quarterback for the national champions.
In 2007 Tebow did two things that had never been done before in college football. He became the first player to have more than 20 touchdown passes and 20 touchdown runs (32 passes and 23 runs) and became the first sophomore to ever win the Heisman.
The ceremonies for these three Heisman quarterbacks were quite different.
On the day he would find out he won the award, Spurrier had gone to class. In the afternoon, he was told to report to the office of university president J. Wayne Reitz. There he was told he had won the award. "I knew all along I had a pretty good chance," he said at the press conference.
Back then the voting was done before the regular season had finished. Florida still had a game to play against Miami. It turned out to be a 21–16 loss. One can't help but wonder if Purdue quarterback Bob Griese, the runner-up that year, might have benefitted from a later vote. Still, Spurrier flew to New York where he was formally presented with the stiff-armed trophy. Before the ceremony Jacksonville sportscaster Dick Stratton suggested to Spurrier that he give the trophy back to the university. Liking the idea, Spurrier did just that at the ceremony. Since that day the Downtown Athletic Club, which presents the award annually, adopted that strategy, giving out two trophies — one for the player and one for the school.
When Wuerffel won his Heisman, the announcement was carried live on television, and the result was in doubt. Despite Wuerffel's amazing numbers, many considered him a product of Spurrier's pass-friendly system. Wuerffel received 1,263 points, edging out Iowa State running back Troy Davis, who received 1,174. Wuerffel finished third in the West balloting behind Davis and Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer.
On a cold night in New York City, Wuerffel and his family celebrated in a private dining room at the Downtown Athletic Club while the members of the club and the media covering the event bellied up to the bar a few feet away. One member of the media — Dave Sheinin of The Miami Herald — was trained in opera, and when Jon Wuerffel returned from the restroom on the way to the reserved dining room, the media members encouraged Sheinin to sing "Danny Boy" for the proud father. Sheinin later serenaded Danny to Jon's delight. "I knew eventually I'd find the talent in one of you guys," Danny quipped.
Excerpted from 100 Things Florida Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Pat Dooley. Copyright © 2013 Pat Dooley. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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