“It was big,” former Florida defensive back Fred Weary said. “Everybody claimed Georgia was our No. 1 rival, but during that great 90s run, Florida State was clearly our rival. They were the only team that could compete with us.”
Weary’s comment wasn’t meant to diminish the importance of the SEC schedule. The Georgia game is always the most important one to older Florida fans that remember the Bulldogs’ dominance of the series through the 1980s.
The 1990s matchups between the Gators and Seminoles were the ones that started to change some people’s minds. The athleticism on both sides of the field was special to watch and forced all the players to be on edge during every snap. The SEC schedule still possessed its own challenges, but that late-season matchup against Florida State was always in the back of every player’s mind.
“It was kind of weird. The SEC was always the SEC, but we felt like we could dominate the SEC and beat anybody,” Weary said. “We felt like, as a team, we could dominate the SEC. We all felt like that. Our challenge was Florida State clearly. They had just as many athletes as we did. That game could go either way. It was clearly the focus for us. If we wanted any aspirations outside the SEC, we had to get past Florida State.”
In four years on the field, Weary got six chances to play the Seminoles, going 3-2-1. None could top what happened in New Orleans on January 2, 1997. Just over one month after falling 24-21 in Tallahassee, the Gators got their chance at revenge.
And none of the players were surprised.
Sitting in the locker room of Doak Campbell Stadium at the end of November, Weary and the rest of the team knew they were the best team on the field that day.
“With the way everything fell, we just felt like it was our destiny once that (national championship) matchup came out,” Weary said. “When we lost at Doak, we honestly felt like we should’ve won that game by at least 14 points. That’s saying a lot in Doak Campbell, but that’s how our team felt. When we heard we got that matchup back (in the title game), we already knew we had them before we played the game.”
The week before the Florida State game always had a different feel around Gainesville. The way former coach Steve Spurrier handled it gave it a big game feel that made the players look forward to it with everything that was on the line.
“Put it this way -- when he was at Florida and it was Florida State week, he shut everything down,” Weary said. “It was the only week he did that. During my time, practices were open to the public. Florida State week, he’d shut everything down.”
Playing for Spurrier is always something former players rave about, and Weary is no different. The two had a close relationship, even with Weary spending his time on the defensive side of the ball.
Most days walking to practice, Spurrier would make sure he found Weary. “I’ve got a new one for you today,” Weary recalled hearing from his head coach. Spurrier used the practice field as his laboratory, drawing up plays like the mad scientist he was at Florida and testing them out on the Florida defense.
“He was a perfectionist,” Weary said. “He was an offensive genius, too. He’d always draw up plays against us in practice. I have nothing but the upmost respect for Coach Spurrier. I had a great time playing for him, and he was a great influence on my life.”