Back in January of 1979, a time when the recruiting rules were quite different than the ones today, Charley Pell and I boarded Ben Hill Griffin’s private jet at Gainesville Regional Airport and flew to Richmond, Virginia where Parade All-American tailback Gordon Pleasants was going to sign with the Florida Gators in a ceremony at Maggie Walker High School. Gordon was picking the Gators over the home state schools, Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma. In those days, a coach from the school was allowed to be there at the signing. This was a big enough deal that Charley Pell didn’t send an assistant but made the trip personally.
Charley and I became friends almost from the day he took the Florida job. It helped that I had good connections with the coaching staff at Maggie Walker and also at Hermitage High School where the Gators were trying to recruit quarterback Van McLaughlin. Van thought seriously about signing with Florida but ended up signing with North Carolina.
The flight to Richmond took only one hour thanks to a tail wind from the jet stream that sped things up considerably. When we got on the plane there was fresh coffee and about halfway through the first cup, Charley pulled out a Vantage cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit it up and then started telling me about his dreams for Florida football.
“We’re going to win championships here,” he told me.
I heard that before. Douglas Adair Dickey said those same words back when he became the unpopular choice to succeed Ray Graves after the 1969 Gator Bowl. Doug also said this a lot: “Before you can win you have to avoid losing.”
What we came to expect during Dickey’s nine years was that the Gators would avoid winning the SEC largely because Georgia was always on the schedule. In 1972, Andy Johnson, who couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle, found Rex Putnal for 44 yards to set up a Kim Braswell field goal that gave Georgia a 10-7 win. In 1974, when the Gators were ranked 6th nationally, Matt Robinson came off the bench to lead the Bulldogs to a 17-16 upset. There was the Richard Appleby end around pass to Gene Washington that covered 80 yards and gave the Bulldogs a 10-7 win over the Gators in 1975. And who can forget fourth and dumb in 1976?
I think Charley sensed my anxiety. He took a sip of his coffee, then burned his fingers on the filter of one Vantage cigarette which he used to light up the next one. He exhaled slowly. His eyes narrowed. His voice got deep.
“It may not happen when I’m the head coach here,” Charley said, “but we’re going to win national championships in football at the University of Florida.”
Hold on there.
He didn’t say SEC championships. He said NATIONAL championships. My grandfather went to his grave in 1973 dreaming of winning the SEC. Thirteen years later, my dad did the same thing. They were what was known throughout the SEC as “Wait ‘til Next Year Gators.” That was the rallying cry for Florida football in those days.
“Wait ‘til next year.” If I heard it once, I heard it 50,000 times from the time I went to my first Florida football game (Florida 18, Georgia Tech 17) in 1960 until Steve Spurrier finally got an SEC title that counted in 1991.
That day on the plane with Charley changed me forever as a Gator. I never stopped thinking about winning the SEC, but something about the way Charley Pell sold his dream to me told me that the Gators were destined for something so much greater than simply winning the SEC. And I’m not the only one. Charley Pell sold every Gator I’ve ever met on the idea that championships could be won and should be won here.
November 16, 1991 the Gators won their first SEC title that counted. Charley Pell had been gone for seven years, fired after falling on the sword for 109 NCAA violations that included such heinous crimes as Dale Dorminey going home with a T-shirt and accepting a pack of Juicy Fruit and a Sprite from Dwight Adams at the airport because the plane was late.
The day before the Gators beat Kentucky, 35-26, at Florida Field, Gene Ellenson was a guest in the studio of my morning radio show in Gainesville. Here was a man’s man who won two silver stars at the Battle of the Bulge, both of them pinned on his chest by General Patton, who almost couldn’t contain the emotions when talking about how the next day all the ghosts of Florida failures past would be exorcised by Steve Spurrier and the Gators. The next day, as he made his way down to the field, Gene saw me and came over and practically squeezed the life out of me with the greatest victory hug I’ve ever felt.
“Can you believe it?” he asked. This time he couldn’t hold back the tears. Yeah, I cried too. I do things like that. That day, especially.
Then Gene went Charley Pell on me.
“You wait and see,” he told me. “We’re going to win national championships here. This is just the beginning.”
The Gators won their first national title in 1996. Gene watched the Gators destroy FSU from his sky box in heaven. My dad and grandfather, I’m sure, shared the sky box with him.
There were no more “wait ‘til next year” cries. This was for real.
From 1991-2008, the Gators won eight SEC championships and three national championships. During this time, the Gators beat Georgia 15 times and lost only three and during this time Gator fans didn’t have to dream of championships. They simply showed up at the stadium wherever the Gators played and watched the most hated team in the SEC go about its business of pillaging, plundering and leaving a dazed and confused opponent (and fans) in its wake.
Gator fans were hated in those days. Hated because more often than not, the team in orange and blue was simply so much better than whoever showed up to play. The Gators were brash. Gator fans were simply an extension of the team on the field. As cocky and audacious as the Gators were on the field, Gator fans took it at least one step further.
In 2009 there was one more run at a national championship but it came up short against Alabama in the SEC title game. Do you ever wonder what might have happened if Carlos Dunlap hadn’t been arrested for a DUI the Monday night before the SEC Championship Game?
In 2012, the Gators had a fling with glory only to see the dream crash and burn in Jacksonville at the hands of Georgia. Do you ever wonder what might have been if Jordan Reed doesn’t fumble at the goal line?
Since that 2008 national championship, the Gator nation has reverted back to the Gator nation pre-Spurrier. This is the Gator nation that Charley Pell had to transform from one that expected the worst to happen, particularly if the opponent was Georgia, into one that dreamed big dreams and saw the dreams fulfilled on the field.
For the Gator nation to be transformed once again, Jim McElwain is going to have to dream big and sell it, not just to Gator fans in all corners of the earth but to the recruits who are going to have to get the job done on the field and to a new coaching staff that he will hopefully announce any day now.
Selling the dream isn’t easy. If it were, Ron Zook and Will Muschamp wouldn’t have failed at the job. As much as it pains me, I have to say that neither Zooker or Muschamp ever sold me on getting the magic back. I like both men and hope they only encounter success wherever they go, whatever they do, but no matter what they do, I’ll always look at the seven years they were in charge as years when the helium that held the Florida balloon up found pinholes and escaped.
Can McElwain do what Zooker and Mushcamp couldn’t? Can he reignite the fan base? Can he sell recruits that this is the place to be because championships are going to be won? Can he bring back the swagger that makes it a foregone conclusion that the Gators are going to win with the only question by how much?
In these next weeks and months to come we’ll find out a lot about Jim McElwain. We only think we know what we’re getting right now. Hope does spring eternal as it does with every coaching change, but this one has to be right. If you don’t think so, then think Tennessee.
Back in 2007, Tennessee won the SEC East. In 2008, the Vols had a losing season and Phil Fulmer was fired. Since then, the Vols have had only one winning season (7-6 in 2009) and that was under Lane Kiffin. They’re on their third coach since 2008 right now and while everybody thinks the good times will return the longer Butch Jones stays on the job – they’re going bowling this year and with a win can finish 7-6 – until they compete for championships again they are spinning their wheels in an oil slick of mediocrity.
That is the danger that faces the Gators. McElwain has to deliver something more than trips to bowls like the Birmingham or the Weedwacker. He’s got to get the Gators in championship contention. If you don’t believe it, just ask the Vols how long it takes to get out of the rut of mediocrity.
Charley Pell put the Gators on a path of success by selling the dream and making the Gator Nation believe. Can Jim McElwain inspire Gators to dream big once again?
From what you’ve seen of Jim McElwain so far are you confident that he can get the Gators back on the championship track or do you need some convincing?
It was at the Saville Theater in London in 1967 that Eric Clapton caught Jimi Hendrix live and the performance so inspired him that he went home with a guitar riff in mind and began writing “Sunshine of Your Love,” which rose to #5 on the US Billboard charts. The song was the best cut on Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” album, which also featured “Strange Brew” and “World of Pain.” Today’s music is a 2005 live reunion performance by Cream at Royal Albert Hall in London. This song definitely makes my all-time top 25.