Do you remember your best Christmas gift ever?
Mine was a #11 orange Florida jersey with the blue and white UCLA stripes on the shoulders. My grandfather bought it for me at Jimmy Hughes Sporting Goods. The numbers were sewn on and it looked authentic. I wore it throughout the Spurrier years and beyond. Fortunately, my grandfather anticipated a growth spurt so it lasted through my 10th grade year in McComb, Mississippi, where I was the only Florida fan. In McComb, most were Ole Miss fans but there were large contingents of Mississippi State and LSU fans as well. There were even a few Alabama fans.
Up in Brookhaven, which was our mortal enemy, you would see folks sporting Arkansas T-shirts since Lance Alworth went out of state to play for Frank Broyles. As you went east there were a lot of Southern Miss fans. I think I met a Tulane fan. Once. He grudgingly admitted it. We had an Aggie fan in our class. If I remember correctly, everybody at McComb High School had two favorite teams – whoever they cheered for regularly and whoever the Aggies were playing.
The very pretty Lynn Cantrell wore Auburn gear. I felt a kinship with her. She was the only Auburn fan. I was the only one in McComb with Florida jerseys and T-shirts. We both loved orange and blue. We were outcasts, but we loved it.
I particularly loved my Florida jersey because it was a thorn in the side of Mrs. Anne Crosby, wife of my dad’s boss at American Box Company. The Crosbys were diehard LSU fans. I had a standing bet with Mrs. Crosby the entire time my family was exiled to Mississippi. If Florida beat LSU, she had to pin a Florida pennant and poster on her front door for a week. If LSU won, I had to pin the LSU poster to my front door. Thank the Lord for Steve Spurrier. The Gators played LSU every year 1964-66 and the Tigers had no answer for Stevie Wonder. I tried to wear my jersey every time I saw Mrs. Crosby the week before and after the Florida-LSU games those years.
By the time I started my growth spurt that took me from 5-8 to 6-0 at the end of my sophomore year, the orange Spurrier jersey was threadbare. The numbers were coming unstitched and it got way too tight. When I came home one day and Willistine, the woman who cleaned house and ironed our clothes, held it up and it was minus a sleeve, I knew I had worn it out completely and it was time to say good bye to my prized possession. Rather than see it turned into a dust rag or have it endure some other degrading end, I took the jersey outside and burned it.
When I look back on that jersey, I realize how it solidified who I was. I was a Gator. The jersey didn’t make me a Gator. That was in my heart, but people had to know me well – I was shy if you can believe that – to know what was in my heart. For those 3-plus years in Mississippi, every time I wore that jersey everybody knew that I was a Gator.
The Gators were, are and will always be the only team that ever mattered to me. I loved the Orioles but Brooks, Frank and Jim Palmer all retired and by the time Cal Jr. called it a career, the Orioles weren’t relevant anymore. I loved the Big Red Machine but Bench retired, Joe Morgan got old and Pete Rose not only played for the Expos and Phillies, but he gambled on baseball and became a disgrace by lying about it for years. I loved the Colts but they traded Johnny Unitas to the Chargers and then they moved to Indianapolis. One day I woke up and Larry Bird had retired so I couldn’t cheer for the Celtics anymore.
My love for the Gators has never wavered and it never will. When I lived in Mississippi, that jersey and the radio station in Pensacola that let me listen to Otis Boggs describe John Feiber breaking away for a 2-yard run were my connection that kept me close. Through the years, I’ve lived in several countries and seen most of the world, but wherever I have been, I’ve always delighted when I wore a Gator jacket or cap or shirt and heard someone from across an airline terminal or in a crowded Hong Kong or Tokyo shopping mall shout “Go Gators!”
“Go Gators.” Those two simple words unite us. We are the Gator Nation and nothing will ever change that.
Merry Christmas Gators.
1. TO Billy Donovan: A contract of John Calipari proportions. Florida isn’t Kentucky so Billy will never be able to recruit like Calipari, but Calipari will never be able to coach like Billy either. He’s the best coach in the country. He deserves a contract of something like 10 years, $60 million. Otherwise, Gators will be sweating bullets every year when the NBA comes calling.
2. TO Jim McElwain: May you be a silver tongued devil on the recruiting trail. May you be college football’s answer to E.F. Hutton (“When E.F. Hutton speaks, everyone listens”) when you’re in a recruit’s living room. Also may you find a defensive coordinator who can inspire the troops to play as hard and as tough as Will Muschamp. Maybe Will never figured out offense, but he sure knew how to coach up a defense.
3. TO DOUG NUSSMEIER: Quarterback play has been the Achilles heel for the Gators since 2010. Scot Loefler, Charlie Weis, Brent Pease and Kurt Roper all came here with great reputations for developing quarterbacks. Now it’s your turn. May you succeed where the others failed.
4. TO JEREMY FOLEY: May Jim McElwain prove to be the home run hire that Will Muschamp wasn’t and may you continue to bring home that all-sports trophy every year.
5. TO WILL MUSCHAMP: A couple of great years at Auburn coaching defense to figure things out, then a second chance to prove yourself as a head coach. Since you’re there at Auburn, why not spend some time with Gus and learn a few things about how offense has evolved since the days of Woody Hayes.
6. TO STEVE SPURRIER: You can still call plays like few other who have coached this game but get yourself a defensive coordinator or you’ll never see 11 wins again much less one last shot at an SEC championship at South Carolina.
7. TO TIM TEBOW: Retreads like Colt McCoy, Kyle Orton, Shaun Hill, Tyler Thigpen and a host of others are still in the NFL and getting playing time. You will never convince me that they belong in the NFL and Tim doesn’t. Here’s a wish that some coach will come along with a scheme that fits what Tim can do perfectly and allow him a second chance to make it or break it in the NFL.
8. TO Jeff Driskel: A second chance somewhere that your first interception won’t have people slapping their foreheads with the palms of their hands and saying “oh no, here we go again!”
9. TO RHONDA FAEHN: May you win a third straight NCAA gymnastics championship. You’re regarded as one of the two or three best coaches in college gymnastics right now. A third straight title and you’ll be considered the best in the business and one of the best ever.
10. TO THE ASSISTANTS WHO COACH THEIR LAST GAME AT UF ON JANUARY 3: May all of you find a good job coaching football someplace. Thanks for your service, dedication and determination and sorry it didn’t work out here, but may you find great success and stability someplace else.
11. TO Tim Walton: A second straight national championship trophy would look very nice in the case. And may you get it over Alabama. All those folks from Bama looked like they had lost their puppy when you beat them two straight to win the Women’s College World Series last year.
12. TO KEVIN O’SULLIVAN: May you find some power in the lineup. You’ve got everything else you need to win the SEC again and get to the College World Series in Omaha.
What is the most prized Gator possession that you have ever owned?
It can’t be Christmas without the Velvet Fog, also known as Mel Torme. Mel wrote The Christmas Song and while there have been what seems like 87,000 versions, his is still the best.