Today, a look back at nine events that changed the future of Florida football since 1960.
1. RAY GRAVES HIRED, 1960: Before the 1959 season even began, Dr. Wayne Reitz made the decision that Bob Woodruff’s 10th season as Florida’s football coach would be his last. Dr. Reitz thought UF should do better than an occasional bowl game and that the Gators capable of winning more than 5-6 games a season. Reitz wanted to bring in Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ray Graves, a former All-American center at Tennessee, but it was a complicated matter. Woodruff had coached Graves at Tennessee and the two were friends. Making matters worse, Graves worked for Bobby Dodd, who played and coached for Bob Neyland at Tennessee. He had mentored both Graves and Woodruff. Dr. Reitz showed the skills of a diplomat by securing the blessings of both Coach Dodd and Woodruff. Woodruff went back to Tennessee where he coached for a couple of years and then took over as the athletic director for the next 22. Graves was hired as head coach and athletic director for the princely sum of $19,000 a year and the modern era of Florida football truly began.
2. SPURRIER SIGNS WITH THE GATORS, 1963: Growing up in Johnson City, just a short ride up the road from Knoxville, Spurrier forged one of the great high school athletic careers in state history. He’s the only prep athlete in Tennessee history who was the MVP of the state championship game in football, baseball and basketball. People assumed he would go to Tennessee but there was one slight problem. Bowden Wyatt and the Vols ran single wing and Spurrier was a passing quarterback. The postmaster in Johnson City was Marvin Graves (Ray Graves brother) so weekly scouting reports about Spurrier were sent to Gainesville. Ray Graves sought Wyatt’s blessing before attempting to recruit a player of Spurrier’s magnitude in Wyatt’s back yard (they both played for Bob Neyland). Wyatt gave Graves the okay since Tennessee and Florida weren’t on the regular season schedule for years to come and it gave an old friend the quarterback he needed and coveted. The weather played a part in Spurrier’s decision. On the weekend Spurrier visited UF it was warm and sunny and people were playing golf. Back in Tennessee it was snowing. That sealed the deal and Steve Spurrier became a Gator.
3. GRAVES OUSTED, DICKEY HIRED, 1969: Dr. Stephen C. O’Connell made a similar decision to the one made by Dr. Wayne Reitz a decade earlier by informing Ray Graves that 1969 would be his last season as head football coach. Graves was not a wealthy man and was in no position to turn down Dr. O’Connell’s offer to remain as athletic director. Once he informed Graves, Dr. O’Connell went after Douglas Adair Dickey, a Florida alum and Tennessee’s football coach who had won two SEC titles at Tennessee. In August before the 1969 season began, Dr. O’Connell and Dickey had a deal that would bring Dickey to Gainesville. The Gators went on to record an 8-1-1 record behind the John Reaves to Carlos Alvarez connection while Tennessee won the SEC with a 9-1 mark. It was an era of few bowl games and ironically, Florida and Tennessee were matched up in the Gator Bowl. Two days before the game, Jack Hairston of the Jacksonville Journal and Buddy Martin of Cocoa (now Florida) Today broke the story that Graves was out and Dickey was in. After a near player revolt, the Gators played the game and knocked off Dickey and Tennessee, 14-13. Coach Graves’ final season was 9-1-1, the best in Florida history at the time. Coach Dickey never won an SEC title at UF and was fired after the 1978 season.
4. CHARLEY PELL HIRED, 1979: Immediately after Dickey was fired, speculation centered around three coaches: Lou Holtz (Arkansas), Ron Meyer (SMU) and Charley Pell (Clemson). Holtz was everyone’s favorite but on the day he was expected to take the job he surprisingly withdrew his name from consideration. A couple of days later Florida hired Charley Pell for the then astounding sum of $75,000 a year. The Gators went 0-10-1 in Pell’s first season but went 33-16-2 through the first three games of the 1984 season when he was fired for NCAA violations. Pell left behind the best team in all of college football and a roster loaded with NFL talent. Although some Gator fans continue to ostracize Pell to this day, Florida’s successful athletic program – and we’re talking every sport and not just football – owes an unpayable debt of gratitude to Charley Pell, who organized Gator Boosters and made them into one of the most powerful fund-raising organizations in all of college sports. When he came to UF, Florida had maybe the eighth best facilities in the 10-team SEC. That changed in a hurry. Facilities were upgraded and the entire athletic program changed from below average to one of the nation’s elite.
5. STEVE SPURRIER HIRED, 1990: Just before the Gators took the field to play LSU midway through the 1989 season, Galen Hall was informed that he was coaching his last game because of another NCAA probation. Under interim Gary Darnell, the Gators limped home with a 7-5 record. While the Gators were dying on the vine in Gainesville, Steve Spurrier was doing the impossible by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship at Duke. From the standpoint of the Gator Nation, mama was calling and it was time for Stevie Wonder to come home, but athletic director Bill Ansparger preferred LSU coach Mike Archer, who had been his hand-picked successor when he left Baton Rouge to for the Florida AD job. Some people say Arnsparger came to the conclusion on his own that Spurrier should be the head coach but others who were close to the late Ben Hill Griffin tell another story. In their version, Arnsparger told BHG he didn’t want Spurrier, but BHG replied, “Bill, Steve Spurrier is going to be the football coach at Florida next year. You don’t have to be the athletic director.” Considering Arnsparger resigned as the UF AD to become an NFL assistant coach after the Gators won the SEC in Spurrier’s second year on the job in 1991 the BHG story makes sense. In his 12 years as Florida’s head coach, the Gators went 122-27-1, captured six of the eight SEC championships won by the Gators in history and brought home the first national title in 1996.
6. RON ZOOK VS. THE FRAT BOYS, 2004: On October 12, head coach Ron Zook got a phone call from Jeremy Foley instructing him to get over to the Pi Kappa Phi frat house post haste to diffuse a confrontation that had been brewing for some time between the frat boys and the football team. When he arrived, Zook got into a rather heated argument that ended with a threat against the frat boy who had allegedly sucker punched Steve Rissler a couple of weeks before but no punches were exchanged. Thirteen days later, on the Monday after the Gators lost to Mississippi State, 38-31, in Starkville, Zook was fired. The PC story was the MSU loss was the final straw. Asked at the press conference how much the frat house incident played Zook’s dismissal, UF president Bernie Machen said, “Not much.” In reality it had everything to do with Zook getting canned but Machen wasn’t about to admit that a punk frat boy had taken out his football coach. That kind of admission would have been an open season invitation for every rogue fraternity on campus to try suckering the next head coach into an incident. One month later, the Gators hired Urban Meyer, who won two SEC and two national championships in six years.
7. Tim Tebow FOLLOWS HIS HEART, 2005: Mike Shula and the entire Alabama coaching staff descended on the Tebow home in west Jacksonville on December 12, 2005 for a 12-hour recruiting marathon that changed the fate of both Alabama and Florida. Tebow announced his school choice the next day at Nease High School with an ESPN audience watching live. Two hours before going on ESPN, Tebow was still wrestling with the decision but an hour later he made his choice and informed his parents and Nease head coach Craig Howard of his decision. Twenty minutes before the show, Tebow called Shula to tell him he wasn’t coming but his cell phone battery died when he tried to call Urban Meyer. It wasn’t until he walked inside his Gainesville home to see his wife and kids celebrating that Meyer found out Tebow was a Gator. Tebow won the 2007 Heisman Trophy, the 2006 and 2008 national titles, and was 35-6 as the starting QB at Florida. During the four years he was eligible, the Gators went 48-7. Mike Shula was fired after the 2006 season and Alabama hired Nick Saban.
8. MEYER RESIGNS (THE FIRST TIME), 2009: In the early hours of the morning after Florida lost to Alabama in the 2009 SEC Championship Game, Urban Meyer was taken to the emergency room at Shands with all the symptoms of a heart attack. It wasn’t a heart attack (later diagnosed as a genetic condition that causes a narrowing of the esophagus) but it was scary enough that Meyer announced he was resigning as Florida’s head coach on December 26, just before the Gators were to depart for New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Under pressure from many sources, Meyer reversed his decision the next day but he was never the same again nor was the Florida football program. His health continued to be a problem throughout the 2010 season, complicated because the once dynamic coaching staff had to be rebuilt sans Charlie Strong, Vance Bedford, Kenny Carter and Billy Gonzales. Their replacements weren’t nearly the same quality. Florida fell from 13-1 in 2009 to 8-5 in 2010. Meyer resigned a second time, replaced by Will Muschamp. In retrospect, he should have stayed resigned the first time.
9. FLORIDA LOSES TO Georgia Southern: The beginning of the end for Will Muschamp was November 23, 2013, the day the Gators lost to Georgia Southern, 26-20. The Eagles ran for 429 yards that day and didn’t complete a single pass. The Gators were down to their third quarterback – Skyler Mornhinweg – and the offensive line was riddled with injuries but Georgia Southern was also without several key players. There was no excuse for losing this game. When the Gators didn’t rebound in 2014 with a nine or 10-win season despite a favorable schedule, pressure mounted on Muschamp who couldn’t erase the stigma of losing to Georgia Southern. When the Gators lost their second and third games of the season in October it was evident Muschamp needed to finish strong to save his job, but a 23-20 overtime loss to South Carolina was the end of the road.
What do you think was the most significant event in Florida football history since 1960?
I had no clue about String Cheese Incident until they started showing up regularly at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for those three and four-day festivals. This is an interesting band with a music style that’s really hard to describe since they do a little bit of everything and include an electric mandolin and often use a violin but they do a fun show and the instrumental work is outstanding. What I like about their concerts is they tend to play two or three hours. Today’s music is their Valentine’s Day show in Las Vegas back in February.