GAMEDAY: Florida & Tennessee - the ties that bind

It was in 1928 that the Florida Gators traveled to Knoxville undefeated at 8-0 with a real shot at playing in the Rose Bowl. The Gators were a real powerhouse that season, having scored 324 points while giving up just 31 going into that game. Led by All-America end Dale Van Sickle, Florida had a real shot at winning the national championship if only the Gators could beat General Bob Neyland and the Tennessee Vols.

Florida was an odds-on favorite to win because of superior team speed. During the week, a reporter remarked that the only thing that could slow down the high flying Gators would be a storm of Noah proportions and that wasn't likely since there had been a drought in Eastern Tennessee. Amazingly, however, the night before the big game, it "rained" in Knoxville and rained so hard that the field was turned into a mud bog.

Even more amazing, it didn't rain anywhere else in Knoxville, just at the stadium.

Tennessee had longer cleats available while the Gators of Coach Charles Bachman arrived in Knoxville unprepared. The Gators slipped, slid and slogged their way to a 13-12 loss that ended Florida's dream season.

If you are looking for a place to earmark the beginning of the intense Florida-Tennessee rivalry, that's the place.

Over the years, the rivalry has grown steadily. Since 1990, the Florida-Tennessee game has been the first real test of the entire Southeastern Conference season. In the 12 years of the SEC championship game, Florida or Tennessee has represented the SEC East 10 times.

It is a rivalry that is heated and ever so intense, yet there are ties that bind Florida and Tennessee together forever. It can be said that UF football would not be what it is today if not for contributions from the University of Tennessee.

Florida football might have gone on to become one of the legendary programs in the south had the Gators won that game back in 1928, but things were not the same after that loss. Florida football would fall into a pattern of mediocrity. Winning seasons were rare. Losing seasons were not uncommon. The student population at UF swelled after World War II and with the increased number of students and a population boom taking place in Florida, the demand for a better than mediocre football team was heard throughout the state. Florida went to its old nemesis, Bob Neyland, to find the answers. Neyland's top assistant was Bob Woodruff who came to Gainesville intent on making the Gators one of the elite teams in the south.

"He organized the team well, improved the facilities, and while the Gators only won about 40% of the time before he came here, he got it over 50% and that was an improvement, says Jack Hairston, former sports editor of the Gainesville Sun and perhaps the greatest living authority on Gator football.

Woodruff was considered by many to be a coach lacking in intelligence. Not so, says Hairston, who says Woodruff was intelligent, just not capable of making good football decisions. Woodruff, he says, would panic on a fourth and one, tell the team to go for it, and never realize that the ball was on the Florida 15 or 16-yard line.

"Some people thought he wasn't a smart person but he actually was smart," said Hairston. "I just think his brain reacted to things slower than most. If you gave Woodruff the SAT and let him take it home with him and bring it back, he might score like an Alvin Butler (redshirt freshman linebacker for the Gators who scored 1600) but he wasn't very good making instant decisions. Because he had trouble with quick decisions in crucial times in the game, he made a lot of wrong decisions that cost the Gators."

Woodruff took the Gators to their first two bowl games, a 1952 win over Tulsa (14-13) in the Gator Bowl and a 7-3 win over Ole Miss in the 1958 Gator Bowl. Woodruff also sent several top assistants on to become head coaches. Among them Frank Broyles (Arkansas), John Rauch (Oakland and Buffalo, NFL), Dale Hall (Army), Hank Foldberg (Wichita State and Texas A&M), and Charlie Tate (Miami). Doug Dickey, a quarterback on that 1952 Gator Bowl team, would become the head coach at both UT and UF.

Dr. J. Wayne Reitz, president of UF, became weary of Woodruff's coaching blunders and the rising opposition to Woodruff by Gator fans, so he fired Woodruff after a 5-4-1 season in 1959. Reitz's choice to replace Woodruff was Ray Graves, who had also played at Tennessee under Neyland, coached with Woodruff as an assistant at UT, and who was the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech under Bobby Dodd, a former UT All-America himself.

Woodruff went back to Tennessee where he was an assistant coach under Bowden Wyatt for a couple of seasons before taking over as athletic director.

Wyatt ran the single wing at Tennessee, just like his mentor Neyland. In 1962, Graves got a call from his old friend Wyatt telling him about a quarterback in Johnson City at Science Hill High School. Because the quarterback was a passer and not a runner, he wasn't a good fit in the system at UT. Graves took a look, liked what he saw and successfully recruited the cocky kid who would transform Florida football --- Steve Spurrier.

Graves gave Florida its greatest 10-year stretch in history. He won 70 games, took the Gators to five bowl games, coached the Heisman Trophy winner (Spurrier, 1966) and put Florida football on the map. His 1969 team, made up mostly of sophomores, went 9-1-1 and defeated Tennessee 14-13 in the Gator Bowl.

Just prior to that Gator Bowl game, UF president Dr. J. Wayne Reitz let it leak out that he had hired Tennessee Coach Doug Dickey to replace Graves as football coach. Graves would remain as athletic director. Graves wasn't happy with the decision and Gator fans never were happy with Dickey, who arrived with great expectations from Tennessee where he won the SEC twice and beat Bear Bryant and Alabama head up twice in a row.

Dickey was not popular with media or with fans. Though he won 58 games in nine years, the program was on the downslide when he was fired after the 1978 season. Dickey would return to Tennessee a few years later where he succeeded Woodruff as the athletic director.

Graves was the most successful coach in Florida history until Spurrier returned to his alma mater as the head coach in 1990. Spurrier would go 122-27-1 at UF, winning six SEC championships and one national championship (1996).

In 1991, Spurrier hired a former defensive backs coach at Tennessee (1982-84) off the staff of John Cooper at Ohio State. Ron Zook served on the Gator staff for five years including three as the defensive coordinator, returning in 2002 as UF's head coach. While on the UT staff under Johnny Majors, Zook worked with present UT coach Phil Fulmer, who was the offensive line coach. While the rivalry with Tennessee is intense on the playing field, there is no mistaking that Florida's success in football over the years is directly tied to the University of Tennessee. It's just one more element that makes each year's Florida-Tennessee weekend a bit more special.

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