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"For most of us he was a second father," says Dick Kirk, a standout on both offense and defense during that era, "and for a lot of guys, he was the only real dad they'd ever had."
A chance to honor "dad" was the underlying theme of this year's reunion, held for the thirty-fourth year at the Plantation Inn and Country Club. That there would be the annual reunion was no surprise to Coach Graves and his wife, Opal, but the fact the evening was totally dedicated to honoring them came as a complete shock to the coach who ushered in the modern era of football at the University of Florida. There were gifts that included a cruise ship vacation but the greatest gift of all for Coach Graves was the outpouring of love and affection.
"I looked at Opal and she said, 'There's a lot of love in this room tonight' and I have to agree," said Coach Graves. "I'm a very lucky man because I brought these boys to Florida to play football and I've had the chance to watch them grow into fine men. Just look at them. They got college degrees, got married to a bunch of pretty girls, made successes of their lives and they've got wonderful families that love them."
That he would measure his own success as a football coach by something other than wins and losses is no surprise to the players who played during that 10-year era that began in 1960 when Coach Graves came to UF from Georgia Tech where he was Bobby Dodd's defensive coordinator for the astounding salary of $18,500 per year. Florida was seeking a head coach with a proven track record of winning but Dr. Wayne Reitz, the president at UF, had asked Dodd and Graves to help screen Florida's candidates. During the screening process, Reitz realized that the man he needed was helping him locate a candidate. He brought Graves to Gainesville and put him up at the Holiday Inn (then on SW 13th Street). He met with Coach Graves and was impressed enough to offer him the job.
"I met with him (Reitz) and he offered me the job," said Graves. "One of the things he said was I want you to graduate 100% of them. That's what they're here for even though they're on athletic scholarships. We went on and talked about some other things about the athletic program and finally he said, 'you're going to make the same salary I make, 18,500 dollars and you'll get a car but you'll never have a house like I have' … and we shook hands and that was that."
Although Graves didn't graduate 100 percent of the players who came through the Florida program in his 10 years, he did graduate 93 percent and some 70 percent of those who got their undergraduate degree went on to earn a graduate degree. One of the first things he did was set up a "student assistantship" fund that was there to help pay for school for players who needed more time to graduate after their football eligibility had expired.
Coach Graves called it "taking care of my boys" but what he was doing was making an investment, not just in the lives of the players whom he helped, but in the future of the state of Florida. A good example is Bill McBride, who came to Florida a highly recruited running back out of Leesburg. In Florida's first scrimmage when McBride hit campus, he blew out his knee and never played a single down of football. Coach Graves made sure that McBride graduated and then when he had his bachelor's degree, McBride found more assistance so that he could continue his education in law school.
"He ran for governor but didn't make it," said Coach Graves. "That's the rewards I get, just seeing these boys do things like that. They get out and prosper. I said to the president one time, you give me enough money to these boys so I can graduate them and in time they'll come back and they'll pay back any amount of money we invested in them in a scholarship. Look at the boys who have come back to support the academic programs and the athletic programs. I bet there are a hundred of them or more in that category of supporting both the academic and athletic programs."
Bruce Culpepper, a successful lawyer and politician who was a member of the first team that Graves ever coached at UF, says all you have to do is look around on any given day and you can see the legacy of Ray Graves helping to improve lives in the state of Florida.
"Just look at the number of doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers, successful businessmen and so on," said Culpepper, whose son Brad was an All-American defensive lineman for Coach Steve Spurrier in 1991. "Look at the number of successful people who have gone on to impact so many lives. It's a real tribute to Coach Graves that he had such a commitment to the education of his boys."
Mac Steen, a DeLand orthodontist and the captain of the 1969 Florida football team, said that Coach Graves is "a wonderful dad!" Steen said that Coach Graves instilled in every player a desire to be successful and to use the success to help others.
Opal and Coach Graves met Urban Meyer at an earlier gathering.
"He has that rare ability to motivate people to be successful and then to turn that success into doing things for others," said Steen. "I'm proud to say that I played for Coach Graves. There isn't one of us who doesn't owe this man so much."
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No Silver Sixties event would be complete without the presence of the Old Ball Coach. Steve Spurrier, Florida's first Heisman Trophy winner in 1996, and the most successful football coach in school history, arrived Saturday night and was happy to be a part of the surprise for Coach Graves.
"Coach Graves is obviously the guy who started winning at Florida," said Spurrier, who was obviously pleased that his former teammates have been quite understanding why he took the coaching job at South Carolina. "We screwed up one or two games every year or else he should have won 3-4 conference championships in his ten years.
"I still feel bad that I screwed up 3-4 games that could have made a difference but he's our man and he's the original Bull Gator. He's the one we all love and look forward to seeing each year at this time. I can't say enough good things about Coach Graves. He's a part of every good thing that's happened to me in football and he's the one who built the foundation so good things could happen for the Gators."
Spurrier paid homage to the defensive teams that Florida had in his three years of varsity competition (1964-66).
"We led the conference in defense in 1964 and 1965 and I think we were something like second in 1966," he said. "In those days, defensive players didn't get the kind of recognition that they get now. So much of the success that we had and that I get far too much credit for is because we had such fantastic defensive teams."
The Gators of 1964 finished the year as the second rated defense in the NCAA.
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In 1969, John Reaves was Florida's sophomore quarterback, facing a Houston team that was rated number one in the nation by some polls in the season-opener at Florida Field. Houston was a heavy favorite to trounce the Gators, ranked in the bottom 20 by a Chicago newspaper. On the third play of the game, Reaves became a permanent legend in Florida football annals when he hit Carlos Alvarez for a 78-yard touchdown pass.
"As we watched the film they [Houston] played stand up man free coverage with the corners lined up five yards off the ball eyeballing the wide receivers," said Reaves. "Even the pros don't do that. They sure didn't know about Carlos Alvarez. Coach Graves said we have a chance to put some points on the board against these guys and I said let's throw deep early, maybe the first play of the game. Coach (Fred) Pancoast (offensive coordinator) said no, not on the first play, but soon, and it was on the third play of the game. Carlos was 10 yards behind their guy."
Florida won that game 59-34 and it jumpstarted Coach Graves and the Gators to what was the best record in school history (9-1-1) at that time. Win number nine was Coach Graves last game as Florida's coach, a 14-13 win over Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
"It's funny how one play defines your entire career," said Reaves, now successful real estate broker in Tampa. "Everywhere I go, Gator fans remember Reaves to Alvarez on that third play of that game in 1969."
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Another player whose career has often been defined by one play is Richard Trapp, now a successful Orlando attorney. An All-America wide receiver for the Gators, he turned a short pass from Larry Rentz into a twisting, turning zig zag of the entire Gator Bowl field that brought the Gators back to a 17-16 win over highly favored Georgia in 1967.
"About 20 years after that play, I guess, I'm watching on Cheers on TV and all the regulars from the cast are sitting around the bar and they're watching a football game on TV," said Trapp. "They're cheering on this one great run and it's my run they're showing on the TV screen. That was really kind of funny."
Trapp was at the Silver Sixties with his four sons. He doesn't miss the annual event in large part because of Coach Graves.
"Coach Graves has always wanted to be involved in our lives," said Trapp. "Out of the blue you'll get a letter from him or a call and it's always encouraging. When he comes here Coach Graves makes sure that he has the time because he really does want to talk to you and he really wants to know your kids, too. My kids are young but for a lot of these guys whose kids are older, Coach Graves has been like their grandfather."
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When Larry Smith broke free against Georgia Tech at the Orange Bowl following the 1966 season, it looked like his pants were falling down. As Smith sprinted to the end zone to complete a 94-yard touchdown run that sparked Florida to a 27-10 Orange Bowl win over Georgia Tech, fans held their collective breaths, believing that at any moment Smith's pants would slide down his legs and cause him to trip.
"I had those old plastic hip pads and they rode up so it make it look like my pants were falling down but they weren't," said Smith, a former number one draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams. "Norm (Carlson), being the brilliant publicist that he was, used it to get national publicity so all my life I've heard that my pants were falling down but obviously if your pants are falling down then you can't run like that. But, it's a great story and I've had fun with it over the years."
Another myth which Smith debunked is the one that in the fraternity track meet he ran a 9.7 100-yard dash from a standing start and in sneakers. The part about the sneakers is right but not the standing start or the time.
"There were three heats and it was from the blocks, not standing up," said Smith, who was an ATO. "It wasn't a 9.7. It was a 9.9 and I was running against Bernie Byers and Harmon Wages, so that was pretty good competition."
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When the Gators beat Alabama, 10-6, in Tuscaloosa in 1963, Kirk broke a 42-yard run for a touchdown that was the game decider. In 1965, Kirk had moved permanently to the defense. The Gators lost in Tuscaloosa in 1965, 17-14, and Kirk and All-America defensive end Lynn Matthews say it's the fault of the defense … but for a different reason.
"Bruce Bennett and I hit [Joe] Namath and knocked him out of the game," said Matthews, an executive with New York Times Regional Newspapers. "One of the reasons we lost the game is because we put Namath out of the game."
Kirk, retired after 33 years teaching at Fort Lauderdale High, said, "They put in Steve Sloan and he was a sprint out passer while Namath stayed in the pocket. We had geared our entire defensive plan to getting to Namath in the pocket. Sloan changed things for Alabama and that's why they won."