Brad Culpepper Remembers Skeptics In 1990

The last time Star Wars met the SEC was 1990 when Steven Orr Spurrier brought his flying circus from Duke to the University of Florida. Throughout the summer leading up to Spurrier's debut with Oklahoma State, the question that wouldn't go away was "Can this gimmick offense work in the SEC?" Football experts weren't the only ones asking that question. Brad Culpepper will tell you, Florida's players were thinking the same thing.

"We were so used to winning games on defense," said Culpepper in a telephone interview. "We'd had three offensive coordinators in three years [under Galen Hall] and we never had any kind of consistency. Then along comes Steve Spurrier and in the spring he's got us doing things we wouldn't have dreamed of doing."

In the spring, Spurrier transformed Florida from an offense that was Emmitt [Smith] left, Emmitt right and Emmitt up the middle from the previous three years to a throw deep, throw early and throw often mentality. Not only was the philosophy contrary to what had been instilled under Hall, there was a huge question at quarterback. Kyle Morris had the most experience and the strongest arm, but he was coming off a half-season suspension for gambling on NFL games and he was never one to be confused with cerebral quarterbacks. Far down the depth chart was redshirt sophomore Shane Matthews who was skinny, didn't have the strongest arm in the world and had been suspended with Morris. In the fall of 1989, Matthews was Florida's sixth-string quarterback.

At one point early in the spring, Bill Matthews, Shane's dad, a legendary high school football coach in Pascagoula, Mississippi, approached Spurrier to ask if the new ball coach would simply give his son a chance under center. More than anyone else, Bill Matthews understood that Shane was not exactly a world beater in practice, but at game time it was a different story. Spurrier agreed give Matthews a chance and much to his surprise, the quiet, skinny kid picked up his offense so quickly that he easily surpassed all the quarterbacks ahead of him.

Spurrier was so pleased with the way Matthews picked up the reads and timing of his offense that he boldly proclaimed that not only would Shane lead the SEC in passing, he would be selected the All-SEC quarterback at season's end. That kind of bravado was considered typical Spurrier. It only fueled the critics who were convinced that Spurrier and all his gimmicks would fail. Culpepper heard all the talk that summer, and even though he felt the Gators would be better offensively than in the previous three years, he had to wonder if this newfangled way of playing football would work.

"Kyle Morris had experience, a strong arm, a big body and he threw a great deep ball," said Culpepper, who would make All-SEC at defensive tackle in 1990 and All-America in 1991. "But Shane? Well, he was skinny and he was quiet. His arm wasn't all that strong but he did throw a nice spiral. He really didn't practice all that well, either.

"We knew we could win games on defense because we had a lot of talent and we really had great coaches. We knew that if we would fly around and attack the football, we'd win some games and we would at least be in most every game until the end. I have to admit, we were skeptical about the offense."

The great debate ended on opening day in September. Florida won the toss and true to form, Spurrier wanted the football. Oklahoma State kicked off, Florida got the ball and six plays later, the Gators were in the end zone. Florida didn't huddle, threw the ball on all six plays and the ball never touched the ground.

By the time the carnage was over, the Gators had a 50-7 win over a respectable opponent and Shane Matthews was firmly entrenched as the Florida quarterback. The Gators would go on to a 9-2 record that was best in the SEC although Florida couldn't go to a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions from the Hall administration.

Culpepper and his defensive mates usually sat on the sideline collecting their thoughts when the offense was on the field. They were used to grind it out football whose only spectacular moments came when Emmitt Smith's magic feet made people miss so he could get yards when there weren't any. About the second completion by Matthews, Culpepper and his buddies were on their feet watching with eyebrows raised. By the time the ball got in the end zone, whatever skepticism there had been going into the game had disappeared completely.

Culpepper said, "I looked around to Huey (Richardson) and Mark (Murray) and I said, 'guys this is the big time… this is what we thought we were going to be doing when we came here.' Spurrier having faith in Shane is just a reflection of good coaching. No one would have tabbed him for greatness except someone who has an eye for talent."

By game's end, Culpepper said that he and his teammates though "maybe this guy really can coach!"

Culpepper says that the defense was inspired to play with true abandon because they knew the offense could put points on the board. This wasn't a particularly big defensive team, but it was blessed with extraordinary quickness at nearly every position.

"We weren't overly big," he said, "but it wasn't the size of the dog in the fight but which dog fought like it had rabies. When we stepped on the field, we played like we had rabies."

That first game jump started the Gators to an unprecedented 12 years. The Gators won at least nine games in each of Spurrier's 12 years at the helm (122 for the 12 years), six SEC titles and one national championship. Now, Florida seeks a return to those glory years with a new coach --- Urban Meyer --- and a new Star Wars offense that skeptics say is too much of a gimmick to win in the Southeastern Conference.

Brad Culpepper laughs when he hears the skeptics. He's been down that road before and remembers when even he was a bit of a doubter.

"It is kind of déjà vu, isn't it?" he asked rhetorically. "Everyone questions will the offense work in the SEC and there are questions if the quarterback [Chris Leak] can run the offense … the same kind of questions we heard before our first year under Spurrier. Everyone said yeah it worked at Duke but that was Duke … "

Meyer's offense is as revolutionary today as the Spurrier offense was in 1990. Just as Spurrier inherited a veteran offensive line in 1990, Meyer inherits veterans up front in 2005 that will provide the protection for Leak. Just as Matthews had to learn a brand new offense in just a spring and August practices, Leak is also learning on the fly. If there is a difference on the offensive side, it is Leak's experience as a two-year starter and having so many quality wide receivers that have game experience.

"You have to remember, in 1990 we were coming off a year that there were times we went two games without completing six passes," said Culpepper. "Against Auburn [in 1989] Donald Douglas completed one pass for six yards."

So Culpepper sees advantages for Florida's coach and the Gator offense.

"I'm excited," said Culpepper, now a successful practicing attorney in the Tampa area. "I think this is the right coach and in so many ways he's like Spurrier was. He's really confident and he has a system that he believes in and knows that it will work. I think he's got better receivers and skill people in terms of speed and experience than Spurrier had in 1990, too. If you ask me, I think it's going to work. I can't wait for the first game."

Although he won't make predictions for Meyer's first year, he does think Gator fans are in for a return to glory.

"I think this is the right guy to lead the program," Culpepper said. "I have no doubt that he's going to be tremendously successful for years to come."


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