Florida had scored a few big wins in the past including a 13-12 win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta in 1954, an 18-17 win over tenth ranked Georgia Tech in 1960 and a 17-7 win over ninth-ranked Penn State in the 1962 Gator Bowl but the Gators overall record against ranked opponents going into that game was 11-35-2. By the time Florida got its first win ever against a ranked opponent (7-6 over number 18 NC State in 1946), Alabama had already won five national championships.
That 1963 Alabama team featured quarterback Joe Namath. Most experts at the time figured the Crimson Tide was a shoo-in for a Cotton Bowl showdown with Texas to decide the national championship. All that changed on October 12 when the Gators played one of the greatest games in Florida history.
Florida was unranked and had lost a humiliating 17-0 game to Georgia Tech earlier in the season, a game in which the Gators finished with minus nine yards rushing and only 32 total yards. The Gators were huge underdogs to Alabama so Coach Ray Graves called on The Old Warrior, Gene Ellenson, to work his motivational magic. Ellenson, Florida's defensive coordinator, was a two-time winner of the Silver Star for heroism at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. Ellenson's inspirational talks would become legendary during his 10 years on the Florida staff.
The night before the game, Florida had its usual team meeting in the hotel in Tuscaloosa. With the team gathered around and in desperate need of something positive, Ellenson began telling stories about the Battle of the Bulge and finding a way to make the stories of life and death relevant to the task at hand, which was to beat Alabama in a football game. There were tears and then there was laughter followed by more tears as Ellenson told of fallen comrades who never made it home from the battlefield. When the speech ended and Ellenson had urged the Gators to play the game of their lives, Florida's players filed out of the room without saying a word.
"You could have heard a pin drop when we walked out," said Florida defensive back Alan Trammell, a native of Eufaula, Alabama. "We went to our rooms and nobody said a word. I was rooming with Jack Harper and we didn't even say good night to each other."
The next morning at the team breakfast, it was again eerily quiet. There were no words spoken, just an occasional meeting of the eyes. It was quite obvious that Ellenson's speech had touched the players like nothing ever before. There was a feeling of determination growing in that room and it continued until the Gators reached Denny (now Bryant-Denny) Stadium.
This was before the locker rooms were remodeled at the stadium. There was only one narrow steel door separated the cramped room from the tunnel to the field. Florida's players dressed silently and then pushed forward to hear some words before taking the field.
"Panama Jack … Jack Katz … stood up in front of us and he took his helmet and smashed it into blackboard," said Trammell. "The blackboard shattered and Jack just said 'Let's go.' You've seen those cartoons and movie scenes where everyone rushes to get to the door and they break it down? Well, it was almost like that. We just poured out onto the field."
On the opening kickoff, Bobby Lyle booted the ball to Alabama's All-American running back Benny Nelson at the three yard line. Nelson took two steps when he was nearly decapitated by Florida's Hagood Clarke. Clarke launched himself at the eight and hit Nelson pad high at the five. Nelson's head hit the ground like a pumpkin falling off a building and his helmet went flying off. The Gators had come to play football.
Florida got a Lyle field goal for a 3-0 lead. The Gators only touchdown came when quarterback Tommy Shannon handed off to Dick Kirk and the sophomore from Fort Lauderdale ripped through the Alabama defense for 42 yards and the touchdown that gave the Gators a 10-6 margin that would stand.
Kirk, now a retired school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, said, "I got in the game and Tommy (Shannon) looked at me and said 'get ready.' I got a great hole and we caught then flatfooted."
Clarke later made a sensational interception of a Namath pass to seal the win and the Gators had their greatest win in history.
After the game, when the Gators were in their buses ready to go to the airport, Namath surprised everyone.
"He stepped in and told us we had played a great game and we deserved to win," said Trammell. "He wished us good luck the rest of the season. I thought that was really classy of Joe."
When the Florida team plane reached Gainesville, it had to circle the airport two or three times while law enforcement officers tried to push the crowd back. A crowd estimated at 10-15,000 had overflowed onto the runway and it had to be moved back so the plane could land.
The win over mighty Alabama was Florida's real coming out party. It was a statement game that truly announced the Gators were going to be something other than a .500 program from here on out.
A STRANGE RECORD: Alabama football is steeped in winning tradition unlike any other school in the Southeastern Conference. The Crimson Tide has claimed the national championship seven times in the modern era of college football, 12 times overall and there are another five teams that were awarded the national championship by minor polling organizations.
During the modern era of Alabama football, the Tide has posted two winning streaks of 28 games (once under Bear Bryant, once under Gene Stallings) and four unbeaten national championship years (1961, 1966, 1979, 1992). Yet for all the excellence and all the big wins in big games, Alabama has never beaten a top five-ranked team in Tuscaloosa.
MEYER'S FIRST GAME AS A COACH: Urban Meyer broke into coaching back in 1985 when he was the offensive staff's graduate assistant for Coach Earle Bruce at Ohio State. His first college football game as a coach was against Alabama, which was quarterbacked by Mike Shula, who is now in his third year as Alabama's football coach.
"I didn't realize that until they said it at the press conference today," said Meyer after Wednesday's practice. "I was a GA … I was a first year GA so what was it like? I made a bunch of cups of coffee that week, vacuumed carpets and cleaned the coaches' windows. That's what my job was as the offensive GA."
Meyer recalls that Ohio State lost the game in part because the Buckeyes couldn't a backup Alabama linebacker. Alabama's three-time All-American went down to an injury in the game and his replacement came in and took the game over.
"Cornelius Bennett got hurt," said Meyer. "You want to know who his back up was? Derrick Thomas … he came in and dominated the game."
Thomas would go on to make All-America at Alabama and he was a dominating linebacker/defensive end in the NFL for years before his untimely death.
MINCEY: Meyer said he didn't like the things that defensive end Jeremy Mincey said about Alabama's talent not being to the level of Tennessee, but he wouldn't discipline his player. Meyer said that Mincey meant nothing malicious by comments that Tennessee had more talent than Alabama.
Meyer said, "My wife asked me last night … I did this with one other guy who did something like that and he wasn't allowed to talk to the media for a couple of weeks and she asked 'did you do that?' I said I forgot to do it because I love Mincey and there's no harm, no disrespect meant there."
BROOKS OUT: Safety Nick Brooks has been nursing a sore knee that will apparently need to be scoped so he's out for at least the Alabama game. Brooks hurt the knee about two weeks ago but it hasn't responded to treatment and has only gotten worse.
"He tried to go today but he couldn't," said Meyer. "I think he's actually going to get it scoped."
In other injury news, Meyer said that the Gators will apply for a medical redshirt for Javier Estopinan, who is practicing but trying to come back from knee surgery in the spring.
PREPPING FOR THE NOISE: Meyer is expecting the crowd in Tuscaloosa to be quite a bit noisier than what he heard last week in Lexington against Kentucky. He's had crowd noise piped in Wednesday and will have it again Thursday to help acclimate his team to the higher decibels expected in Tuscaloosa.
"From what I hear it's like playing at our place," said Meyer. "We had crowd noise all day today and we will have it tomorrow. The good thing is that Chris (Leak) has been in it before. He and (Mike) Degory are kind of like the apex of the offense."
DINNER AND A MOVIE: The team will have a choice of watching Friday night college football or a movie Friday night in Tuscaloosa. Meyer said that he no longer chooses the movie but leaves that to the team.
"I picked movies for awhile and after picking "The Hunt For Red October" six times in a row I let them start picking it," he said.