Welcome Home Ward, We've Missed You

She's still as southern as it gets. Folks who know her and even those whom she's just met are greeted by that familiar "Hi Darlin' " and the quick, but always genuine smile that just makes folks melt right in their tracks. She still hugs everybody in sight, too, and when you get hugged by Ward Pell, the hug lasts long enough that when it's over and done with, you're ready to sign up for another one.

One by one, Thursday afternoon, folks who remember her as "The First Lady of Florida Football" took their turns getting hugged and loved as only Ward Pell can do. She was as comfortable there on the sideline of the football practice field as she was 21 years ago when her late husband Charley Pell was Florida's football coach. It's obvious that the years have done nothing to take away the abundant charm and the ability to make friends instantly.

When practice ended, it was Coach Urban Meyer's turn to get hugged. He walked over to her with a big smile and said, "Welcome home." The smile that he got in return let him know that Ward Pell was indeed back home where she's always belonged. The NCAA sanctions against Florida in 1984 may have cost Charley his job but his place --- and Ward's --- in the hearts of longtime members of Gator Nation will always be secure.

Florida has an athletic program that not only wins big in practically every sport, but it boasts some of the nation's best facilities. It takes a ton of money to make the Florida program successful and the wheels of that big engine are greased by a booster organization that was practically non-existent before Charley and Ward Pell arrived on the scene in 1979.

When Charley got to Gainesville, the facilities were among the worst in the SEC and the program was barely chugging along. When he got fired five years later after the NCAA lowered the boom on the Florida program, the entire athletic department was on a course of financial prosperity and winning was the only acceptable answer.

The fact that Charley Pell got fired still stirs up debate. Florida got hit for 109 NCAA violations and part of the plea agreement was that Charley Pell would lose his job. Most of the broken rules were of the ticky-tack variety but there were some were pretty severe violations, most of which were committed by boosters and a few by a football staff administrator who was selling players' tickets to boosters at a huge markup and then pocketing a portion of the money.

Probably the most severe charge leveled directly against Charley Pell was that he administered a fund out of his own pocket that he used to supplement the pay of his assistant coaches. That was and still is an NCAA no-no for some reason.

When it came time for Florida to pay the price for its sins against the NCAA, Charley Pell did something extraordinary. He could have told all that he knew and caused embarrassment from the booster level right up to the top of the UF administration. He could have but he didn't.

For all practical purposes, Charley Pell committed coaching harikari. He plunged his coaching career on the sword rather than sing like a canary. If he had talked, he might have walked but instead he said good-bye to Gainesville and good-bye to coaching. He may or may not have been a lot of things, but Charley Pell was never a rat.

"Charley always preached that the buck stopped with him so if it happened on his watch --- even if he didn't say go out and do it or break the rule himself --- he took responsibility," said Ward, whose home is Gadsden, Alabama where she's an executive with a national real estate auctioneer. "He took the personal responsibility for every rule that was broken. I've got letters from a lot of folks who said 'thanks' because Charley went before the NCAA and simply said, 'blame it on me … blame it all on me' which is just what they did. If Charley had told everything he knew, oh my, a lot of folks at this university would have been embarrassed."

Three weeks into the 1984 season Charley Pell was fired by the University of Florida. He never coached again nor did he ever feel the urge to tell all. Loyalty was important to Charley even if it never was a two-way street. When he died after a ferocious battle with lung cancer five years ago, he went to his grave holding a lot of secrets but also with a never-ending love with the University of Florida.

"I can tell you flat out that Charley Pell loved the University of Florida and nothing that happened changed that deep love he had for the Gators," said Ward. "He never blamed anyone but himself for what went wrong and if you see all the facts and read some of the letters I have from some of the NCAA investigators who were part of this whole mess ... well, you'll see for yourself that even the people who investigated said there wasn't a lot of evidence that Charley was some kind of rogue coach who broke all the rules. The letters I have say there was a lot of evidence against boosters and some other folks but very little against Charley."

Cheating was rampant in the SEC and throughout the south in those days. From 1978-85, Georgia (Vince Dooley coach) got caught three times (1978, 1982, 1985) by the NCAA. Auburn (Pat Dye coach) got caught in back to back years (1979 and 1980). Florida State (Bobby Bowden) was sanctioned in 1985. Miami (Howard Schnellenberger coach) got hit in 1982. Tennessee (Johnny Majors coach) was hit by the NCAA in 1986 for violations that occurred a couple of years earlier while Charley Pell was coaching at Florida.

"You want to talk about what was going on in those days at some of the other schools in the SEC?" Ward asked rhetorically. "You got a week? It would probably take me that long to tell you half the stuff we knew. Ask some of our former players who were recruited by some of the other schools what they were offered at some of those other places."

Ward Pell could and probably will tell all some day. The book is in the works but only a fraction of the book will deal with Charley Pell vs. the NCAA. Most of the book will talk about how Charley Pell waged and won his own private war with the demons that drove him to a botched suicide attempt. Charley Pell vs. the NCAA is slim pickings compared to how Charley found God, found himself and found a purpose in living that leaves a lasting legacy in the state of Alabama.

When Charley hit rock bottom, he tried suicide and when that desperate cry for help was answered with a failed attempt, he found out that God had been there all along, just waiting for him to make peace. He rediscovered the only girl he ever loved, Ward, and he reconciled with his family, friends and even long term adversaries. When he learned to forgive himself, he learned to forgive others.

He was diagnosed with chronic depression so he got treatment and then became an advocate for others who suffer with this debilitating disease. He threw himself headlong into the fight to help people whose lives are destroyed by depression and mental illness. He became the leading advocate in the state of Alabama the mentally ill.

"Now the easy thing would be to blame the NCAA and the University of Florida and all the people who broke a lot of rules that cost Charley something he loved so dearly and that was coaching," said Ward, "but that's not the legacy of Charley. His legacy is that he made a lot of folks in the state of Alabama so aware of how people who have mental illnesses need decent care and treatment. Did you know that Alabama now ranks fourth in the nation in treating the mentally ill? Charley had a lot to do with that. He turned his own tragedy into a battle for people who couldn't fight for themselves."

If you ever met Charley Pell personally, there are a few things you should know: (1) he was never late --- there was such a thing as "Charley Pell time" which means you were late if you didn't arrive five minutes before the appointed time; (2) he was the single most organized human being on the planet; (3) he cared deeply for all his former players and you will NEVER hear even one of them say anything bad about their coach and friend; and (4) if Charley was on your side, you had no greater friend. There was a time when you could also say that if Charley Pell was your enemy you had no greater adversary in the universe but that was before he learned to forgive.

The Charley Pell that coached Florida was as hard nosed as it got. More than one sports writer can tell tales about leaving Charley's office in tears after one of his infamous tirades. But the tough guy that everyone knew in Gainesville became the kinder, gentler man who went to his grave still trying to give away all the love he had collected over the years in his heart.

If he were here today, he would tell you that he never could love Ward enough. She stood by him through thick and thin. They were the perfect match. He was the tough guy workaholic and she was the picture of charm and sweetness.

They met in Lexington when Charley was an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky. Ward's mother and dad were deans at UK. She and Charley were best friends.

"I lined him up with every good looking girl on campus and when he'd finish the date, he'd come over and tell me all about her," said Ward. "I'd go out on a date and he would be waiting for me when I got back and he'd critique the guy I went out with."

They had gone out on a few experimental dates along the way but things weren't exactly serious until Charley interviewed for the head coaching job at Jacksonville (AL) State. Charley wowed the president of JSU in the interview but the school didn't want to give him the job because he was still single. Charley told the president that wasn't a problem since he was planning to be married very soon. That changed everything and Pell was hired.

Charley solved the wife problem when he got back to the hotel by calling Ward, who was waiting by the phone in Lexington to find out how the interview had gone. The story Charley always told was that after the hellos, in typically blunt Charley Pell fashion he asked, "How about you and me getting married?"

"One romantic son of a gun, wasn't he?" said Ward.

Her version of the story is that Charley asked, "Do you want to get married?" and she replied, "To whom?"

She did say yes. They got married and began a genuine partnership. Charley was the coach. Ward was the team mom.

Even though it's been 21 years since she left Gainesville, Ward Pell is still remembered by friends and admirers as the "First Lady of Florida Football," a role that's now in the hands of Shelley Meyer. Ward and Charley made the football team at Florida their extended family. Fans and boosters were distant cousins. That family approach is quite similar to the one instituted at Florida by Urban and Shelley Meyer. And just as families forgive and welcome home those who have been gone far too long, Urban and Shelley have begun to systematically heal a lot of deep wounds in the Gator Nation, one of which was the whole Charley Pell affair.

During the summer at a Gator Gathering in Jacksonville, Meyer said thanks to Pell, noting that while it is true that Florida went on probation during Charley's watch, it was during his watch that the Gator Boosters became a formidable fund-raising organization that is as good as there is in all of college athletics. Before Charley Pell got to Gainesville, the boosters were disorganized and money was hard to come by. Florida literally swims in money because of a booster organization that is a money-raising machine.

Because of the boosters, Meyer has a program that lacks nothing. Florida is the kind of place where national championships can be won. Charley Pell was the one who made Florida fans dream of national championships the first time. He's also the one who set in motion the booster organization that greases the wheels of a top five athletic department.

So during the summer, Urban Meyer called Gadsden, Alabama and had a conversation with Ward.

"He's just adorable," said Ward. "I think he's something special. He called me and we just talked like a couple of good friends. He invited me to the Vanderbilt game and I'm here because of him. He's a real keeper. He is going to do great things for Florida."

Meyer simply says bringing Ward back was the right thing to do.

"I read a lot about her late husband, Coach Pell, and one day I just called her and invited her to come back," said Meyer. "I think that's important."

Ward Pell was in her orange sweater with the gold alligator pinned to her right shoulder Thursday afternoon. She's always been a Gator in her heart, but on this day, once again, she was an integral part of Gator Nation.

"I just love Urban Meyer," she said. "And Shelley's just so special. They made me feel like it was important for me to be here."

Welcome home, Ward. We've missed you.


Fightin Gators Top Stories