Kirkpatrick Wants Return To UF Glory Years

TAMPA --- As Urban Meyer spoke to the Tampa Gator Club about restoring Florida football to the point where once again it is considered one of the great programs in the nation, Kirk Kirkpatrick stood in the back of Higgins Hall at St. Lawrence Catholic School, remembering that 1990 season when the Gators broke the mold of mediocrity to become a program that was consistently among the nation's best.

That was Steve Spurrier's first year as Florida's football coach and with his arrival, the five-loss seasons and trips to minor bowl games became a thing of the past. The Gators went 9-2 that first year and even though NCAA probation, a holdover from the previous regime, kept them from going to a bowl game and winning Florida's first official SEC football championship, a statement was made and Florida football would never be the same again.

"I can't give Coach Spurrier enough credit for changing the outlook at the University of Florida," said Kirkpatrick, an All-SEC selection in 1990 that set the Florida single season standard for catches by a tight end with 55, a record that still stands.

In the pre-Spurrier years, the Gators played everybody tough but Kirkpatrick admits they only thought they could win. A 6-5 or 7-5 season was pretty much the norm and though everyone wanted better, Florida was pretty much stuck in a rut. When Spurrier arrived, the attitudes changed immediately and so did the won-loss records.

"He convinced everybody that we have the best skill people in the state of Florida and that there was no reason why couldn't win every game," he said. "We always had the talent. He bought the coaching and he brought the attitude. We went from thinking we could to knowing we will."

In Spurrier's 12 years as the Florida coach, the Gators never finished outside the top 25, never lost more than four games in a season and won at least nine games every season. The Gators won six Southeastern Conference championships and in 1996, Florida won the national title. Florida won 122 games in that era, one of the best 12-year stretches by any school in NCAA history.

"We've slid in the last few years so it's time for us to get back to where we're in the top five year after year," said Kirkpatrick, an executive in the financial services industry in Tampa. "I think Urban is an excellent young coach with great potential in front of him. I think he can get us back to the next level where we ought to be. I like what he's doing."

He gets back to Gainesville when he can, usually for a couple of games per season. The trips back to The Swamp have been limited because he spends most weekends with his kids, age eight and six.

"They've never been to a Gator game," he said. "I thought about taking them to their first one last year but I think this year I'll be able to get them up there. It's going to be exciting."

He spent last weekend in Gainesville playing in Danny Weurffel's golf tournament where he got a chance to catch up with plenty of ex-Gators. He said he appreciates Weurffel and all that he stands for as a man and as a Gator.

"He [Weurffel] lives such a good life and he's such a good person, nice, humble and genuine," said Kirkpatrick. "All the success he has is because he has the priorities in the right order. He's a good guy, honorable and a great family man. He's someone I'm proud that he's a Gator."

As he looks back on his college football career he has only one regret.

"It just went by way too fast," he said. "Sometimes I wish I was back in college again."

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During his speech to the Gator Club, Meyer once again indicated that he thinks the team is solid in most areas. However, he remains quite concerned about the linebacker situation where senior Earl Everett and junior Brandon Siler are proven talents but the third slot is very much up for grabs.

The best solution would be for senior Brian Crum to step up his game to fill that strong side slot. Crum has experience and had some good moments as a reserve last year. Another option is Jonathon Demps, who is expected to be fully recovered from ACL surgery in August. Demps was starting to make a move into the playing rotation as a true freshman last year when he went down with the injury. Also, there are three incoming freshmen --- Brandon Spikes, A.J. Jones and Dustin Doe.

Meyer told the Gator Club that there is one more option. He said he wouldn't rule out the possibility of moving safety Tony Joiner to linebacker if some of these other players don't make their move. Right now Joiner is slated to start next to Reggie Nelson at safety but the Haines City native wouldn't have to bulk up that much to make the move to linebacker. Joiner weighed in close to 210 during the spring.

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Earlier in the day, Meyer was at Jefferson High School to watch quarterback Stephen Garcia's second day of spring practice. While he was there, signees Trent Pupello (Jefferson tight end) and Riley Cooper (Clearwater Catholic wide receiver) dropped by to visit.

Pupello said he is 6-4 and somewhere between 255 and 260 now. He's been working out every day to get ready for June 27 when he reports to UF for the start of Summer B.

"The strength coach, Coach Mickey [Marotti] sent me a booklet with how to workout with running, lifting and all that good stuff," said Pupello. "I'm working hard, living right and doing whatever I need to do to get ready."

Already a strapping physical specimen, Pupello is a weight room warrior determined to be strong enough and fast enough to contribute as a true freshman.

"I maxed out at 405 [bench press] about two weeks ago so that's where I'm at right now," he said. "The book Coach Mickey sent me has all this good speed work in it and I'm doing a lot of that. Whatever I need to do to get ready to help the team, that's what I'm doing."

Pupello's dad Joe was an offensive lineman for the Gators in the 1970s. Trent's brother Kyle is a tight end/fullback that transferred in from a Mississippi junior college to participate in Florida's spring practice.

"This is a dream come true for me," he said. "I'm going to be playing for the Gators and playing with my brother and my dad says it's a dream come true for him to have both of us up there," he said. "You know, it really doesn't get much better than this."

Originally, Pupello had given a verbal commitment to Florida State, but the Gators offered in November and he started thinking about changing that commitment.

"I went to the Vandy game about two weeks before Florida played FSU and that crowd right there was so much louder than the Florida State-Miami game had been in Tallahassee," he said. "I mean, it wasn't even close. Then I came back a couple of weeks later for the Florida-Florida State game in The Swamp and that was really amazing. I never heard a crowd like that and that's what sold me. That's ridiculous that everybody tries to compare the two stadiums. It isn't even close. Florida's the loudest and the best. There's no comparison, none at all."

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Meyer will be speaking to the Orlando Gator Club Wednesday night.

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