It's never easy to look at a top-flight program and single one guy out as the greatest ever. Oh, you can do it at Georgia, but not many other places. Well, despite all those great players and others not mentioned, I'm convinced Emmitt Smith is the greatest football player in UF history.
His Recruitment Spawned an Industry
Gator.Country.com and others have made a living following the recruiting wars, previewing the prospects and covering the process. We've reported on the commitments, de-commitments and re-commitments. But it all started with Emmitt.
He was the consensus national player of the year and top recruiting target for most schools despite being labeled a "lugger" by one national analyst. Everyone wanted the record-breaking runner from Pensacola Escambia, but it came down to Florida, Auburn and Nebraska.
That morning our phones in the WRUF newsroom rang as if war had broken out. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen and we could hardly get any work done. Unfortunately we had to wait, just like the final schools did until Emmitt pulled out the Gator hat and put it on. Today it would have been televised live. But back then, it was two local TV stations and one radio station.
I had seen Emmitt as a junior and was impressed. I saw him again in Gainesville in a "bowl game" against West Palm Beach Cardinal Newman and came away convinced he would be a star. The two things that caught me that night were his patience and balance. When he goes into Canton in a few years I suspect those words will come up again. He became a "must-get" recruit that day and he was the headliner in a superb signing class for Galen Hall in February. That class provided the veteran talent that keyed the first two Spurrier-era teams in 1990 & '91.
Carried UF Through Probation Impact
While nobody does anything alone, Emmitt Smith almost single-handedly kept the Gator football program above water in the aftermath of crippling sanctions for NCAA violations n the early eighties. While the Gators often fielded 20-to-30 fewer players than their opponents, the Gators never had a sub-.500 season.
In 1987, Emmitt supplanted Kerwin Bell as the focus of the Gator offense and broke the school rushing record in the process. His 1,341 yards and 13 touchdowns were new standards as the undermanned Gators managed to put together a 6-and-6 season. The NFL made it clear what it thought of Florida's offensive talent, choosing not a single player in the first five rounds of the draft.
As a sophomore, Emmitt helped the Gators race to a 5-and-0 start and it seemed the worst of the sanctions were over with? Not so much. Emmitt got hurt (sprained knee) during Florida's stunning loss to Memphis State. While Emmitt healed, the Gators faded, losing four straight. Emmitt got back in the lineup to help the Gators beat Kentucky, clinching a bowl big. Despite missing three-plus games, Emmitt finished just 12 yards shy of 1,000.
His junior season, Emmitt was devastated when the optimistic Gators dropped the season opener to Ole Miss. To this day, it's still the loudest any UF team has been booed at home in my experience. Florida rallied to win six straight, including Emmitt's epic 316 yard performance against New Mexico. The following week, with quarterback Kyle Morris on the shelf, Florida turned to freshman Donald Douglas…. Well to be more accurate they asked him to hand off a zillion times. Florida scored early and held on for dear life… until Auburn scored in the final minute, ending UF's championship hopes and leaving Emmitt in tears at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Florida went on to lose tough seven-point decisions to Georgia (17-10) and FSU (24-17) sandwiched around a win over Kentucky. Somehow Emmitt managed to run for 1,599 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was also Florida's leading receiver with 21. That he finished 7th in the Heisman voting is an outright travesty.
Emmitt left after his junior season and I'm convinced would have done so even if the new coach had urged him to stay as the talented runner and his mom had hoped. He was chosen # 17 in the first round of the NFL draft, behind such luminaries as Blair Thomas (Penn St RB, # 2 , NY Jets), Keith McCants (Alabama LB, # 4 , T Bay), and Andre Ware (Houston QB, # 7, Detroit). If you want to have more fun with the list, add Jeff George, Lamar Lathon, Anthony Smith, Chris Singleton and Percy Snow.
No NFL Talent to Help
Here's the complete list of UF offensive players drafted in Emmitt's three years on campus:
- Emmitt Smith (round 1)
- David Williams (1)
- Stacey Simmons (4)
- Bob Sims (6)
- Kerwin Bell (7)
- Tony Lomack (9)
That's it. Five offensive teammates who were drafted in three years, and two of them were teammates for just one year. No Florida player did more, surrounded by less. That's why Emmitt is the greatest ever.
Feedback always welcome @ Vettel@gatorcountry.com