Lack Of Size Never Deterred Larry Libertore

When Larry Libertore hears people talking about Lakeland High School's All-American tailback Chris Rainey, at some point someone mentions about Rainey's size. Rainey is 5-9 and 160 lean pounds, a waterbug quick darter who wins with speed and moves in these days when some tailbacks weigh more than the offensive linemen that Libertore played behind when he quarterbacked the Florida Gators.

Maybe Rainey isn't prototypical size for a tailback, but it's all a matter of perspective according to Libertore.

"He seems pretty big to me," said Libertore, a successful Lakeland businessman who's not much bigger now than he was back in 1960-62 when he played quarterback and safety for the Florida Gators. In Libertore's era, offensive lines typically averaged between 200-220, but even in that time when the average player was much smaller than today, Libertore was considered somewhat of a mighty mite.

He quarterbacked the Gators to a 9-2 record his sophomore year, the most wins in a single season in school history at that time, and he never was as big as he was listed in the program. When the Gators beat Baylor in the Gator Bowl in 1960, Libertore was listed at 5-8, which is about right, and 143 generous pounds.

Maybe with his equipment on he was 143.

"I don't think I ever weighed more than 138 or maybe 139," he recalled in a recent interview with Gator Country.

That sophomore season when Florida played Florida State in Gainesville, the state's newspapers billed it as the battle of the little generals. It was Libertore against FSU's Eddie Feeley, the former Gainesville High All-American. Feeley was listed at 5-7, 138.

"I thought he looked pretty big," said Libertore. "He seemed a lot thicker, a lot more muscular than I was, that's for sure."

In the modern era of Florida football, there probably has never been a matchup of two smaller quarterbacks at The Swamp. But it was indeed a different time, a different era. Two-platoon football was still three years away so players were typically leaner, not to mention it was years before wholesale weight lifting programs became commonplace.

"It was a different era … a much different era … a time when a guy who weighed 200 or so was considered pretty big," said Libertore. "Maybe I was one of the smallest guys on our team but proportionally, I wasn't all that small if you compare to things today. Today your linemen are well over 300 pounds and your typical quarterback is probably 100 pounds lighter.

"I never did think about my weight and size that much when I played but nowadays you look at Tim Tebow (Florida freshman quarterback) and he's what? Over 230 pounds? He would have been one of our biggest linemen when I played!"

* * *

Libertore, now a successful Lakeland businessman, came to Florida from Miami Edison where he was a standout option quarterback and defensive back. He was recruited to Florida in 1958 by Coach Bob Woodruff. Libertore played freshman football in the fall of 1958 (freshmen were ineligible in those days) and then he redshirted in 1959, which was Woodruff's lame-duck season. Woodruff knew before the 1959 season began that he would not be returning in 1960 even though he had only posted one losing record in 10 years, the best 10-year stretch ever for Florida football.

Woodruff's problems were two-fold. While he gave Florida fans a taste of winning football and the first two bowl games in school history (Gator Bowl 1952 and 1958), he didn't win big enough (53-42-6 record). Complicating matters was his style of football was downright boring. Like his mentor, General Bob Neyland, Woodruff believed that football games were won with defense and the kicking game.

"We regularly used to quick kick on third down when we were in our own territory if it was third and more than three yards," said Libertore. "Our offenses were pretty conservative. We were limited to certain plays and we would never pass on our end of the field. You had to get to the other team's territory before you loosen up and throw the ball. It was actually pretty boring."

All that changed with the arrival of Ray Graves from Georgia Tech in the spring of 1960. Graves was the defensive coordinator for Bobby Dodd so there was going to be plenty of stress on defense and the kicking game, but the offense opened up considerably. Graves brought former Georgia Tech All-American quarterback Pepper Rogers with him and Rogers was had flair. Daring and innovative, his offensive concepts were light years different from those of Woodruff.

"The Gators were definitely a defensive team with very little offense before Coach Graves came," said Libertore. "Coach Graves and Pepper Rogers came to me and said we're going to go to an option system and make this offense a bit more exciting."

Libertore was excited that there would be changes but he still wasn't sure how he would fit in with this new crew.

"They hadn't recruited me and they didn't really know me," he said. "Plus, there were seven or eight quarterbacks on the roster in the spring. The numbers in those days were a lot different. In my freshman class, we had 65 that came in on scholarship and we knew at least 15-20 of them would be gone pretty soon. But still, that's quite a difference than it is today when you have scholarship limitations and 85-man rosters."

Libertore had a fine spring and he emerged as the top quarterback on a roster that also included Bobby Dodd Jr. and Tommy Batten. Libertore didn't have big hands so he wasn't much of a passer but he could lead, he could run the option and he was an outstanding defensive back.

* * *

Graves' inaugural season began with a 30-7 victory over George Washington. By the standards of the Woodruff era, that was an offensive explosion. That was followed by a 3-0 win over FSU in the Libertore vs. Feely battle. That set the stage for tenth-ranked Georgia Tech to march into town for game three, a game with enough sub-plots to fill a month on a soap opera. It was two former University of Tennessee All-Americans going against each other in Graves and Bobby Dodd. It was Graves against his former boss. It was Pepper Rogers against his former coach and the man that gave him his break to get into coaching. It was Bobby Dodd Sr., the coach, against Bobby Dodd Jr., Florida's second string quarterback.

It was also undefeated and untested Florida going against a ranked commodity in Georgia Tech. Considering the first two games, nobody really gave Florida much of a chance.

"We beat George Washington but still there were a lot of mistakes that needed correcting and we didn't have a good offensive game against FSU," said Libertore. "Even though we didn't really show it, I think things were just starting to fall in place."

Rogers had a game plan that could work against the rugged Georgia Tech defense but it was far more complicated than anything Libertore had seen in the past when Woodruff was the coach.

"We almost had too much for that game," said Libertore. "I had plays written on my wrist and on my pants."

Georgia Tech never expected the Gators to lay down but the Yellow Jackets didn't expect the battle they got that day, either. Georgia Tech finally got some breathing room with a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to take a 17-10 lead. Considering this was not an era of wide open passing games, a seven point lead with just 2:57 remaining was huge.

There was no sense of desperation on the part of the Gators, though. They put together a drive that has become one of the most memorable in school history.

"It was very deliberate what we did and every time we needed to make a big play, we made one," said Libertore. "There were three or four big plays that we just had to have and we came through."

There was a trap play that turned a third down into a drive-saving first down, a third down pass completion by Libertore that gained eight yards for another first down and a pass from Bobby Dodd Jr. to Don Deal that covered 30 yards, the longest play of the drive. Libertore got six yards on an option keeper for a first down inside the Georgia Tech 10 and Dodd came in to replace him. Three plays later, the Gators were facing fourth down at the Tech four. Florida called time out to talk things over on the sideline.

"We were talking if we scored we were going to go for two points so Pepper Rogers obviously was pretty confident," said Libertore. "They sent me in there to run the play on fourth down. That's a lot of pressure because it's fourth and four and you have to score to even have a chance to win the game with the two-point conversion. We ran the option right and I pitched it to Lindy (Infante) and he slipped in past the pylon. Everybody on the sideline had their fingers up for two points."

The option had worked for the touchdown and with the ball spotted on the two for the two-point conversion to win the game, everybody in the stadium expected option again. Since Libertore was in the game and he wasn't Florida's passing quarterback, Georgia Tech guessed option, too.

The play call gave an option look but there was a new wrinkle that the Gators hadn't shown the entire game.

"It looked like the same option that we usually run but we faked to the fullback and then we passed," said Libertore. "I'm sure their defense thought we were going to run the option especially since we didn't have a wide receiver on the field."

When Libertore broke down the line, he didn't see Jon MacBeth slipping into an open spot in the end zone. It looked like he might have to keep the ball after all and try to somehow get the ball into the end zone.

"Just as I was about to try to turn the ball upfield, he (MacBeth) broke from the pack," said Libertore. "I just jumped up and got the ball to him."

MacBeth made the catch and Florida won the game, 18-17. It was a turning point win in the modern era of Florida football, a last second, come-from-behind victory over a ranked opponent before a sellout crowd of 42,000 at Florida Field. It is still called the first great victory of the modern era of Florida football.

"That was the win that really got our era of Florida football rolling," said Libertore. "We got a lot of confidence and momentum from that win for that season but I think that win really helped change the perceptions of Florida football once and for all."

* * *

It is now another era of Florida football. Ray Graves has long since retired and since he hung up his whistle, Doug Dickey, Charley Pell, Galen Hall, Gary Darnell, Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook and now Urban Meyer have had the title of head football coach at the University of Florida. Florida football is measured differently these days. While wins over tenth ranked teams were once the barometer, Florida measures by championships in this era.

Not only have the team goals changed but so has the makeup of the teams. It's a faster game played by bigger, stronger athletes that can run. Libertore likes most of the changes he's seen but he still wishes that coaches would give more little guys a chance.

"When I see a guy like Vernell Brown play I love it," he said. "Even in my era when players were considerably smaller, there was still this stigma about little guys so I appreciate it when I see someone like Vernell prove he belongs. I also love it when I see a coach that's not afraid to take a chance on a little guy."

He thinks he could have played football in this era although not at quarterback.

"They throw the ball too much and I never had the big hands you need for that," he said. "I think if I came along today, I would have to play wide receiver, defensive back or return punts and kickoffs. For the most part, I think the great athletes of one era would do the things to be great in another. Maybe they wouldn't play the same position but they would have the same drive to do what it takes to play the game.

"I always loved the game. I still do. I never thought about my size. I just loved playing football and did whatever it took to get on the field and play the game."

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