The turning point
With the current season about to unfold just as Baton Rouge awakens from the hangover of a conference and Sugar Bowl championship, Tiger Rag asked me to weigh in on the upcoming fifth anniversary of one of the greatest games in the history of LSU football.
Somewhere I still have my ticket stub and some dried blades of Tiger Stadium Bermuda tucked away in a Ziploc from that fateful night of Oct. 11, 1997, when the goal posts came down after LSU handed Florida its top-ranked rear end in a 28-21 victory for the ages.
Five years later, repercussions of The Game are still being felt not only by both programs but throughout the conference and all of college football.
It's a foregone conclusion The Game marked a turning point for Gerry DiNardo. It was the classic peak; Tiger football under his leadership quite simply was never the same. DiNardo's subsequent triumphs and more frequent defeats were all measured by the standard set that October night in Death Valley.
In the weeks and months that followed, all those Tiger fans who had ignorantly and arrogantly assumed the program would be contending for the -- ahem -- Sears Trophy by 2000 were proven horribly wrong.
After finishing the '97 season 8-3 and a victory over ho-hum Notre Dame in the Independence Bowl, DiNardo, along with undeniably inept defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, was promptly shown the Athletic Building's South Stadium Drive exit before the Tigers even finished muddling through a 4-7 disaster the following year. DiNardo had at least proven former Florida coach Steve Spurrier was human, but LSU's '97 victory over the Gators ultimately will go down as but a flash of brilliance for a coach and his team who never lived up to their promising respective potential.
And yet, little has been spoken of the unquestionable fact The Game marked a turning point for Spurrier as well. Football in Gainesville under Shiny Pants was likewise never quite the same.
True, compared to the rest of the college ranks, Florida has remained one of the elite programs. Throughout Spurrier's entire 12 years in Gainesville he never posted less than nine wins per season in the nation's toughest league. Even on a bad day, Darth Visor & Co. were better than the vast majority of teams, especially the carpetbagger wannabes that have diluted Division I-A competition over the past ten years.
Compared to the standards set by the Florida program, Gator fans and especially Spurrier himself, his teams were, quite frankly, disappointing post-1997.
Let's start with the seasons leading up to '97. From 1993-96, Spurrier's teams never lost more than two games in a single season, going an amazing 45-6 during that stretch for an .882 winning percentage. From 1991-96, the Gators won the league championship every year, except 1992. And even then, Florida had a chance to win it, representing the East in the inaugural SEC divisional playoff. But the Gators lost to Alabama in what would be the Tide's last national championship season.
During that same six-year span of '91-‘96, the Gators played for the (God, I hate to say it) Sears Trophy twice, losing to Nebraska in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl before winning the '96 Sugar Bowl, where they also redeemed themselves in a rematch with archrival Florida State. Moreover, the '96 season garnered another Heisman Trophy for Florida in quarterback Danny Wuerfful.
Since 1997, it's a different story. The Gators entered Tiger Stadium a perfect 5-0 and ranked No. 1. Florida had lost one game -- its regular-season finale against Florida State in '96 -- since losing the national championship to Nebraska. And you had to go back 25 conference games to 1994 to find the last time Florida lost to an SEC opponent in its regular-season meeting with Auburn.
Florida went on to drop two games in both '97 and '98. The Gators then lost a catastrophic four games in '99, a season capped by a defeat courtesy of Nick Saban's final Michigan State team (led by replacement head coach Bobby Johnson). A last-minute field-goal gave the Spartans a 37-34 win in Spurrier's least favorite bowl, the Citrus.
In 2000 the Gators lost three games – the importance of which can't be overlooked, considering that's when any big recruiting bonus from the '96 championship should have started paying off.
Last year the Gators dropped two, both losses coming at the hands of SEC teams: Auburn, which despite a strong start limped into the Peach Bowl where the other Tigers lost to third-place ACC representative North Carolina; and the Gators' ego-bruising home loss to conference arch nemesis Tennessee that kept Spurrier out of the conference championship and what had become a wide-open race to play Miami in the national championship.
A glance at the record books also shows that in the five seasons after ‘97 the Gators have returned only twice to the SEC championship game, winning it only once.
In 1999, despite having what appeared to be the better team, the finesse of Spurrier's evil-genius Fun-n-Gun offense got smacked around 34-7 in the SEC playoff by a physical Alabama team in what would be the pinnacle for Mike Dubose, an old-school cretin whose off-the-field foibles embarrassed the Tide and established a climate for dirty recruiting and severe NCAA sanctions.
The Alabama victory was equally embarrassing for former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, who, as a recent addition to ABC's college football coverage, proved why he lost his job on The Plains by repeatedly crowing Florida would win easily.
In 2000, the Gators returned to the playoff, routing Auburn 28-6 to earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl and perhaps a share of the national title if Fate smiled upon them. But any talk of a title ended when Florida left the Superdome with a deflating 37-20 loss to Miami in a game that wasn't as close as the score.
Even last year, when the Gators returned to the BCS in the Orange Bowl -- despite being shut out of the SEC playoff -- and demolished under-whelming ACC champ Maryland 56-23, Florida fans and Shiny Pants himself seemed to sense the opportunity that had passed the team by.
But perhaps the most telling stat is that from '97 to '01, the Gators compiled a 39-13 record -- more than doubling their losses over the previous four years. I'm sure the .750 winning percentage during that period would be coveted by most programs. On average, that's like going 9-3 each of the five years. But that's not quite good enough by Spurrier's own standards, as revealed by his increasing grimacing and visor throwing.
After the Orange Bowl, Spurrier announced he was quitting Florida to head for the NFL, a league that has become one of the professional sports world's most nauseating group of mercenaries, perhaps second only to the overpaid whiners who call themselves Major League baseball players.
So, in the vacuum of his absence we're left only with questions. Did LSU cause the proverbial pendulum to swing for Spurrier in 1997? Or was his program losing some luster before the Chinese Bandits repeatedly acquainted Gator QB Doug Johnson's backside with the turf of Death Valley? And even more intriguing: Did Spurrier leave Florida because of the last five years?
I don't suspect that Spurrier, with his understandable contempt for the media and unparalleled smugness, will ever provide answers to anyone, save perhaps while sharing a Bud with Phil Fulmer on one of their secret fishing trips. For the rest of us, Shiny Pants more than likely wouldn't even acknowledged his teams' less than stellar performance since The Game.
Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain: Spurrier and his Gators were ever quite the same after that muggy, magical October night in Tiger Stadium.
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Chet Rollis, who admits being an LSU alumnus, is a free-lance writer based in Baton Rouge who covers the Southeastern Conference.