Prior to 1960, the University of Florida had only small pockets of football success. From 1950-59 Bob Woodruff fashioned a 53-42-6 record and took the Gators to their first two bowl games. It was the best 10-year stretch in UF history but UF president Dr. Wayne Reitz had a greater vision for the football program. With one bold move, Reitz forever changed the course of Florida football. Today, Gator Bait looks at the eight days that forever shaped the modern era of Florida football.
Steve Spurrier has had a lasting effect on Florida football both as a Heisman Trophy winner as a player and as the winningest coach in school history.
1. DR. WAYNE REITZ HIRES RAY GRAVES, 1960: University of Florida president, Dr. Wayne Reitz made the decision that as long as Bob Woodruff was the football coach the Gators would never be much more than a break even team so he made the decision to let Woodruff go and told him before the 1959 season began. Reitz knew who he wanted – Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ray Graves, a former All-American center at Tennessee – but Graves and Woodruff were friends, as was Graves’ boss, Bobby Dodd. It was a dicey situation and only a true diplomat could have navigated his way through it without hard feelings. Dodd gave Graves his blessing and so did Woodruff, who would go back to Tennessee to become the athletic director. Graves was hired as head coach and athletic director for the princely sum of $19,000 a year and the modern era of Florida football truly began.
2. RAY GRAVES SIGNS STEVE SPURRIER TO A FOOTBALL SCHOLARSHIP, 1963: At one point in his legendary Tennessee prep career, Steve Spurrier was the Most Valuable Player of the state championship game in football, basketball and baseball at Science Hill High School in Johnson City. Johnson City is just up the road from Knoxville and deep in the heart of Vol country but Bowden Wyatt, Bob Neyland’s handpicked successor at UT, ran the single wing just as Neyland did and Spurrier was a passing quarterback. Ray Graves knew about Spurrier from his brother Marvin, the postmaster in Johnson City. Graves got Wyatt’s blessing to recruit Spurrier. Wyatt thought it was win-win since it gave Graves the QB he needed and the Vols didn’t have the Gators on the schedule for years to come. When Spurrier visited UF, it was a warm sunny day and people were playing golf at the University Golf Club. Back in eastern Tennessee it was cold and snowing. That sealed the deal and Spurrier became the catalyst for Florida becoming a real player on the national scene.
3. GRAVES IS OUT, DICKEY IS IN, 1969: Dr. Stephen C. O’Connell made the decision to oust Graves before the 1969 season even began. Because he was not a wealthy man, Graves was in no position to say no to O’Connell’s take it or leave it offer that he wouldn’t coach beyond 1969 but could stay on as AD. O’Connell got a verbal agreement with Tennessee coach Doug Dickey to become the Florida football coach in August of 1969, just a few weeks prior to the beginning of the season. Led by John Reaves and Carlos Alvarez, the Gators went on to finish the regular season 8-1-1. Tennessee won the SEC with a 9-1 record. There weren’t many bowl games in those days and the Vols and Gators were matched up in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. Two days before the game, Jack Hairston of the Jacksonville Journal and Buddy Martin of Cocoa (now Florida) Today broke the story that Graves was out and Dickey was in, which nearly caused a player revolt. Florida went on to win the game, 14-13, allowing Graves to leave with a 9-1-1 record, the best in Florida history. Dickey became the head coach at UF but was never able to duplicate his success (2 SEC titles) at Tennessee. Dickey was fired after the 1978 season.
4. CHARLEY PELL HIRED AS HEAD COACH, 1979: After Dickey was fired, Florida’s coaching search zeroed in on Lou Holtz (Arkansas), Ron Meyer (SMU) and Charley Pell (Clemson). Just when it seemed Holtz was ready to take the job, he backed out and Pell was hired for the astounding sum of $75,000 a year. After an 0-10-1 start, Pell went 33-16-2 and had the best team in college football on the field in 1984 when he was fired for NCAA violations. Some Gator fans ostracize Pell to this day for the probation, but without Charley Pell there is no Florida athletic program as it is known today. Pell is the one who organized Gator Boosters and made them into one of the most powerful fund-raising organizations in all of college sports and he is the one who got Florida on a facilities kick. When Pell came to UF, Florida’s facilities were at best #8 in the 10-team SEC. When he left, the facilities were among the best. Pell truly made it possible for Florida football to grow into one of the nation’s elite programs.
5. STEVE SPURRIER HIRED AS FOOTBALL COACH, 1990: Galen Hall was fired at midseason in 1989 when the NCAA hit UF with another probation. While the Gators limped home with a 7-5 record after an 0-5 start, Steve Spurrier was doing the impossible and winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship at Duke. The Gator Nation desperately wanted Spurrier to come home but there was opposition from athletic director Bill Ansparger, whose first choice was LSU coach Mike Archer, who Arnsparger had hand-picked as his successor in Baton Rouge when he left LSU to become the Florida AD. What happened after that is subject to who you believe. There are those who say that Arnsparger decided on his own that Spurrier should be the head coach. There are also those who were close to Ben Hill Griffin (yes, the guy the stadium is named after) who recall this conversation – “Bill, Steve Spurrier is going to be the football coach at Florida next year. You don’t have to be the athletic director.” Spurrier became the head coach, went 122-27-1 in 12 years, won the first six SEC football championships in UF history and the first national title in 1996.
6. RON ZOOK AND THE INCIDENT AT THE FRAT HOUSE, 2004: On October 12, head coach Ron Zook got a phone call from AD Jeremy Foley instructing him to get over to the Pi Kappa Phi frat house to diffuse a confrontation between football players and the frat boys. When Zook arrived, he got into a heated argument that ended with a threat against a fraternity brother who had allegedly sucker punched Steve Rissler. Florida lost to Mississippi State, 38-31, 12 days later and Zook was fired, supposedly for losing a game he shouldn’t have lost. When asked at the press conference how much the frat house incident played into the firing, UF president Bernie Machen said, “Not much.” In reality, that was the reason Zook was fired but Machen couldn’t admit to the world that a frat boy had taken down his football coach. It would have been an invitation to every rogue fraternity on campus to show its power by suckering the next head coach the way they did Zook. A month later, Urban Meyer was hired and in the next six years Florida won two national championships.
7. TIM TEBOW COMMITS TO FLORIDA, 2005: On December 12, 2005 Mike Shula and the entire Alabama coaching staff spent 12 hours at the Tebow home in west Jacksonville. The next day, Tim Tebow had to decide between Florida and Alabama on national television. Two hours before going on ESPN, Tebow was still wrestling with the decision. An hour before, he made his decision and informed his parents and head coach at Nease High School what he was going to do. Twenty minutes before he was to make his announcement, Tebow called Shula to tell him he wasn’t coming. When he tried to call Urban Meyer to say he was going to be a Gator, the phone died. Meyer found out that Tebow had committed when he walked in the door of his Gainesville home and found wife Shelley and the kids celebrating. Tebow won the 2007 Heisman Trophy, the 2006 and 2008 national titles, and was 35-6 as the starting QB at Florida.
8. URBAN MEYER RESIGNS (THE FIRST TIME), 2009: Florida lost to Alabama in the 2009 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. In the early hours of the morning after (December 6, 2009), Urban Meyer was taken to the emergency room at Shands for what he thought was a heart attack. It was no heart attack but it was scary enough that Meyer resigned as Florida’s head coach on December 26, just before the Gators were to depart for New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. The next day, Meyer reversed his decision and agreed to take a leave of absence to get his health back together. Meyer was never the same again after that nor was the Florida program. Meyer’s health continued to be a problem, but a bigger issue was the continued erosion of his football staff. Meyer lost Dan Mullen and John Hevesy to Mississippi State the year before, then lost Billy Gonzales to LSU and Charlie Strong, Vance Bedford and Kenny Carter to Louisville before the Sugar Bowl game. That lack of continuity on the coaching staff had as much or more to do with Florida’s fall from 13-1 in 2009 to 8-5 in 2010 as anything. Meyer resigned a second time and Florida turned to Will Muschamp for the task of leading the program back to a championship level.
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