Florida-Georgia: It doesn’t get better than this!!! After all it’s like a bowl game played on a neutral site in the great city of Jacksonville. The unique format where the stadium is split down the middle and the intensity of the rivalry makes this a great show on national television every year.
As a player, Steve Spurrier had his frustrations in Jacksonville, losing to Georgia his senior year when Florida could have won its first SEC Championship. I watched that game on TV when I was a junior in high school and agonized as future All-Pros Jake Scott and Bill Stanfill, who went on become defensive stars for the Miami Dolphins, had their day. I don’t think Spurrier ever got over it, which is why when he became Florida’s head coach he did his best to make up for it.
Vince Dooley went 17-7-1 against the Gators during his 25-year tenure at Georgia. In my three years against Dooley, we were 1-1-1.
In 1969 I remember busing over to Jacksonville to play Georgia. We lost our only game that season the week before against Auburn when I set an NCAA record for throwing nine interceptions in one game. I was 33-66 for 350 yards with nine picks. Yes, it was the worst nightmare of my life and a lot of people come up to me even today to remind me. They think it’s funny.
We were tied for first place with Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference race. Both of us had one loss. So we had a chance to win the SEC if we could beat Georgia. Late in the game we were tied, 13-13 with time running out. We drove 75 yards to the Georgia five with Carlos Alvarez and Andy Cheney making critical catches for us and Touchdown Tommy Durrance keeping the chains moving with some great runs. With three seconds left, our field goal team ran onto the field for a chip shot that would win the SEC but the snap was low, the hold was late and we missed. We ended up in a tie for second place in the conference. We played Tennessee, which won the SEC, in the Gators Bowl game and beat them 14-13. Our locker room was robbed while we played the game and the thieves took the few dollars each of us had in our pockets along with any watches or rings we had.
That was Ray Graves last game as Florida’s head coach. We finished 9-1-1, which stood as the best record in school history until 1991.
Steve Spurrier came to Florida in 1990 and changed the Florida-Georgia culture. He was 11-1 against the Bulldogs with only a loss in 1997. From the day he arrived, Spurrier kept reminding the team that Jacksonville is a Florida city and that we should consider it home turf. He reminded them that the stadium was called the “Gator” Bowl, not the “Bulldog” Bowl. He exposed Georgia and its fans for what they were by showing the team videos of Georgia fans shooting birds and screaming curse words at us during the game inside the stadium. He froze it and let it sink in. And when we drove in to play them there were their fans, lining the street, shooting birds and screaming obscenities at us as our bus came over the bridge to the stadium. It was pure disrespect and hatred. In all those years leading up to when Spurrier became Florida’s head coach, they rubbed it in and taunted us. Georgia fans always made fun of the fact Florida found a way to lose to Georgia. It was complete ridicule. Spurrier made sure the team knew and understood this.
I was an assistant on first staff at Florida starting in 1990. In 1991, we were closing in on the SEC championship. All we had to do was beat Georgia and then Kentucky the next week. We knew how important the Georgia game was and how many times they had broken the Gators’ hearts. The night before the game Coach Spurrier showed us the aforementioned video in our hotel room.
Now, the night before a game and in the locker room up until game time it is like a sanctuary. It’s a spiritual experience. After all, you know you have to put your whole body, soul and spirit into it to be successful. Before a game with Georgia this was especially true. We knew how much beating Georgia meant to our fans and to the university.
That night in 1991, Coach Spurrier had Coach Gene Ellenson speak to the team at our team meeting on Friday night. Coach Ellenson was one of the greatest motivational speakers I ever heard and on this night he gave his famous “Another Level” speech. I had heard a lot of Coach Ellenson’s speeches over the years but I had never heard that one before. Many people have used it since but I believe it was Coach Ellenson that coined that phrase. You could see the eyes of our players. The speech sunk in and you knew we were ready for the showdown in the Gator Bowl.
When we turned off the bridge the fans mobbed the streets and sidewalks. The Gator fans cheering wildly for us and sure enough as we made the final turn there were the Dog fans cussing and shooting birds at us. I looked around and saw a very confident team from my seat right behind Coach Spurrier on the second row of the offense bus. I felt so proud at that moment to be a part of this team and of the Gator Nation.
There was no Georgia magic on this day. The only magic was Shane Matthews throwing the ball wherever he wanted and to whoever he wanted and Erricht Rhett running over tacklers. Just like Coach Ellenson said, we took it to “another level” and we destroyed Georgia, 45-13, forever changing the destiny of Florida football.
A week later, I remember listening to the speakers in The Swamp blast out “We Are the Champions” after we beat Kentucky for the first SEC championship that ever counted. A week after that, we beat Florida State, 14-9, in one of the hardest hitting games I have ever witnessed on any level, changing that rivalry too. That capped off a 10-1 regular season in which Florida beat FSU, Auburn and Georgia. We hadn’t beaten any one of those three teams in three years before Coach Spurrier got to Florida and there we were beating all three of htem in the same season.
Well now, back to the present. The Gators have had an off week to regroup and try to right the ship. I noticed Will Muschamp pulled the coaches off the recruiting road to concentrate on getting better. We’ve had injuries and things haven’t gone well the last two weeks, not to mention we had LSU linemen taunting us at the end of that game and that followed up with Missouri players making fun of us with their Gator chomps.
I know the coaches and players love the University of Florida and have the highest aspirations for Gator football. They are giving everything they have – blood, sweat and tears – to turn this around. With an inspired effort we can beat Georgia and remember, nothing is impossible to those that believe. I truly believe when the Gators run out onto to that field in Jacksonville next Saturday it will be with a resolve, a determination like we haven’t seen yet this season. Someone or more will reach down within himself to bring his game to “another level.” For that one game, at least, we will right the ship. Just leave it all on the field. Don’t hold back anything. If we play as hard and inspired as we can and fall short then so be it. We’re still Florida Gators, the best university in the nation. That’s why they hate us.
Go Gators!! Beat the Dogs.
John Reaves QB7