Fans of other schools, particularly rivals, like to joke that Florida football didn’t exist before 1990. This, of course, is ridiculous.
UF football had plenty of milestones before Steve Spurrier’s return as head ball coach, some going back further than many would guess. The 1928 team lead the nation in points scored, for instance. And beyond such trivia, there were greats from Ray Graves to Spurrier the player to Jack Youngblood to the Cuban Comet to Wilber Marshall to Emmitt and too many more to name.
One thing that is true, though, is that Florida football did not win a championship that stuck before 1990. It didn’t even win one in 1990 either, as the team was alone at the top of the league at 6-1 but was still serving probation from the Galen Hall era.
So, as a program that took what glory it could get, UF used to have signs in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium commemorating when the team finished atop the SEC standings but did not officially win the conference title. The signage was styled as “1st in the SEC”, and it honored the 1984, 1985, and 1990 teams. The ’84 team had its SEC championship stripped six months after the season for violations that took place under Charley Pell, while the 1985 and 1990 teams were ineligible (the former tied Tennessee atop the conference at 5-1 but beat the Vols that year).
Spurrier’s magnificent run in the 1990s meant that the Gators then had championships to celebrate that weren’t going away. The 1991 SEC title was the first to see its stadium tribute make it to the kickoff of the next year, but the biggest change in signage, of course, came after the 1996 national championship.
UF continued to keep the “1st in the SEC” commemoration through the 2006 season. This photo of the 2006 Orange and Blue game shows it clearly on the facade of the upper deck of the south end zone. However by the first game of the 2007 season, it was gone. UF redid the championship commemorations, replacing the old paint with metal signs. As you can see, UF was only touting officially recognized championships from then on.
It was time. To be clear, it wasn’t time to forget about the 1984, 1985, or 1990 teams. Far from it. However, Urban Meyer’s first national championship exorcized the angst of the Zook years and cemented Florida as a member of college football’s top tier. It showed that the Gators could win it all not only without their golden boy Spurrier, but with Spurrier actively coaching, recruiting, and competing against them in the same division.
Others among the sport’s real blue bloods don’t have signage for their teams that would’ve won a championship of some sort if not for probation. Some may celebrate dodgy claims on national titles (#rolltide), but they don’t essentially put big asterisks up in their stadiums.
Just as UF went through a symbolic transition in 2007, so it goes through another in 2018. Beginning this year, UF will no longer commemorate its SEC East titles with signage in the Swamp. That signage went up after 2015 at the behest of Jim McElwain, but that course has reversed after just two years of it being there.
Scott Stricklin told a group of reporters that he was largely concerned about practical matters. Other sports like baseball don’t have signs for their division titles, and the small letters in comparison to others in the stadium didn’t look right.
Beyond that, UF just has a lot of East division titles at this point. The Gators have won their division outright 12 times, the most of any school in the conference. Plus, every UF coach since there have been SEC divisions has at least tied for the division crown; Ron Zook did so in 2003 and Will Muschamp did so in 2012. The commemorations for East division titles might’ve been a concession to a coach who’d overachieved in the win column in his first year, but it doesn’t make sense to continue having them going forward.
After all, Florida sent a message when it fired McElwain that division titles aren’t sufficient for the head coach to keep his job. McElwain’s ouster may have had a lot of off-the-field aspects with him and the administration not getting along, but it just goes to show that UF wouldn’t put up with lots of behind-the-scenes friction solely to get East titles.
It was true before McElwain’s firing that division championships weren’t enough for Florida’s level of expectations, but it was seldom made explicit since the vast majority of those division titles came with SEC titles. However now, the signage and symbolism in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium match the reality.
It’s a public acknowledgement of another step in the program’s progression. Florida is no longer a place that will even consider putting up signs to celebrate mere division titles. The standards are higher than that here, and there’s no going back.