SCOTTSDALE, AZ — The tap on my shoulder is gentle but the sound of the voice is one never forgotten. It’s the gruff, tough, voice of a football coach made gravelly from too much yelling at too many kids that need to understand why you give 100 percent on every play, even in practice, and from one Vantage cigarette after another.
I wake from my sleep on a bed so comfortable that I plan to take home with me (I’m leaving a note and telling them to just send the charges to Ray Hines in Gainesville) when I check out of this plush joint they call the Camelback Inn and Resort Tuesday morning. My eyes focus on the person sitting on the side of my bed. We have face and voice recognition. You can go a lifetime and you’ll never forget Charley Pell.
“Wake up, Meat,” he tells me. He calls me Meat which is short for Meathead. I never once figured out why he called me that, but he did and it’s okay. That’s just Charley’s way.
I know I’m dreaming. I have to be dreaming, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Charley Pell, so I’m willing to let this one go on. He’s wearing that familiar short sleeve button down collar shirt with two pockets only the one on the left side, the one next to the heart, lacks the familiar bulge. I just point and he knows what I’m saying.
“The cigarettes?” he asks. “Gave them up for obvious reasons. They’re a killer, you know.”
I know. My dad died at the young age of 60. He had a heart attack that was induced by too many years of too many cigarettes. Lung cancer dealt Charley a double toe hold, arm bar with an atomic elbow drop on May 29, 2001. He was 60, also.
I ask him what he’s doing here and he laughs.
“You know why I’m here, Meat,” he says. “Same reason thousands and thousands of Gators are here. We’re going to win a championship tonight. I wouldn’t miss this one for the world.”
It’s my turn to smile. Charley takes a look and he knows exactly what I’m saying even without a single word being said.
“You remember, don’t you?” he asks.
I nod my head.
“Where were we going?” he asks. “Virginia?”
I remind him it was Richmond, Virginia and we were flying in Ben Hill Griffin Jr.’s private jet, on our way to sign Parade All-American running back Gordon Pleasants of Maggie Walker High School. It was late January in 1979.
“I told you that day that one day Florida would be playing for and winning national championships, didn’t I?” he asks.
I nod in agreement, remembering that moment precisely. Charley sat in a comfortable chair on the right side of that plane, just behind the door and I sat across from him. We were talking about how close Florida had come so many times to winning the Southeastern Conference championship but the Gators always came up short. I told Charley Pell I was one of those wait till next year Gators only next year never came. That’s when he shocked me.
Charley didn’t talk about winning the SEC. He bypassed that completely. He talked about winning the NATIONAL championship. Winning it ALL.
And I believed him. Something in the way he said it made me believe him. If you ever sat in a room full of boosters that Charley Pell was working, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. He was spellbinding. He could say it was pitch dark outside and it’s high noon, and you’d believe Charley rather than trust the fact it’s never pitch dark at high noon.
He was a bit prophetic that day, too. He said that he might not be the coach when it happened, but he was going to give Florida the foundation it needed to compete for and win national championships. He was going to do it by stocking the roster top to bottom with hungry players that wanted to compete and who would play with an us against the world mentality. He was going to do it by getting Florida’s boosters organized and galvanized.
“Nobody has more money and nobody has more boosters that want the Gators to win,” he said that day. “We just gotta organize ‘em. We just gotta give them something worth believing in.”
And believe we did.
Charley spoke at 250 Gator Gatherings that first year. On most trips, he had Ward with him, his lovely wife, all of 31 years old, drop dead gorgeous and capable of charming the socks off you. They ate so much barbeque that to this day, Ward won’t touch the stuff.
The boosters got organized and they started sending in money in record amounts. The South end zone was expanded and the stadium was painted and suddenly, dumpy old Florida Field took on a rather intimidating personality. The seeds of The Swamp were sown in the early 1980s. Florida’s facilities, which ranked in the bottom third of the SEC suddenly got upgraded and the word of the day was first class. Next time you’re on campus, take a look at Florida’s facilities and the way the Gators do everything. It’s all done first class and the foundation for that is Charley Pell. Jeremy Foley will tell you to this day that he learned his work ethic from Charley.
The Gators started winning but the party got crashed when the NCAA came into town. They hit Florida with 109 recruiting violations, most of which were nickel and dime variety — Dale Dorminey is listed on one of the violations for the heinous crime of allowing Coach Dwight Adams to buy him a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and a Sprite at the Gainesville airport — but there were enough doozies in there that the Gators went down hard.
Most of the violations were committed by a couple of renegade assistants that were basically run out of college football, but Charley Pell wouldn’t blame them. He fell on the sword for everybody and shouldered all the blame. They stuck by Pat Dye when he committed plenty of violations at Auburn (twice). They stuck by Vince Dooley when he got caught cheating at Georgia (twice). They stuck by Johnny Majors at Tennessee and Bobby Bowden at FSU when they got caught cheating (you could look it up at NCAA.org). Florida fired Charley Pell.
He never coached again but when he breathed his last breath on May 29, 2001, Charley Pell was still a Gator. Even though he was treated like a pariah by some, he loved the University of Florida till the day he died. The folks that really know and understand long ago concluded that the good that Charley Pell did for the University of Florida far outweighed the probation. And by the way, nobody got a bigger kick out of the Gators beating FSU for the national championship in 1996 than Charley Pell.
I’m still in my dream, still enjoying this conversation because Charley starts talking about FSU.
“Lost to ‘em in 1980, went over to their locker room and congratulated their team and Bobby Bowden and walked back over to my locker room and told my boys ‘as long as I’m the coach here I’ll never lose to them again’ and we didn’t,” he said.
I remind him of the 1983 game.
“Greatest stomping we ever gave them and I loved every second of it,” he said. “Remember Wilber [Marshall]? They were scared to death of him. What’d he do? Knock two or three of their quarterbacks out of the game? Good old Wilber. He was like a son to me. All my boys were like sons to me.”
I tell him that all his boys — they’re men now but they all consider themselves Charley Pell’s boys — still think of him as the single most influential person in their lives and that you’d have to search high and low to find one that isn’t driven to succeed and take care of his family.
“That’s why Urban Meyer is succeeding,” Charley says. “That’s why the Gators are in this championship game tonight. Urban knows that these boys need to believe. He gives them a reason to believe. He’s a tough guy but he’s got a heart for the kids and that’s why they all want to play for him.
“When boys understand that you’ll stand by them, that you’ll push them, pull them and do whatever you have to do to motivate them to grow up and be successful, they’ll do anything in the world for you.”
I ask him if he thinks Urban and his boys are going to beat Ohio State tonight.
Charley just laughs.
“You damn right I believe,” he said. “You need to believe, too. We got the right coach with the right team playing at the right time to win a national championship. I like the Gators 24-10.”
With that, he gets up and starts to walk out.
“I gotta go now,” he says. “Watching the game tonight with Bear, Bobby Dodd, Bob Neyland, Shug Jordan, Paul Dietzel, Wally Butts and Johnny Vaught. It’s killing them that the Gators are playing for the championship but they’re all old SEC guys and they can’t pull against the SEC. When the Gators win, I’m gonna remind them that the sleeping giant is awake and is gonna stay awake for a long time.
“You gotta believe, Meat. You gotta believe.”