A Year Later, A Chance To Make A Statement

Tuscaloosa had everything going to be the site of a perfect ambush last year when the fifth-ranked Florida Gators came rolling into town for their SEC showdown with Alabama. Here were the Gators, squeaky clean and led by the poster boy for the Boy Scouts, Urban Meyer. And here was Alabama, still stinging from the effects of probation and nobody giving Mike Shula, their own Boy Scout any love.

Now, Alabama fans being Alabama fans, there is a certain arrogance that goes with the territory. Winning 21 SEC titles and 12 national championships over the years probably has a teensy bit to do with that although since one Paul Bryant died — and he is dead, no matter how many Bama fans you see in houndstooth hats — there have been exactly three SEC championships (1989, 1992, 1999) and one national title (1992). The SEC title earned in 1989 when Bill Curry — yes, the one that tried to make Tim Couch an option quarterback — was the coach is the only one earned without a little outside help from the boosters (See NCAA major infractions database).

You could sense the edge the Bama fans had on Friday before last year’s game. There was a confidence that goes well beyond the normal arrogance you expect of Alabama fans. In years past, Bama fans were always the most gracious and best informed football fans you could find. It was almost as if they had taken Bear’s words personally: “act like you’ve been here before.” This is not to say that Tuscaloosa was devoid of typically classy Bama fans last year but Tuscaloosa was over-run by Bama fans with very large and quite noticeable chips on their shoulders. They wanted Florida and they wanted Florida bad and 24 hours before game time, it was easy to sense that Saturday could not get here soon enough.

Maybe they felt that way because they knew they had the best defense in the country and in Tyrone Prothro they had Reggie Bush East, a playmaker deluxe that could alter games in so many ways. A lot of it had to do with the fact that Urban Meyer was getting what they considered far more publicity than he deserved and their own Mike Shula was being ignored by the national media for doing a yeoman’s job of bringing Bama back to respectability. Considering the situation that he inherited — the sting of probation from the Dumbose Error, the rejection by Fran the Man who bailed after promising he would stay forever, and then Mike Price finding his Destiny in Pensacola — you have to give Shula plenty of credit for restoring a sense of stability in Tuscaloosa. He will probably never do things with a lot of flair but he is solidly grounded in all the right values and given time to do things his way, he’ll put Bama on the strongest foundation it’s been since Bear croaked.

By game time on Saturday, you would have thought the majority of the 81,018 squeezed into Bryant-Denny Stadium were on a high so high that only something recreational and illegal could have caused it. They were loud. They were obnoxious. They were ready. This is perhaps the most hostile road atmosphere I can ever recall for the Florida Gators. Tennessee’s never come close to anything like that, nor has Auburn or LSU or FSU.

Shula had his team very well prepared and his defensive coordinator Joe Kines, who used to handle that job for Charley Pell, maybe felt the opportunity for a little vindication for being unceremoniously shown the door along with Pell at Florida back in 1984. This added up to a situation that the only avenue of escape for the Gators would be playing an absolutely perfect game.

There was an almost perfect game played that day but not by the Florida Gators. Give Shula and his Alabama staff all the credit in the world for an exceptional game plan and give the Alabama players the credit they deserve for executing it to near perfection. Give the Bama crowd credit for doing their part by rocking the foundations of the stadium and providing the loudest, most intimidating road atmosphere you can imagine. That atmosphere only became more frenzied on Bama’s first play from scrimmage when quarterback Brodie Croyle hooked up with Prothro for an 87-yard touchdown pass. The fans were hardly in their seats when the Gators, in the shadow of the goal post, turned the ball over and presto, Bama was in the end zone and leading 14-0.

Given that start, given that atmosphere and given that defense going toe to toe with a Florida offense that was lacking healthy playmakers (Bubba Caldwell out with a broken leg, Jemalle Cornelius high ankle sprain, Dallas Baker sprained ankle and Chad Jackson assortment of dings and bruises) it’s not surprising at all that the Gators got hammered 31-3. Only hours later, when the news broke that Prothro’s broken ankle was far more serious than anyone could have imagined, did the Bama fans start to come back down to earth.

In the months since that game, the Gators have exacted one small measure of revenge. Meyer out-recruited Shula and Alabama for quarterback Tim Tebow, and despite what the ill-informed and seriously bitter Travis Reier may say on one of the Bama websites, this was a fight to the nubs that would have been no contest whatsoever if the coach opposing Meyer had been anyone but Mike Shula. It was a close call but in the end Tebow chose Florida because he just couldn’t say no to the team he grew up loving. However, it was a razor-thin margin of decision, made close because Shula is indeed a Boy Scout and has the kind of personal values that nearly cut through every one of Tebow’s heart-string ties to UF.

Tebow may or may not factor in this Saturday’s game when it comes to the outcome. He is, after all, the backup quarterback, a freshman and Alabama’s defense is better than anything he’s ever seen, but this game isn’t about Tim Tebow choosing Florida. And, it really isn’t about avenging what happened last year in Tuscaloosa, either, although it isn’t hard to imagine that quite a few Gators wouldn’t feel just a teensy bit of satisfaction handing Alabama a good old-fashioned stomping given all the obscenities poured in their direction by Bama fans as they exited the field through the tunnel at Bryant-Denny Stadium last year.

Tebow is a symbol of the future of football at the University of Florida and this game against Alabama Saturday is a statement opportunity for Urban Meyer and the entire Gator football program about the future of Florida football. Meyer’s goal is to make Florida now into what Alabama once was, the single most dominant program in the SEC. That’s what Alabama was when Bear Bryant was the coach and that’s the ultimate standard for any coach that chooses to ply his trade in the Southeastern Conference. No matter how good you are, you’ll always be measured by what Bear Bryant accomplished.

One thing that Bryant made sure of during his tenure at Alabama was that you never let a bad deed linger. In Bryant-think, you didn’t get revenge for a team that beat you as badly as Alabama beat Florida last year. What you did was hand that team the beating of its life the next time around, not for the sake of revenge but for the sake of personal pride. Bryant didn’t believe you had the right to look at yourself in the mirror until you re-established your own personal pride by proving that what happened the year before was simply an aberration, a one-time occurrence that just wasn’t ever going to happen again.

That’s what the Gators need to do Saturday. If they are indeed going to be the dominant program in the SEC in the future, they need to show Alabama what it’s like to take a trip out to the woodshed and it’s not about revenge although it should be noted that paybacks are hell. It should be about personal pride. It should be about asserting dominance. It’s about making sure the other folks know what happened last year won’t ever happen again.

Although Meyer hasn’t really talked about what happened last year in either of his two meetings with the media so far this week, you can tell there is an edge about him. He knows what is at stake here. He knows the whole world will be watching not to mention a whole slew of big time recruits that will be sitting in the south end zone of The Swamp.

Meyer needs this win, no mistake about it. The outcome of this job will have no bearing on his job security. Despite any silly notions you might have heard or read about, that’s never been in question. Meyer needs this win because last year his team laid down on him. Not everybody on the team, mind you, but more than he would ever care to admit. When the going got tough at Alabama, he found out just how narrow that one percent of the one percent was on his own team. He had plenty of players on the roster that had no taste for a fight.

So winning this game Saturday isn’t about avenging a loss. It’s about making a statement to every player that made that trip to Tuscaloosa last year, a statement that reads something like this: you will never, ever, under any circumstance, give up on me again. The players who were at Tuscaloosa need that lesson and the young guys who weren’t there need to understand that you can’t let a bad deed linger.

Just like last year was a statement game for Alabama, this is a statement game for Urban Meyer and the Gators. I have no doubt that Meyer will have his team ready to play. What I hope to see is a crowd ready to do its part. I’d like to see a raucous crowd like we haven’t seen in The Swamp in years — one that arrives early and stays late; one that decides that the theme of the day is one 90,000-plus voice on Saturday and no voice on Sunday. What I want to see is a crowd that puts the exclamation point on a huge win with a roar like we haven’t heard since Fred Taylor smashed into the end zone against the SOW back in 1997.

I’m not asking for much, am I?

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.