Brace Yourself For An Emotional Weekend

If you’re one of those emotional Gators, then you’re going to feel wrung out and left to dry when this weekend is over. It starts Friday night when Florida’s basketball team gets the new season cranked up at the O-Dome. Then there’s Saturday at The Swamp and oh, by the way, that Spurrier fella will be here, this time as the enemy. So break out the Valium. You might just need it.

Think about it for a second. Friday night you’re going to be busting the buttons on your shirt because your chest will swell with so much pride when the Gators take the floor against Samford University. It’s going to be very, very special because there isn’t anyone on the planet that fails to recognize the significance of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer coming back for one more year and one more chance to climb to the top of the college basketball mountain.

Jo, Big Al and Corey didn’t have to come back. The NBA and piles of money were calling but they wanted to be kids for just one more year before they step into a truly adult world where there are as many distractions as there are millions of dollars. The money will be there next year. It’s always there for talented basketball players who happen to be very tall but there aren’t many who have the patience or guts to stick around on campus for one more season.

They did and that’s why Friday night is going to be special. All five starters and the top two reserves are back from the NCAA championship team. While that’s no guarantee of a repeat performance, please tell me another team that has the players, the coaches and the experience that we have here at Florida. You can talk North Carolina, Kansas and Ohio State and all that young talent they have until you’re blue in the face but consider this: Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard are the only two seniors on the Florida team. Carolina, Kansas and Ohio State are young but so are the Gators and the Gators are the ones wearing the championship rings and the experience of winning it all last April in Indianapolis.

If you’re like me, one of those old “wait till next year” Gators that lived through all years of heartbreaks and disappointments, you might get a little bit emotional when the Gators take the floor but please, limit yourself to as few Kleenex as possible. It’s going to be a long weekend.

Senior Day is still a week away for the football team but this is a Saturday that you should make it over for the Gator Walk. Yeah, they’ll do it one more time next week for Western Carolina when it’s Senior Day but this is the last SEC home game ever for these seniors and they deserve the biggest Gator Walk crowd we’ve ever had.

Seniors like Ray McDonald and Dallas Baker were actually recruited to Florida by Steve Spurrier. They came to Florida expecting to win a bunch of championships and it took until their fifth year on campus to get one. The rest of the fifth year seniors and all of the fourth year seniors were recruited to Florida by Ron Zook. They also expected to win some championships. They came here bright eyed and filled with hope. They closed their eyes and they saw championship rings spinning in the sky. Chris Leak promised no girlfriend until he won a national championship. Well, all of you know the story of what’s happened since then. Leak’s got a girlfriend and The Zook Error came and went with three straight five-loss seasons, making change necessary.

Enter Urban Meyer.

We’re 21 games into the Meyer era and the Gators still haven’t lost as many games as they did in one of Zook’s seasons at the helm. Now they’ve got an SEC East Division championship secured, too, and in three weeks they’ll be playing in Atlanta for all the SEC marbles. A win there and the Gators might just find their way to Arizona for the national championship game.

Steve Spurrier can’t prevent an SEC East title like he did last year but that doesn’t make this game any less significant. For Florida to maintain its hopes of playing for the national championship a win is necessary and what better opponent than South Carolina, which is coached by the first Gator to ever to win the Heisman Trophy and the coach of Florida’s only national championship team?

The fact that Spurrier is coaching the Columbia Chickens makes this game an emotional roller coaster for me and I suspect it’s that way for nearly every Florida fan that cut his Gator teeth on Spurrier as a player and coach. Last year I had to pull for Stevie Wonder to lose a game for the first time in my life and even though South Carolina ambushed the Gators and cost them the SEC East title, I couldn’t hate him. Maybe he coaches in the SEC East now, but he still did too many great things for the University of Florida for me to ever hate him. He’ll be Darth Visor on Saturday but hate him once it’s all over? Absolutely not. Hope the Gators hand him his butt on a platter? Absolutely.

Meyer admits that the Spurrier shadow on the Florida football program is a big one as it should be. You can’t just turn your back on all that the Spur Dog has done for the school over the years, but his era has come and gone. Spurrier should be appreciated and loved for all of about three hours 364 days of the year.

It’s that time of the year Saturday and for three or so hours Spurrier is the guy that Meyer needs to take to the woodshed. The Swamp might be the house that Spurrier built, but it belongs to Urban Meyer now and it’s Urban’s chance to do a Spurrier on Spurrier. Remember how Spurrier was when someone beat him the year before? There was hell to pay the next year. Meyer needs to send that message to South Carolina just like the one he sent earlier in the year to Alabama and LSU. Paybacks are hell, baby.

The long term benefit of a Florida win Saturday is that the Spurrier shadow won’t be nearly as long or as large. His place in Florida football history is safe no matter what happens so a good old fashioned whipping won’t change anyone’s perception of the Old Ball Coach. He’ll always be a great Gator even if he does wear those atrocious garnet and black outfits these days. A win will, however, change the perception of the New Ball Coach. He’s beaten Tennessee and Georgia twice each and in a couple of weeks he’ll probably make it two in a row over those friendly folks in Tallahassee. Those are all good things.

Now it’s time for one more good thing, which is beating Steve Spurrier for the first time. Think about it for a second. Sure, it would have been great to beat Spurrier last year up in Columbia, but could anything be better for Urban Meyer than to beat Spurrier for the first time here in Gainesville? Spurrier owned the place from the time he arrived on campus in 1963 to the time he departed in 2001. This is Meyer’s place now and the only thing missing is the transfer of the deed of ownership.

That should take place Saturday.

And if the start of basketball season and playing Stevie Wonder in The Swamp isn’t enough for you, then consider this. Sunday afternoon, Mary Wise gets to stake her claim as the greatest Gator when he volleyball team plays Ole Miss. If the Gators win, that’s SIXTEEN straight SEC championships which is more SEC titles than the football, basketball and baseball teams have won combined. Not a bad way to tend the weekend is it?

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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.