Florida Vs. UT: A Football Soap Opera

When the Gators travel to Knoxville Saturday to renew one of college football’s most intense rivalries, most folks will think of this as just another we hate you with all our guts type of Southeastern Conference football rivalry game, and yes, it is. But it’s much, much more than that. Check the record. This isn’t just a football game. This is a soap opera.

First let’s set the stage with some football talk. You have to go all the way back to 1984 to find a year when Florida played Tennessee and both teams weren’t ranked in the top 20. Since the SEC split into two divisions in 1992, it is a game that has generally taken on national significance. In the 14 years since going divisional, the Gators and Vols have represented the SEC East 12 times in the conference championship game. Typically, the Gators play the Vols the third game of the season and it’s almost always the headline start to SEC play with the winner getting a leg up in the race to represent the East in the SEC title game in Atlanta.

The Gators enter this year’s game ranked sixth in the coaches’ poll, seventh in the AP while the Vols are number 13 in the AP and 17 in the coaches. Everybody’s undefeated and that’s the way it normally is on this third weekend of the season.

Now on to the soap opera.

It really is a love-hate affair for the Gators and the Vols even though there are some close ties and serious twists of fate that have actually drawn the two schools together. Much of Florida’s football history is either directly or indirectly related to the University of Tennessee. Bob Woodruff, the coach that engineered the modern era of Florida football, played college football for General Bob Neyland at Tennessee. His successor was Ray Graves, who had been his teammate at Tennessee. Graves and Florida really jumped into the big time behind quarterback Steve Spurrier, who had prepped at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tennessee. The Vols ran the single wing in those days and Spurrier was a passing quarterback. Spurrier wasn’t going to be a single wing tailback so Coach Bowden Wyatt, a former teammate of Woodruff and Graves, called Graves and helped usher Spurrier to Florida where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966.

Graves was succeeded at Florida by Doug Dickey, a former Gator quarterback who had been hired to coach Tennessee by Woodruff, who succeeded General Neyland as the athletic director. When Spurrier retired from pro football, Dickey gave him his first coaching opportunity. Spurrier would come back to Florida as the head coach in 1990 and in 1992, Fulmer was hired as the football coach at Tennessee by Dickey, who succeeded Woodruff as the athletic director.

Confused? It only gets better. Here are some of the highlights of the relationship over the years and a few hints on why it’s so easy for Gators to despise Tennessee.

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You could say the rivalry actually got cranked in 1928 when the Gators traveled to Knoxville undefeated at 8-0 with a defense that had allowed only 31 points all season. A Rose Bowl bid was on the line for the Charles Bachman-coached Gators if they could win this game. A loss and the Rose Bowl bid would go to Georgia Tech.

Legend has it that there was a drought that had consumed all of Eastern Tennessee for months but miraculously, the night before the Florida game, it not only rained but poured buckets in Knoxville. Even more miraculously, the only place it rained was the Tennessee Stadium, named for the coach of the Vols back in those days, General Bob Neyland.

According to the legend, Neyland offered Bachman some longer cleats to compensate for the slippery conditions at the stadium, but alas, he only had enough for his own team. The field conditions negated Florida’s advantage in speed and Tennessee pulled out a 13-12 win. The Gators finished 8-1 and didn’t go to a Rose Bowl. Tennessee finished 9-0-1 while unbeaten Georgia Tech went to the Rose Bowl where it would be California, 8-7, thanks to the infamous run by Roy “Wrong Way” Riegels who scooped up a Tech fumble and ran 64 yards in the wrong direction. Riegels realized his mistake when he crossed the goal line but when he tried to reverse his field, he got back only to the one. Cal tried to punt on the next play but the snap went out of the end zone, giving Georgia Tech the 8-7 win and the national championship.

The Gators could have been national champions and the Florida program could have been changed forever with a win in Knoxville. It would be 67 years later before the Gators played for a national championship, and a year after that, the Gators got their first and only national title. You have to wonder what might have been if the Gators had won a national title that year. Could Florida have emerged as a national power way back then?

* * *

It was 1969 and the Gators, led by the Super Sophs John Reaves, Carlos Alvarez and Tommy Durrance, were 8-1-1, facing Tennessee in the Gator Bowl. It was an interesting contrast. The Gators were coached by Ray Graves, an All-American center that had played under Neyland at Tennessee, and the Vols were coached by Doug Dickey, a former Gator quarterback that had been coached at Florida by Bob Woodruff, then the Tennessee athletic director and a college teammate of Graves when the two played for Neyland.

There had been rumors that Graves would be stepping down as the Florida coach after this game. Little did anyone know but back in August, Florida president Dr. Stephen C. O’Connell had brokered a deal with Dickey to become the next Florida coach. O’Connell gave Graves a choice — he could remain as athletic director or he would be out completely. Graves, not a wealthy man, capitulated and agreed to the deal.

Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, and Buddy Martin, who was the sports editor of Today in Cocoa, Florida, did some digging the week of the Gator Bowl and discovered that Graves was out at Florida and he would be replaced after this game by Dickey. O’Connell denied it, even calling Hairston a liar, and Mac Steen led a contingent of Florida players to visit Hairston to angrily denounce his reports. Hairston stood firm as did Martin. They never backed down and they were vindicated.

The Gators won the game, 14-13, thanks to a blocked punt by Mike Rich and a touchdown pass from Reaves to Alvarez. Graves announced that he was stepping down after the game. The Florida players immediately rallied behind defensive coordinator Gene Ellenson, who in 1964 had turned down the Georgia job (the Poodles hired an obscure Auburn assistant named Vince Dooley when Ellenson declined) because Graves and then Florida president Dr. J. Wayne Reitz had promised him the job when Graves retired from coaching.

A couple of days later, Dickey was named the Florida coach, setting off a tumultuous nine year era. Dickey was never popular and while he had three very good seasons in the middle of his career at Florida, the Gators got progressively worse his last three years and he was canned after the 1978 season.

Ironically, Dickey would go back to Tennessee as the athletic director where he would participate in another coup of sorts when he canned Johnny Majors to hire Phillip Fulmer after the 1992 season. Majors had missed part of the 1992 season with health problems. Fulmer came on as the interim coach and after the regular season, Majors was fired even though he had a 116-62-8 record and 11 straight bowl games. Majors still swears that Fulmer stabbed him in the back.

* * *

In 1984, the Florida Gators got nailed by the NCAA for a multitude of violations committed under the watch of Coach Charley Pell. After the third game of the season, Pell was fired and Galen Hall was in place. The Gators would not be allowed to go to a bowl game that year but they won the Southeastern Conference championship with a 9-1-1 record. The New York Times voted UF its national championship trophy.

When the season ended, there was a vote to strip Florida of its SEC title. Tennessee, along with notables such as Georgia, voted to strip the Gators of the title. Georgia had been caught cheating in 1978 and 1982 and the Bulldogs would be caught again by the NCAA in 1985. Tennessee would get caught by the NCAA for cheating in 1986. Neither Georgia or Tennessee ever had championships stripped, huge scholarship reductions or bowl game bans.

Florida was put on probation for the 1990 season for something that happened before any player that was on that Florida team was ever in uniform and none of the coaches on the Florida staff were on staff when the violation allegedly occurred. The Gators were not allowed to win the SEC even though they had the best record in the conference and they were not allowed to go to a bowl game. Leading the charge against Florida, once again, was Tennessee and Georgia. Ironically, Tennessee got nailed for cheating in 1991 and Georgia got caught in 1997. Neither of them had to miss a bowl game, had serious scholarship reductions or had a championship denied.

* * *

For a couple of minutes there, everybody in The Swamp on that rainy Saturday afternoon in September of 1995 thought Joey Kent was dead. Laid out by a thunderous hit by Florida’s Lawrence Wright that sent the ball 20 yards one way and Kent’s helmet another, the Tennessee receiver went to the ground in a heap and it was at least two or three minutes before he moved again.

Word started spreading in the south upper deck that Kent was at least breathing when a Florida fan with high powered binoculars claimed he could see the spit bubbles forming on either side of Kent’s mouth. One play after Kent was hauled off the field thinking he was Batman and Phil Fulmer was Robin, Tennessee scored to take a 30-14 lead over the Gators, but make no mistake about it, that play changed the entire game and might have changed the entire season.

The game was changed because there wasn’t another Tennessee receiver brave enough to venture over the middle again that day and with the one place that he’d been picking the Florida defense apart taken away, Peyton Manning was reduced to five yard outs on the sideline to receivers that had one eye on the ball and one eye out for the notorious Mr. Wright. Florida scored the next 48 points and blew out the Vols, 62-37. The season was changed because the Gators would win the SEC and go 12-0 into the Fiesta Bowl where they lost to Nebraska.

Other than the lasting image of Kent being knocked into the next century by Wright, the image that Gator fans remember is the one of Peyton in Sports Illustrated, sitting on the bench in the rain looking like a five-year-old whose puppy had been stolen.

The Gators would beat Tennessee and Peyton (again) and Wright would lay out Kent (again) in 1996 when Florida won the national championship by hammering FSU, 52-20, in the Sugar Bowl.

As for Joey Kent, he still hears the footsteps.

* * *

In 1999, the Vols marched into Gainesville as the defending national champions, having beaten FSU in the Fiesta Bowl to cap a 13-0 record behind quarterback Tee Martin, who did what Manning could never do — beat the Gators and lead the Vols to an unbeaten season. With Martin and tailbacks Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry, the Vols figured to beat the Gators who had a young defense and erratic Doug Johnson as the quarterback.

On the first play of the game, Alex Brown sacked Martin, hitting him so hard his helmet flew off. Peyton used to get happy feet when the Gators collapsed the pocket on him. Tee Martin? He his feet weren’t happy but he still sees Alex Brown in his dreams. By the time the game ended, Martin and Mr. Brown had been rudely introduced five times, and Brown also had an interception and a forced fumble.

Alex Brown made it to the NFL and he still starts for the Chicago Bears. Tee Martin doesn’t play pro football anymore, but he still hears footsteps if you mention Alex Brown’s name.

* * *

In 2001, the Florida Gators seemed poised to win the national championship. They had it all — offense led by Rex Grossman, who would finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting, and defense led by Brown and Lito Sheppard — and they had the Vols in their sights for a blowout win in The Swamp when terrorists hijacked planes and slammed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on 9/11. All football games were cancelled that season.

Few experts believe that Tennessee could have beaten Florida had the game been played in September. When it was played in December, the Gators still had a national title in their sights but they had lost in an upset at Auburn. The Gators were playing with tailback Earnest Graham, injured the week before in a win over FSU. Without Graham Florida had no running game and uncharacteristically, the Florida defense did a total collapse and Travis Stephens ran wild, leading the Vols to a shocking 34-32 win.

Florida only lost two games that year, both when Graham couldn’t play. Steve Spurrier would coach one more game at Florida — a 56-23 rout of Maryland in the Orange Bowl — and then he would abruptly retire as Florida’s coach.

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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.