Charley Pell was angry. It took every ounce of strength, both physical and emotional, to hold back what he was really thinking that December Saturday afternoon in 1980 when he marched into the Florida State dressing room at Doak Campbell Stadium, congratulated Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles for a game well played and a 17-13 victory well earned. It was the march back to the Florida dressing room that the seething emotions began to spill over.
He was barely in the Florida locker room when he told the Gators, still quiet and still smarting from a game in which they had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, “Gentlemen, I just did the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever done in my life. I just congratulated Coach Bowden for beating us. I want you to know that as long as I’m the head football coach at the University of Florida, that opportunity will never present itself again.”
Bob Hewko remembers that like it was yesterday. Injured in the game, Hewko sat in that tiny, cramped, visitor’s locker room with his teammates waiting for what seemed an eternity for Pell to arrive and when he did, there was a look on his face that he and every other Gator knew all too well and understood.
Hewko braced himself.
“What he said wasn’t anything like we were expecting,” Hewko said on the phone from Las Vegas where he was mixing some business with pleasure. “He was mad. He was really mad and we probably deserved to get chewed out because that’s a game we knew we should have won, but if you understand one thing about Coach Pell, he used moments like this. He was a master at turning the worst thing into something good and when he told us we weren’t going to lose to them again as long as he was the coach, it was totally believable. It was like, okay, there is never even a shot that we’re going to lose to them again … ever.
“Coach Pell always said that his goal was to win the state of Florida. He said once you win the state of Florida, you’re in position to win the national championship but that’s where it all starts.”
For the most part, that’s held true throughout the years. There was that year in 1983 when the Gators beat both FSU and Miami. The Gators were the state champs, but the Hurricanes won the national championship by beating previously unbeaten Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, the first time a team from the state of Florida had ever won the national title. In the 30 years since that first national championship by a Florida team, Miami has won four more national championships and both Florida and FSU have won three each. With the exception of Miami in 1989 (0-1 against FSU, didn’t play Florida) and Florida in 1996 (1-1 against FSU, didn’t play Miami) it took a perfect intra-state record to win it all.
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Charley Pell became Florida’s head coach in 1979. He replaced Douglas Adair Dickey, who had the Gators on the verge of greatness midway through the decade of the 1970s, but the Gators couldn’t get over the Georgia hump. Dickey’s “Fourth and Dumb” gamble against Georgia in 1976 not only cost the Gators the SEC title but it was the beginning of the end of his Florida coaching career. For the next two years the losses mounted on the field amid rumors that the Gators were torn down the middle along racial lines and that there were serious drug and discipline problems and facilities were disastrous.
Dickey was dismissed after losing to Florida State and Miami in the final two games of a 1978 season that saw the Gators go 4-7. The hot names to replace Dickey were Fred Akers (Texas), Lou Holtz (Arkansas) and Ron Meyer (SMU) but while all the attention focused in on those three, at a clandestine meeting in a secluded office at the Eastern Airlines baggage claim at the Greenville-Spartanburg airport, Clemson’s Charley Pell was interviewed by UF president Robert Marston and prominent booster Warren Cason.
They were so impressed they offered Pell the job. Marston and Cason might have been impressed, but not Charley Pell’s wife.
“Here Charley Pell comes home to my brand new house that I’ve been in for one month and haven’t even unpacked all my clothes – I’m still having to go to boxes in the garage to find certain things I need to wear – and he asks me, ‘What do you think about us going to Florida’ and I told him it’s a great place for a vacation,” Ward Pell remembers. “I loved Clemson. I loved my house. We had it going there. We were winning big. We had facilities. The people were just fantastic. And I had my new house that Charley had been promising me for forever.
“He had that look on his face and I said you can’t be serious. He was.”
Ward spent the night feeling so numb that she thought her entire world had been shot up with Novocaine. First thing the next morning, Pell’s right hand man, Dwight “Hoss” Adams, showed up at the house. Charley asked him the same question he had asked Ward.
“Hoss looks at Charley and says, ‘Well, Charley, we made chicken salad from chicken s^%! before and we can do it again’ and when he said that I took one look at my beautiful new house and said my good-byes,” Ward recalled. “They (Marson and Cason) called us at the house, Charley took the job at Florida and 45 minutes later we sold my house just like that.”
Ward Pell had no idea what they were getting into and to this day she’s not sure that Charley Pell would have taken the Florida job if he had a clue about the state of not only football but the entire athletic program.
Calling the 1979 Florida program a disaster would be insulting to every athletic program in the 35 years since that has fallen on hard times. It was indeed a sad state of affairs and left unattended or placed in the wrong hands, the shiny, well-run machine that is Florida athletics today – the one that churns out SEC and national championships on a yearly basis – wouldn’t exist.
This was a job for someone with a vision who could see beyond all the problems.
“He could look at how things were and see through the problems to envision how things could be … let me correct that: the way things ought to be,” Ward said.
Charley Pell split the problems in half. The run down football stadium, wreck of an athletic dorm, inadequate training table and lack of a weight room fitting for an SEC football program fell under the physical improvements category.
“When I got to Florida (1977), our weight room had one universal machine and one squat machine,” recalls Dock Luckie, one of the strongest players in Florida football history. “Coach Jack Hall took one look at me one day and said ‘You don’t have to lift anymore. Let the weak guys lift while you go and study so you can make good grades.’ I’m serious.”
The racial, drug and discipline problems along with a roster that lacked the kind of players you had to have to compete with the likes of Alabama fell under personnel.
Physical improvements required money and the entire Florida athletic program was skating on very thin financial ice. The only way the improvements would be made were if Pell raised the money himself. So, he went around the state speaking to whoever would listen, inspiring the Gator Nation to catch his vision for the future.
“He got everybody so fired up that when he asked them for their money, people were whipping out their checkbooks and giving what they could,” Ward said. “We took big checks, little checks … even IOUs. We did seven meetings a week, sometimes more.”
More than 300 speeches later, the after affects of that tour linger on for Ward. She ate so much barbeque that it was another seven or eight years before she could put a forkful in her mouth again.
She can stomach barbeque now, but it goes down with a measure of reluctance.
“You go places and there’s a meeting and what’s the best thing to serve to a massive number of people? Barbeque,” Ward says. “If I’m at a big meeting and that’s what we’re eating, I’ll eat some but it’s not something I’ll go out of my way to order if I’m out at a restaurant.”
There was a method to Charley Pell’s madness. The Gator Nation awoke behind this pied piper who could sell brine at the Dead Sea and the money began pouring in, stabilizing the finances of the Florida athletic department but giving Pell the resources he needed to turn the Florida program into one that could compete with anyone.
Florida Field was expanded to 72,000 with the south end zone addition. Yon Hall was transformed from its state of disrepair which included urinals that had fallen off the wall to dirty, stinky carpet filled with holes into a neat, clean athletic dorm that, at the time, was one of the nicer ones in the SEC. The training table became one of the best in the country. The worst weight room in the SEC became one of the best in the nation thanks to a sizeable donation from Dave Thomas, the chairman of the board of Wendy’s.
“Phil Dunn, who owned all the Gainesville Wendy’s, arranged for us to meet Dave Thomas,” Ward said. “We went down to Fort Lauderdale and stayed with Dave and his wife Lorraine and they gave us the money for the weight room.”
It wasn’t just about football, either. While Charley Pell understood that football pays the freight for the entire athletic program, a school as big and as diverse as the University of Florida needed a strong athletic department top to bottom.
“Charley saw the big picture,” Ward said. “He knew that all these other sports – basketball, baseball, track, golf, swimming, you name it – are important to the entire university. Now, Charley was football first, don’t get me wrong, but he knew that these other sports keep the Florida name out there all year round, even when it’s not football season. Recruits pay attention to things like that.”
Personnel problems were filed under two categories: discipline and recruiting.
There was a deep racial divide on the team and a thriving drug and gun culture that Pell knew he had to bust up if he was to turn the program around. To solve that problem, Pell came up with a rather ingenius idea.
“He came home, goes to bed early and tells me ‘Wake me up at 1 o’clock” and I’m thinking 1 p.m., you’re always up before dawn and you never sleep that late,” Ward said. “Then I realized one in the morning and I asked what’s up and he told me he couldn’t tell me right then but he would tell me when he got back home.”
At 2 a.m., all the athletes in Yon Hall were rousted out of bed and marched out to Florida Field while police, drug enforcement agents and agents of the ATF brought in drug and gun-sniffing dogs to search high and low for illegal substances and weapons.
When the search concluded, 26 Gators had their scholarships rescinded effective at the end of the semester.
A believer that team discipline starts with little things such as showing up on time, Pell kept a drawer full of watches. Show up late for a scheduled meeting and he’d reach into that drawer, throw a watch at the offending player and tell him don’t be late again.
“We lived on Charley Pell time,” Patrick Miller recalls. Miller, one of the great special teams performers in Florida football history also played linebacker well enough to get drafted by the San Diego Chargers. “Right after I got to Florida, Coach Pell wanted to meet with me. I showed up at the time he said and he told me I was late. He threw me a watch. The watch was set 10 minutes early – Charley Pell time. I still keep my watch set on Charley Pell time.”
The impact of the discipline and the fundraising was felt on the recruiting trail. By 1983, the Florida roster was loaded with 27 future pros: Wilber Marshall, Lomas Brown, John L Williams, Neal Anderson, Lorenzo Hampton, Ricky Nattiel, Alonzo Johnson, Tim Newton, Tony Lilly, Alonzo Mitz, Ray Criswell, Crawford Ker, Dwayne Dixon, Jeff Zimmerman, Frankie Neal, Ray McDonald, Billy Hinson, Bob Hewko, Mark Korff, Patrick Miller, John Hunt, Ricky Easmon, Gary Rolle, Randy Clark, Leon Pennington, Scott Trimble, and Vito McKeever.
Florida was dominating the state for recruits. There were rumors, hints and allegations that Florida wasn’t playing by the rules but then again nobody else was in the SEC, the Southwest Conference, the Big Eight or even the ACC. In the 1980s, Auburn and Georgia went on probation twice while LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Missouri (Big Eight at the time) also were hit with major violations. Miami went on probation in 1981 and FSU got hit in 1984. If Florida was breaking the rules, it wasn’t like the Gators were the only ones.
Fingers were pointed at Pell, who played college football for Bear Bryant, but Dwight Adams, who coached Florida’s special teams, says Pell wasn’t to blame for the bulk of violations uncovered by the NCAA enforcement staff. Adams says there were two coaches on the Florida staff who ran amok with the rules.
“Charley Pell made one mistake and I’m not second guessing him but I told him you’re putting your trust in two people that’s going to be a problem,” Adams said in a recent telephone interview. “I called their names and said these guys are trouble and they’ll get you in trouble. Boy he got irritated because he trusted these guys. He shouldn’t have.”
Three games into the 1984 season, Pell was fired after the NCAA found Florida in violation of 107 rules. To avoid the possibility of the NCAA issuing the death penalty, Florida fired Pell three games into the season. At that time, the Gators were 1-1-1. They went 8-0 the rest of the way with Galen Hall as the head coach and redshirt freshman walk-on Kerwin Bell playing quarterback. The Gators won the SEC championship on the field and were awarded the New York Times national championship trophy, but NCAA probation kept Florida from a bowl game. In January, the SEC ruled to strip Florida of the championship it earned on the field.
For all the troubles, Adams once again insists that Pell was not fully responsible for what went wrong.
“Charley fell on the sword for everybody,” Adams said. “It happened on his watch and he wasn’t going to blame anybody else, but believe me, most of what happened was because Charley trusted people he shouldn’t have and they did the stuff that got us in trouble.”
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Charley Pell never coached again after he was fired at Florida but he never stopped changing lives although he had to come to grips with a few things of his own. A longtime sufferer of chronic depression, Pell botched a suicide attempt in 1994, saved only by longtime friend, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Malcolm Jowers. That proved to be a turning point in Charley Pell’s life. Given a second chance, Charley conquered his own demons and made it his mission until lung cancer took him in May of 2001 to help others who struggled with chronic depression and mental illness in the state of Alabama. His work lives on today in various state and privately funded programs to help those who suffer from those debilitating conditions.
Some thirty years after his departure from the University of Florida, the Pell legacy not only lives on but thrives. While uninformed Gator fans associate Charley Pell with a bad NCAA probation, those who admire the facilities and championships won in the last thirty years understand that little, if any of this, would have been possible without the foundation laid from 1979-84.
“Look at what we have at the University of Florida now,” says Dock Luckie. “That started with Coach Pell. Before Coach Pell the Gator Nation wasn’t united. Coach Pell brought everybody together and the boosters like Mr. Ben Hill Griffin got organized and started giving the money. I hate thinking about where we would be if it wasn’t for Coach Pell.”
Like other players, when Luckie fell a couple of credits short of earning his Florida degree, it was Charley Pell who found a way to keep him in school until he was able to take and pass the necessary classes. Pell was obsessive in his desire that every one of his players graduated from the University of Florida.
A lieutenant on the University of Florida police force, Luckie says Pell’s sometimes gruff demeanor overshadowed a big, soft heart.
“He’d yell at you and get on you at practice or in games, but you always knew he wanted what was best for you,” Luckie said. “He wanted his boys to get their degree so they could get past whatever their circumstances in life and have success. We all owe a lot to him.”
Luckie will get no argument from Bob Hewko.
“I’m proud that I’m a Gator and I’m proud that I played for Charley Pell,” Hewko said. “His impact on my life can’t be measured and you can’t measure the impact he had on the entire athletic department. We owe him a debt of gratitude because the championships, the great teams, the facilities – all that’s because of Coach Pell. Could it have been done without him? Maybe, but unlikely.”
During their days at the University of Florida, Ward Pell was known as “The First Lady of Florida Football.” She retains icon status among former players like Wilber Marshall, who still call her “Mom,” and longtime Florida boosters, who were there at the beginning when the rallying cry for Gators was “Wait ‘til next year!”
The Gators don’t have to wait until next year anymore and that has everything to do with a booster organization that ensures the athletic department has the funds it needs to do things in a first class manner.
So, just how did a former lineman for Bear Bryant from the little town of Albertville, Alabama impact so many lives and begin the transformation of the University of Florida athletic department into the powerhouse that it is now?
Ward Pell knows Charley’s secret.
“Charley could make you feel like you were the most important person in the world,” Ward says. “When he talked to you, he was talking to YOU and he was listening to YOU. He didn’t talk down to anybody and there was no BS. If he cared about you, he cared about you and he meant it and let you know it in the way he treated you. You find out a lot about people in watching how they talk to others and how they listen. Charley empowered people and they would do anything he asked them to do.”