GAINESVILLE – Great field generals go beyond keeping their promises.
Like Gen. Douglas MacArthur did to lift the spirit of the fighting men and natives of the Phillipines he left behind during the rough days of World War II, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow kept one promise from the 31-30 loss to Mississippi on the last Saturday of September and then added one more before the adoring fans gathered Sunday in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to celebrate Florida’s 24-14 victory over the Oklahoma Sooners in the BCS National Championship Game.
Tebow spoke the words Gator Nation has wanted to hear with the deadline drawing near for underclassmen to declare the intentions for the National Football League draft.
To sum up Tebow’s intentions, all you need to remember are those famous words MacArthur uttered so long ago.
“I Shall Return.”
Yes, Tim Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner who was spurned in 2008 but settled instead for the Most Valuable Player honors in the BCS National Championship Game, is coming back to help head coach Urban Meyer and the Gators try to win a third national championship in four seasons – and make another run at the Heisman Trophy that eluded him and went instead to the quarterback, Sam Bradford, that Florida vanquished at Dolphin Stadium last Thursday night.
After thanking everyone for the opportunity to attend the University of Florida – his maker God, his family, his friends, his teammates and his coaches – and giving everyone the impression he was headed to the NFL, Tebow walked off the stage but then stopped.
“Oh, by the way,” he said. “Let’s do it again – I’m coming back.”
And “The Swamp” rocked like it has during big-game victories over Tennessee, Florida State and Louisiana State. Teammates greeted Tebow as he exited the stage set up on the field, and immediately there was speculation whether Tebow’s return might influence the return of fellow juniors—All-America running back/wide receiver Percy Harvin, who returned from a late-season ankle injury that kept him out of most of the Florida State game and SEC Championship matchup with Alabama and rushed for a team-high122 yards and one touchdown on nine carries and added 49 more yards on five receptions, and All-America linebacker Brandon Spikes, the leader of the Gators’ defense who had six tackles against the Sooners.
Harvin, who was in attendance, indicated to a reporter afterward that he hadn’t made up his mind but was leaning toward returning for his senior campaign and would give Meyer the news on Monday. Spikes, who lives in North Carolina, was absent.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Tebow, who led Ponte Vedra Beach Nease to a state championship, may have not won his second Heisman Trophy in a row last December (Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford got the award and Texas’ Colt McCoy finished second ahead of Tebow), but he used the spurn by the Heisman voters for perhaps the most electrifying performance of his three years in Gainesville, passing for 231 yards on an 18-of-30 performance that included two touchdowns against just two interceptions. He also added 109 rushing yards on 22 carries.
After a 7-7 halftime deadlock, Tebow totaled 172 yards in the second half with his left arm, his thunderous feet and the biggest of hearts and directed two fourth-quarter scoring drives—a 27-yard field goal by Jonathan Phillips and a 4-yard Tebow-to-David Nelson touchdown pass—that put the Sooners away for good. He converted on 6-of-9 third-down plays (and 12 of 17 overall).
He concluded the 2008 season with 2,746 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes and a team-high 673 rushing yards and 12 more scores. Those numbers, of course, aren’t even close to the ones Tebow put up in 2007 when he became the first true sophomore to win the Heisman Award. In leading Florida to a 9-4 record, he threw for 3,132 yards and rushed for 895 more and totaled 55 touchdownds (32 passing, 23 rushing). But his 2008 totals were accomplished on more than 100 fewer plays as head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen spread the ball around to other talented offensive performers.
In three seasons at Florida, Tebow has accumulated 6,390 yards and 67 touchdowns passing and rushed for 2,037 yards and 43 touchdowns. His 120 total touchdowns are just two fewer than his boyhood idol, Danny Wuerffel, the Gators’ first national championship quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 while playing for the first Gator Heisman winner, Steve Spurrier.
Three sons of ministers, three Heisman Trophy winners and now three national championships—two players and one coach—in the last 12 seasons.
In two years, Tebow is 22-5 as a starter. Throw in Florida’s 13-1 record while winning the 2006 national championship when Tebow shared playing time with senior Chris Leak, the Gators are 35-6 with “Vitamin Tebow,” as Meyer likes to call him, in Gainesville.
More than 30,000 fans filled the lower stands of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and they were in a festive attitude. Several held signs and chanted to Tebow for “One More Year” as the Gators took the field. Albert the Alligator was dressed as “Mr. Two Bits” and led the familiar cheer.
Meyer introduced his seniors and staff. Absent from the offense was Mullen, who is back in Starkville, Miss., where he is now the head coach for Mississippi State after calling plays last Thursday night one more time, and his successor as offensive coordinator, Steve Addazio, who was undergoing minor knee surgery.
Meyer saved defensive coordinator Charlie Strong for last, calling him the best in the nation. It would be hard to argue Strong isn’t after a second national championship in three years, this one holding the nation’s most productive offensive team, Oklahoma and its No-Huddle Express offense, which had averaged 54 points and more than 562 yards per game, to just 14 points and 363 yards.
“This is as good a group of college football players as I’ve been around,” Meyer said, “and this is going to go down as one of the greatest teams in college football history.”
Wuerffel and Leak helped to present all the national title trophies to the Gators. New years were added to the South endzone facade to recognize the team’s latest Southeastern Conference and national championships.
Since Spurrier returned in 1990 and renamed Florida Field “The Swamp,” that facade has filled up fast with honors—three Heisman Trophy jerseys for Spurrier, Wuerffel and Tebow—seven SEC crowns and three national championships.
Memo to athletic director Jeremy Foley: With Tebow returning, you might want to find additional space for any more future honors and titles.