Add “Graduate” To Baker’s List Of Names

He is Florida’s man with many names. You know him as Dallas Baker and you’ve heard Mick Hubert call him “Dallas Baker, Touchdown Maker” but over the years he’s been in Gainesville, there are a few other nicknames that he’s worn dubiously and not nearly as flattering as “Team Leader” or “College Graduate,” nicknames he’s recently earned.

There was a time when you could have called him “Mr. April” because he seemed to always win the Orange and Blue Game MVP. If there was such a thing as the Orange and Blue Game Hall of Fame, Dallas Baker would be an all-time all-timer. He could light it up in spring practice.

There was also a time when “Mr. August” would have been appropriate. He had this habit of being un-coverable when he was running pass routes in the August heat during preseason practice.

There were a couple of years when you could have called him “Houdini” because after raising expectations to such high levels in the spring and in August, he disappeared once the season started. The combination of not so great production on the field and in the classroom would have made “Mr. Underachiever” a pretty good fit, too. In spite of his great spring practices and fabulous Augusts, he only had 13 pass receptions as a second year freshman and 26 during an underwhelming sophomore campaign. In the classroom he racked up deficit points and was teetering on the verge of academic ineligibility.

The lack of production on the football field might have been a surprise, but mediocrity in the classroom was almost a given. Baker was originally signed by Steve Spurrier in 2001 but he didn’t qualify academically and had to endure a year of prep school in Boston where he says he almost froze and believed it when his teammates warned him about “snow snakes.” He was re-signed by Ron Zook in 2002 but he was forced to take a red-shirt season due to academic deficiencies.

* * *

When Zook was fired midway through the 2004 campaign, the Gators were on their way to their third straight five-loss season. In the 12 previous seasons, the Gators had never won fewer than nine games and never lost more than four. Off the field incidents involving the football team were an embarrassment to the university and the team GPA was mediocre at best. Zook was replaced by Urban Meyer and the new sheriff vowed to win championships and turn the Gators into a bunch of Boy Scouts.

While Baker wasn’t one of the off-campus problem children, he wasn’t exactly a shining star in the classroom. He was the perpetual follower and the path he was following was taking him nowhere. He was one of several Florida Gators in need a fresh start when Meyer took over and when the offer of amnesty was extended, he grabbed at it. It meant an academic makeover and a total lifestyle evolution but considering he wasn’t getting anywhere the way he was going, he decided it was worth a try.

“After awhile you feel like it’s time to mature, time to grow up,” said Baker Friday morning at the 2006 Media Day at The Swamp. “Any time you have a new coaching staff come in every player on the team is going to feel like he has a new start. I had a new chance when the new coaching staff came in.”

It took awhile for the change to become evident. Baker had his usual all-everything performance during spring practice and at the Orange and Blue Game in 2005 so it wasn’t until Media Day last August that we got the first glimpse of a changed man. Talking to several writers that day, Baker almost broke down in tears when he talked about calling his mother to tell her he had gotten an A on a micro-economics class and then he talked about how she broke down in tears when he finished the spring with a better than 3.0 in the classroom. The man with many names was “Mr. Serious Student.”

“He got the sense that this staff cared about him as a person,” said wide receivers Coach Billy Gonzales. “From that point on his grades started going up, his social life started going in the right direction, all of a sudden his performance started going in the right direction.”

Baker caught 52 passes for 697 yards and five touchdowns in 2005 including 10 for 147 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors in Florida’s Outback Bowl victory over Iowa. The numbers would have been much better except that he played through a high ankle sprain, a concussion, a broken rib and a punctured lung. Add “Mr. Tough Guy” to his growing list of names.

The transformation didn’t stop there. Along the way he took stock of himself and realized that he had been playing football for all the wrong reasons. He was playing football to try to get to the NFL so he could take care of his family which seemed like a pretty good reason until he really examined what was important.

“Coming out of high school and when you came to college, the first thing on your mind is one day you’ll be able to take care of your family. I’ll be able to take care of my family by playing in the NFL and that’s the wrong attitude to have,” he said. “You’re just thinking about yourself. You weren’t brought here to go to the NFL or leave early. You were brought here to help your team win a championship.”

* * *

The Gators didn’t win a championship last season although they did win a bowl game for the first time since Baker has been in Gainesville. Florida finished the season at 9-3, pretty good especially considering the number of devastating injuries including a broken leg suffered by Baker’s best friend and roommate Andre Caldwell in game three. Florida finished the season strong, walloping FSU 34-7 and then handling Iowa in the Outback Bowl, but there was no SEC title and that’s what Baker came to Florida to win in the first place.

“We haven’t even played in a BCS Bowl since I’ve been here and that’s why I came to the University of Florida,” he said.

Winning a championship has motivated him to put in his best offseason ever. He’s bigger and stronger (6-3, 206) so it’s obvious that time has been spent in the weight room. In the weight room, preseason mat drills or on the practice field, he ‘s no longer the perpetual follower. He is the guy that leads by example and he’s become an encourager that young players look up to. Add “Team Leader” to his list of names.

“Dallas has one of the greatest work ethics I’ve ever been around,” said Gonzales. “You don’t ever have to motivate Dallas Baker to go hard. Dallas Baker is going to give you everything he has.”

When he’s not leading by example, he’s teaching Florida’s exciting corps of freshmen wide receivers how to get free at the line of scrimmage and how to read coverages in the secondary. In the evenings, you find him helping them memorize the playbook. Call him “Teacher.”

“It feels good to be able to help those young guys but you have to,” said Baker. “You think how hot it is in practice and coach making all the veterans take reps because we know the plays backwards and forwards. If you can help a young guy learn the plays like that it’s less reps for you but those guys will also help you win a game.”

Gonzales feels that Baker is doing things the right way, teaching the young guys the right way to do things. In turn, he knows that when their time comes and they are the veterans, these freshmen will remember how it was when Dallas Baker took the time to teach them.

“It was late last night and who’s he [Baker] sitting with?” Gonzales said. “He’s sitting with the young guys. He’s helping Jarred Fayson go through his book, helping him learn the plays. Treat him like he’s your little brother, help him along and help him learn. I think Dallas has done a great job as far as that goes.”

* * *

Friday morning Baker got the grade he needed in his marketing class which means that all he has to do is fulfill an internship at Eastside High School and Howard Bishop Middle School in the fall to complete the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in recreational programming. Add “College Graduate” to the list of names for the former academic non-qualifier.

Earning the college degree, he says, will be his greatest accomplishment. It’s particularly satisfying because he remembers all too well hearing people talk when he first came to Florida. They questioned that he should even be on a college campus and there were plenty of predictions that he would eventually flunk out of school. He’s proven all the doubters wrong.

“It’s a big accomplishment to me really,” he said. “Not passing the college test and people telling me I wouldn’t be able to pass classes here … that’s my biggest accomplishment. If I don’t do anything else I’m happy I’m graduating. Nobody can ever take that away from me.”

And if he gloats just a little, he’s earned the right.

“I’ve been calling around telling all my friends,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done something that everybody was telling me I couldn’t do. Even people back home were saying I couldn’t pass the work. They were saying it behind my back but they were saying it.”

Gonzales almost bursts with pride when he recalls a time in the summer when he visited with Baker and his parents. When the conversation turned to the subject of his college education, both parents and Dallas broke into tears.

“Hearing him say ‘Coach, I’m going to be a college graduate’ means more to me than anything else,” said Gonzales who also says “that’s a guy that had deficit points and people were worried about his GPA.”

* * *

The goal for this fall is simple. He will do whatever it takes to help the Florida Gators win the Southeastern Conference championship. He’s been the guy always linked to that nasty “P” word potential in the past and he’s had a tremendous junior season in which he showed he can be productive even if he’s hurting.

“I was a bust always in the fall,” he said. “In the spring I looked like I was supposed to be in the NFL and again in the fall I was a bust so it means a lot really to be able to help the team.”

Meyer predicts that Baker will become one of the greatest wide receivers in Florida football history with a sparking senior season. Baker is one catch behind his famous uncle, Wes Chandler, one of the greatest receivers in Florida history. Baker has 91 career catches while Chandler, who played in the wishbone era under Doug Dickey, had 92. Chandler averaged 20.3 yards per catch for his career while Baker has a more modest 14.5.

Baker and Chandler have had plenty of conversations since he’s been at UF but now the conversations will take a different tone.

“In the past it was always about school but I guess now that I’m going to graduate we can talk about football,” he said.

But when the talk turns to football, inevitably, it turns to championships. He doesn’t have one and he wants it as much for teammates like Caldwell as he does for himself.

“Sometimes I think about us winning the SEC and maybe even playing for the national championship,” he said. “I also want Andre to do something. The selfishness is really gone. It’s not about Andre but about the whole team, really.”

Add one more name to Dallas Baker’s impressive list of names. Call him “Gator.” He’s come a long, long way to become all the things that Florida football should be all about.

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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.