The University of Florida is a handsome and distinguished enclave of higher education. The rolling Gainesville campus, with its abundance of oaks, is situated in what would approximate, if you picture the Florida peninsula as an upright human, the solar plexus of the state. In many respects that's what the school is—the guts of Florida. It's an honored institution with a first-rate curriculum, impressive facilities and active, formidable alumni who dominate the state's business and political interests. Yes, and it has one thing more: a very large ulcer caused by a massive, ongoing frustration over its beloved football team.
Bear Bryant used to say that the University of Florida should be the ideal place to coach because, with all its other advantages, the state turns out legions of skilled high school players, the bulk of whom yearn to be Gators. But he didn't want to coach there. He called it a matter of "class." John McKay has said much the same thing, as has Frank Broyles. Historically, Florida coaches, good and bad, have ranked with the most beleaguered in college football. The last one to leave the job of his own free will was Charlie Bachman—in 1932. For his wartime efforts, which for the most part were hapless, Tom Lieb got thrown in a lake by the students.
The football monkey on Florida's back is that it has never won a championship of any kind, despite a frequent abundance of talent. Gator fans, assured that Somebody up there doesn't like them, and reacting accordingly, are characterized by rivals as being the most obnoxious in the Southeastern Conference. They can be counted on to wear the silliest hats, plaster their cars with the crudest bumper stickers and spill their drinks in crowded places; and they are the first to throw debris—cans, ice, fruit—at the opponents' bench when the tide turns against the Gators. Florida loyalists live on "next year" and on the expectation that the next new coach will bring them their first conference title. Their cheers are then routinely superseded by boos as their Gators lose yet another big game.
Last Saturday night in Tampa, Florida lost another big one, this time to defending national champion Miami, which scored two touchdowns in the final seven seconds to win 32-20 and extend the longest winning streak in major college football to 13. A breathtakingly beautiful game, it featured a gutsy Florida rally that put the underdog Gators ahead 20-19 with 41 seconds to play and a retaliatory thunderbolt—a 72-yard Hurricane drive that took all of 29 seconds and was punctuated by still another winning touchdown pass by Bernie Kosar. The Hurricanes then scored on the game's final play, when cornerback Tolbert Bain returned Gator quarterback Kevin Bell's desperation pass 59 yards for a TD. What's more, the Hurricanes, under their new, carefully coiffed coach, Jimmy Johnson, are playing even better defense than they did last year.
September 9, 1984
Kosar appears so close to perfection that it's scary, and his pass catchers seem able to reach anything within the continental limits. The Hurricanes showed some fatigue in the fourth quarter, which wasn't surprising considering they had only five days to regroup following a convincing but nerve-and body-wracking 20-18 upset of Auburn. Still, Miami appears not to have missed a breath since defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes have now won four of their last five games in the final minute of play, and in the three most recent ones Kosar has passed for at least 300 yards.
In Tampa, however, and in most of the state north of Dade County, the Hurricanes' fast start wasn't the most compelling story of the week. That distinction belonged to Florida, with yet another beleaguered coach on the hairy edge of forced unemployment. This episode was far more unseemly and painful than the previous ones. This time, the coach had seemed destined to bring the Gators out of the swamp—he had, in fact, given them the best four-year record in their history (32-15-1) and led them to their first-ever final Top 10 ranking (No. 8 in SI) last season—but, alas, he turned out to be a cheat. By his own anguished admission.
When Charlie Pell departed Clemson to become Florida's coach in December 1978, sports editor Tom McEwen of The Tampa Tribune told him to "be prepared" because the Florida job "is like no other." McEwen said that Pell told him it "couldn't be so." A year or so ago, Pell changed his mind. "Tommy," he said, "you were right. It is different." By then, a whole lot of bumpers in the state carried GIVE 'EM HELL, PELL stickers, only Pell was now getting more than he was giving. A blurred pattern of rules bending steadily took shape. It finally came into focus six days before the Miami game when Pell announced his resignation effective at the end of the '84 season.
As it turns out, the pattern was actually clear from the start. In Pell's first season in Gainesville, the Gators were docked four days of spring-practice time after an NCAA investigator, in town on another matter, happened by the practice field and discovered several of Pell's assistants "directing" off-season workouts. That year, the Gators went 0-10-1. In retrospect, Gainesville attorney Jim Quincey, the university's chief counsel, who eventually worked with the NCAA in pinpointing the infractions, says the team's disastrous beginning probably made Pell and his staff "panic." Because Pell has never been particularly well liked by rival coaches, it was predictable that he would be watched closely and that the case against him would grow.
At NCAA headquarters in Mission, Kans., complaints began to dribble in: phone calls, notes, newspaper clippings. But contrary to what many Gator fans believe, says Quincey, the NCAA wasn't engaged in a "vendetta" against Pell. Indeed, Pell had escaped censure when Clemson was punished after he left for some 70 infractions, several of which occurred during his two-year tenure. The harried, shorthanded NCAA investigative staff (only 35 in the field, 25 of whom are part-time) doesn't have time for vendettas. The process that leads to action is more or less a matter of "feeling the file" and acting whenever it gets thick enough, so the battle lines hardened. Pell consistently denied any wrongdoing.
In November 1982, a Gator recruit named Pat Moons told The Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel that a Florida coach had offered to help get his sister into school on a package deal. The next month the NCAA initiated a "preliminary inquiry" into the Florida program. A "preliminary" is tantamount to being put on notice to look under your bed, because the NCAA has found reason to believe somebody is there and up to no good. But it was the St. Petersburg Times that peered beneath the box springs. In a series of investigative articles that spanned the next 17 months, the Times' William Nottingham, Robert Hooker, Dave Scheiber and Steven Nohlgren uncovered a number of violations that hardly endeared them to Florida fans, not to mention several journalists in the state who are stuck on the Gators.
The charges included the old student-athlete bugaboo: ticket scalping for profit. Recruiting coordinator Sonny McGraw—later demoted, then let go by Pell, only to resurface recently as one of those the NCAA talked to—was said to have acted as a middleman in the scam. A review of the football team's academic progress revealed that the 10 courses most favored by the players included only two legitimate academic subjects, and the most popular of all was Theater Appreciation. The 1981 squad had a fall-term cumulative average of D+, and 16 of its 22 starters were reported to be in "serious academic trouble." A defensive tackle named Roy Harris admitted that he remained eligible in 1981 by receiving credit for a course, Student Development in a University Setting, he never attended. A few players on the 1981 squad "passed" the same remedial reading class four times. Others, according to the Times, collected liberal commissions selling ads for the football program. That was a violation because such generous commissions weren't available to the student body in general.
The NCAA, however, made no formal charges. A source close to the investigation said last year that police work had dragged on because "they can't find the bottom." The investigation was said to rival those against Illinois and Clemson for the depth of research. Had the NCAA reached the bottom a month ago, when the Committee on Infractions last met, Florida likely wouldn't have suffered too severe a penalty, although the evidence clearly indicated that punishment was due. Pell even might have survived.
But last month a former academic adviser on Pell's staff, a graduate student assistant named Mike Brown, applied the crusher. In a taped confession heard by Quincey and Florida president-designate Marshall Criser, Brown revealed he had been used as a spy against Florida opponents in 1980 and '81. He had earlier made the same statement to the NCAA. Brown said he was sent to gather information on California, Georgia, Auburn, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Louisville and Florida State. He infiltrated practices by posing as a student and generally endearing himself to students and staff members of the rival schools. At Auburn, Brown even had an on-field conversation with then-coach Doug Barfield. Florida won only six of the 10 games that Brown worked, and in what has to be considered a rather dubious decision in the psychology of skulduggery, Pell later fired Brown.
On Aug. 26 the university confronted Pell with the evidence against him. Instead of denying the charges, he admitted everything—and added a few more violations to the list ("A long one as it was," he told McEwen). Pell repeated his story to the NCAA, sparing little. Both sides say it was a heartrending session, tearful at the finish, and that Pell went "far beyond" what he was asked to explain. His story, the sources say, is one "everybody should hear" because it shows "what can happen when you're so desperate to win."
Criser, who took over as president last Saturday morning, says that if the revelations had surfaced in March and he had been president then, there's "no question" he would have fired Pell on the spot. But in discussing the situation with all concerned, he agreed it would be better to allow Pell to finish the regular season—better, at least, for the 100 or so players who "counted on his leadership" for this year.
According to NCAA bylaws, if a school initiates "corrective or disciplinary actions" in advance of a meeting of the Committee on Infractions, that will be taken into consideration by the committee when it metes out sanctions. Hence Pell's resignation. Both Criser and Quincey say that they have enjoyed "full cooperation" and "a good relationship" with the NCAA during the investigation. They would like to clear up "everything" as "soon as possible" to "clear away the cloud hanging over us." They're prepared to abide by whatever the Committee on Infractions decides. The committee is scheduled to meet again in November, but it can call a special session at any time. Quincey thinks it may do so "within weeks."
Criser, who's characterized by the NCAA as well as members of his own administration as a "very tough, very forthright man," says Florida is in a "no win" situation. The school will be criticized no matter what it does. Already strong voices have surfaced demanding stronger action. Hubert Mizell of the St. Petersburg Times and Edwin Pope of The Miami Herald have called for Pell's immediate dismissal. Pope characterizes Pell as "the Willie Sutton of college football—a charming crook."
Criser says he's pushing to "have [the investigation] disposed of as soon as the NCAA thinks the time is ripe. But our course is irrevocable. We have a resignation that is irrevocable. We will proceed, in the meantime, with the search for a new coach, and I've instructed our athletic director, Bill Carr, to begin formulating a set of regulations that will keep this from happening again, hopefully.
"I'm not a Pollyanna, and I don't believe in the tooth fairy. I know some people believe the only way to win is to break the rules. That's distressing. Without redoing the Sermon on the Mount, I intend to make people here realize that it's not the way we're going to do it."
In his suite on the sixth floor of the Bay Harbor Inn the morning of the Miami game, Pell had the sliding glass doors open to the patio overlooking Tampa Bay. A benign Florida breeze, warm and damp as a dishrag, blew through a room already heavy with serious non-football discussion. Pell said he objected to the notion that his were the acts of a "desperate" man, that, outside of the "test" of that winless first season, he never really felt external pressures, that the pressures were all "from within." He said he steadfastly refused in his resignation statement to use the word "guilty" because it was inappropriate. He wasn't guilty but rather "responsible" for what had happened. To his thinking, the message was perfectly clear: "Everyone—the school, the players, the alumni, the coach—has got to learn his responsibility." He said the easy way would have been to quit "and go to the mountains with my family," but he felt a responsibility to his players.
Pell got up and shut the sliding doors, and the air conditioning had begun to bite into the warmth when he sat back down. He said when it was all over, he knew he would never again coach at the college level, "for reasons I won't get into now." He did not, however, say he would never coach again.
He was asked, finally, if the cheating he was "responsible" for was necessary. He looked steadily at his interrogator, and his hard blue eyes relaxed along the edges. He slowly shook his head. "No," he said, "and that's the disgusting part. It wasn't necessary."
One final aside. Eight years ago, when he was an assistant at Clemson under Red Parker, Pell went to Bryant, his old coach at Alabama, to tell him how the wolves were sniping at Parker's heels, undercutting him, and that it looked as if he was going to be offered Parker's job. He asked Bryant what he should do. Bryant told him he ought to "go tell Red Parker what you just told me."
Bryant presumably never knew whether Pell took his suggestion, but it's a moot point. Parker was fired, and Pell got the job. Later, an embittered Parker charged Pell with "knifing" him in the back. He said, "I just hope that he hires some loyal assistants."