To the Top with A Rush

Florida capped a remarkable two-year turnaround by putting the clamps on Florida State
December 09, 1991

It's too bad that Florida coach Steve Spurrier missed the frenzied, cathartic celebration that erupted last Saturday afternoon after his Gators bopped, dropped and tomahawk-chopped Florida State, the erstwhile No. 1 team in the nation, down to the No. 3 position in its own state, for heaven's sake. When the Gators survived a late Seminole rally to hold on for a 14-9 victory, the crowd of 85,461 at Gainesville's Florida Field stood and roared its approval for at least 10 minutes. But where, pray tell, was Spurrier, the boyish-looking Florida alumnus who, in his second year on the job, had just given the Gators their first 10-win season?

"I was in the locker room," said the 46-year-old Spurrier later. "I went in and nobody was there, so I just went ahead and took my shower."

Frankly, what could be a more fitting place for this Mr. Clean? When Spurrier, who won the 1966 Heisman Trophy as the Gators' quarterback, returned to Gainesville in the winter of 1990, he was expected not only to make sure Florida caught up with Miami and Florida State for supremacy in the nation's premier football state, but also to scrub up an image that had been seriously tarnished in the 1980s, when the Gators were twice put on NCAA probation. Soon after he arrived, Spurrier had a conversation with Alfred McKethan, one of the athletic department's most generous donors. "We're not going to expect much the first or second year," said McKethan. "But by the third and fourth and fifth years, we're going to expect to have a pretty good team."

"Mr. McKethan, we just might be pretty good the first year or two," Spurrier replied, "because there are some ballplayers here."

Indeed. Despite his troubles with the NCAA, Spurrier's predecessor, Galen Hall, had held his own against Florida State and Miami in recruiting. Of the starters on this year's Gator team, only two—wide receiver Harrison Houston and cornerback Larry Kennedy—are Spurrier recruits. Hall even went to Tallahassee, home of Florida State, and got defensive tackle Brad Culpepper and free safety Will White, both of whom contributed significantly to the Florida defense, which did a sensational job of containing the high-octane Seminole offense.

Although Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon passed for 305 yards, he twice failed to get his team into the end zone after getting first downs inside the Gator five. And with a running attack that was virtually nonexistent—the Seminoles gained only 37 yards on the ground—Weldon was often reduced to scrambling and improvising in the teeth of a fierce rush. He was sacked three times, for a loss of 33 yards, and slammed to the grass on numerous other occasions.

"Being Number One was a target all year," said Weldon, who had had similar trouble getting the ball into the end zone in the Seminoles' 17-16 loss to Miami on Nov. 16 in Tallahassee, I don't think we can even consider it a good season now."

For Florida, however, the season has turned out better than good. Just as Spurrier had predicted, the Gators made it to the top quicker than even their most ardent rooters had anticipated. Last season's 9-2 team had the best record in the Southeastern Conference, but the championship went to Tennessee because the league doesn't recognize the record of a team on NCAA probation. This year's Gators were even better, going 7-0 in the league to win their first SEC title since the conference was formed in 1932. However, an inexplicable 38-21 loss at Syracuse on Sept. 21 made the team "Flaw-rida" as far as the weekly polls were concerned.

The season has only enhanced Spurrier's reputation as a winner, a reputation that began when he coached the Tampa Bay Bandits to a 35-19 record from 1983 through '85 in the now-defunct USFL, and grew between 1987 and '89, when he guided Duke to a 20-13-1 record. But just what, other than Head and Shoulders cleanliness, has Spurrier brought to Gainesville? "A new attitude," says White. "We've always been wide-open on defense, but he opened up the offense, too. It makes the defense feel extremely good to look up and see that the offense has put 35 points on the board."

Saturday's win, though, was a different matter entirely. For Spurrier, whose offense this season set a conference record for passing yardage (3,393) behind junior quarterback Shane Matthews, the victory depended on the defense. "I told some coaches who came with me from Duke that never in my life did I think I'd win a 14-9 game," said Spurrier. "But we won, and it's just as good as 44-9."

Matthews, a junior who was fifth-string when Spurrier took over in Gainesville, didn't have one of those sparkling days that earned him SEC Player of the Year honors in '90. He did, however, account for the game-winning points. After being flushed from the pocket midway through the third quarter, Matthews rolled to his right and lofted a pass downfield. At the Florida State 43, wide receiver Houston went up for the ball with Seminole linebacker Reggie Freeman. Freeman stumbled and Houston made the catch and then dashed unmolested into the end zone to give Florida a 14-3 lead. "No way I was supposed to go to the right on that play," said Matthews. "All I remember is seeing Houston out there and a big guy chasing him."

Spurrier encourages such spontaneity. He believes that the game belongs to the players and that it should be fun. Shocking, huh? Of course, this freewheeling approach occasionally leads him to make decisions that go against the book. But so what? His players seem to love him for it.

Although the Gators weren't their normal high-scoring selves, they outplayed Florida State more than top-ranked, unbeaten Miami had. So is Florida better than Miami? Unfortunately, we'll never know, because the Hurricanes will meet Big Eight champ and 11th-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, where the Hurricanes have won 44 games in a row.

"I'm hoping that some of you sports-writers say that Florida is the Number One team in the state," said Spurrier. "I lobbied for Miami to play us in the Sugar Bowl. But I'm not blaming them for what they did, because that's their best avenue to the national championship."

So even if Florida, which is now ranked third, beats thrice-beaten Notre Dame in New Orleans, the national title is a long shot for the best Gator team ever. Not only must Miami lose to Nebraska but also No. 4 Michigan must knock off No. 2 Washington as well. Even then the voters may go with the Wolverines for having beaten a more formidable opponent than Notre Dame. That must be frustrating for Spurrier, but he can take solace in the fact that he already has done wonders in Gainesville, and reflect on how nice it is that Florida is not only as good as any team in the nation, but it's clean, too.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERThroughout the game, Darren Mickell and his mates got up close and personal with Weldon.