In the cool darkness of last Saturday evening, Florida
quarterback Danny Wuerffel jogged from the floor of Tennessee's
Neyland Stadium, his head humbly bowed and his face
expressionless. Only when he neared the tunnel at the south end
of the field did Wuerffel lift his chin, gently shake his right
fist once, twice, three times and let a soft smile crease his
face as if he were savoring some small, private success. "He
remembers that game in Arizona last January," said Wuerffel's
father, Jon, who stood nearby in a thicket of Gators fans.
Behind Wuerffel, teammate Johnny Rutledge, a sophomore
linebacker, rumbled through the tunnel like a storm, raising his
orange helmet overhead and then lowering it as he yelled, almost
in disbelief, "They really thought they would win!"
Each team had lugged its own heavy baggage onto the wet grass
for Saturday's game in front of an NCAA-record crowd of 107,608.
Florida was facing its first meaningful opponent since the night
of Jan. 2, when Nebraska undressed the Gators 62-24 in the
Fiesta Bowl. "You try to have amnesia about a game like that,"
strong safety Lawrence Wright said as his team prepared for the
Volunteers. "But it just breathes inside you and won't go away."
Tennessee's demons were closer at hand: The Vols' most recent
loss had been a 62-37 thrashing by Florida last September.
Looking back on that game last week, Tennessee coach Phillip
Fulmer called it "embarrassing to me, embarrassing to our
players." On Saturday, one team's healing commenced and the
other's suffering was prolonged.
In the first 20 minutes of play Wuerffel threw four touchdown
passes to four receivers, the Volunteers committed three
crushing turnovers, and the Gators took a 35-0 lead that stuck a
sharp knife in a year's worth of anticipation and left those
within the hulking stadium in virtual silence. It mattered not
in the least that Vols quarterback Peyton Manning, in
desperation, would throw for 492 yards and four touchdowns, or
that Tennessee would reduce the final score to 35-29. The shock
of the Gators' early onslaught would never dissipate. Nor would
the sense that Florida, 3-0 and ranked No. 1, is alive again and
back in pursuit of the national championship.
Nine days before Saturday's game Florida coach Steve Spurrier
sat behind the desk in his office in Gainesville, fidgeting and
squirming, a vision of nervous energy in search of an outlet. In
his six years as Florida's coach Spurrier has built parallel
reputations for genius and arrogance as his Gators have won four
SEC titles and 82% of their games. Yet his team's epic collapse
in Arizona hovers over his success, a fact that annoys him. "I'm
not irritated because we lost that game, I'm irritated because
we didn't compete in it. But if we go 12-0 again, and win the
Southeastern Conference again, I will be a happy Gator," said
Spurrier, a loyal alumnus who really talks like this. "I don't
have to win the national championship to be a happy Gator."
September 29, 1996
Florida has climbed a very tall ladder nearly to the top; only
one rung remains. Spurrier won't acknowledge how significant
that final step is to his program, but his players will, and
much that the Gators have done in the months since the Fiesta
Bowl has been motivated by that defeat. "It doesn't do any of us
any good to hide from that game and refuse to think about it,
like it didn't happen," says middle linebacker James Bates. "I
do think about that game, about how we have to be better,
stronger, more physical."
Says Wuerffel, "Adversity can run some people into the ground. I
hope we've learned from that game."
To enhance that possibility Spurrier opened preseason practice
by gathering the team for a viewing of the Nebraska loss. "It
was the last game of the season, and usually you never see film
of the last game," says Wright. "In this case, it was necessary."
And when Spurrier decided last winter to change his defensive
coordinator for the seventh time in his 10 seasons as a college
head coach, he hired 36-year-old Bob Stoops from Kansas State,
where Stoops had built the country's top-ranked defense, one of
the few that could consistently hold its own against Nebraska's
mighty offense. "He wanted Florida to become a physical,
aggressive, hard-hitting team," says Stoops, a former defensive
back at Iowa and the son of an Ohio high school football coach.
"That's what I teach."
On Saturday, Stoops's troops not only intercepted Manning four
times (matching Manning's total from all of 1995), but also held
Tennessee to nine yards on the ground. The Florida defense made
as many large plays as the Gator offense did.
No Florida player suffered more in the Fiesta Bowl and its
aftermath than Wuerffel. After a brilliant regular season in
which he had thrown 35 touchdown passes, the 6'2", 209-pound
Wuerffel went to Tempe and was sacked seven times, once for a
safety, and tossed three interceptions, one of which was
returned for a touchdown. Although little of what transpired
that night was solely Wuerffel's fault, much of the blame landed
at his feet. "But Danny is the kind of kid who bounces back,"
said his father.
Case in point: The exacting Spurrier was dissatisfied with
Wuerffel's 15-for-28 passing in the Gators' season-opening win
over Southwestern Louisiana. "Just didn't throw the ball well,"
said Spurrier. He kept Wuerffel off limits to the media for a
week, and the senior quarterback responded with a 15-for-16
performance against Georgia Southern. He was again allowed to
speak. On Saturday his first two passes were sloppy
incompletions, but on fourth-and-11 from the Tennessee 35 he
found Reidel Anthony on a post pattern for the game's first
touchdown. Wuerffel completed only 11 of 22 passes, but his four
early touchdown throws were devastating.
Wuerffel's resilience should come as no surprise. He put the
Nebraska game behind him more quickly than most Gators did. "I
got sacked a bunch, and it was a tough ball game," Wuerffel said
last week. "But I felt like I did everything I could. I didn't
let up." Wuerffel has little of the flash that gets many of his
peers more publicity, but he has loads of the strength that
makes him a terrific, quiet leader. He is the second of Jon and
Lola Wuerffel's three children. His father is an Air Force
chaplain, and his grandfather was a Lutheran minister. His
family has moved six times because of his father's assignments
(twice since Wuerffel enrolled at Florida, most recently from
Edwards Air Force Base in California to Eglin Air Force Base
near Destin, Fla.). In Torrejon, Spain (grades 1 to 3), Wuerffel
learned soccer and Spanish; in Colorado Springs (grades 5 to 8)
he learned he could excel at football. Then, in the summer of
1988, he learned that his father had been transferred again and
that the family would be moving to Fort Walton Beach, Fla. "That
was the toughest move," says Wuerffel. "I had made some good
friends in Colorado, and I had solidified a spot as the starting
quarterback on the ninth-grade team [at the high school]. I
remember driving down to Florida with my family, just wondering
When he arrived in Fort Walton Beach, on the coast of the
Florida panhandle, he found that ninth grade was part of junior
high school and that in Florida junior high football is a
big-time sport. "Lights, cheerleaders, even a public-address
announcer," says Wuerffel. "First time I heard my name I about
froze." Yet he quickly became the starting quarterback, safety
and placekicker, and three years later he was one of the most
recruited quarterbacks in the country.
Wuerffel has sometimes been belittled as merely the latest
beneficiary of Spurrier's pass-happy offense, but in fact he has
proved to be talented, tough and reliable. He has endured his
coach's demands with extreme patience, and after shredding
Tennessee on Saturday he seemed ready to put questions about the
Fiesta Bowl loss behind him forever. "This is a new game and a
new season," Wuerffel said. "That [Nebraska] game was a long
What was most remarkable about Saturday's game was that Florida
was able to jump to such a quick lead. "We were disappointed as
hell after last year's game," Manning said last week, recalling
how the Vols had led 30-14 late in the second quarter, only to
come a cropper. Manning felt that the '95 game had been closer
than the final score showed. A break here, a break there, one
less fumble...who knows what the outcome might have been? That
was Tennessee's mantra as Saturday's game approached. In
off-season workouts Volunteers players would whisper to each
other, "Second half." Those words were posted on a board in the
team's weight room. Two days before the game Fulmer said, "We've
got to play every play like it's the most important play of our
careers, because it probably is."
Fulmer didn't have his team ready to do that. The Vols went to
pieces before the crowd was seated. They couldn't stop Florida's
running game (the Gators, not often reminiscent of the '67
Packers, gained 51 yards on their first three carries and 149
yards overall). With Tennessee trailing 14-0 less than eight
minutes into the game, Fulmer sensed his team losing its fire
and focus, so he had the Vols go for a first down on
fourth-and-seven from Florida's 46-yard line. "On our sideline I
was looking at a lot of glazed looks," said Fulmer later. "I was
looking to make something happen." What he got was an
incompletion as Manning's pass was broken up.
Manning had much to do with Tennessee's early failure, and the
loss will be toughest of all for him. He came into the season as
one of the most publicized college players in recent history,
and his own expectations are even higher than the public's.
Manning had veered from his customary course in preparing for
this game. "Spend the week with a smirk on your face, have some
fun," his father, Archie, the former Mississippi and 15-year NFL
quarterback, had told him. So Peyton curbed his film study and
even went to an Alanis Morissette concert on Tuesday night with
three of his offensive linemen. Isn't that Ironic? On Saturday
his first pass was intercepted deep in his own territory, and
for the second consecutive game he fumbled on a sack. He was
heroic in Tennessee's comeback but fell short. And the
Volunteers, flattened by the Gators for a second year in a row,
cared little about moral victories.
Long afterward Manning walked through the barren Tennessee
locker room with his father. He paused to embrace Vols
linebacker Tyrone Hines and then continued toward a back door.
"I'm really amazed that it turned out this way," said Peyton.
Archie was intercepted six times in this stadium while playing
for Ole Miss in 1968. It happens, and it hurts. "But it's not
the end of the world," said Peyton. "We'll be all right." Father
and son walked through the door and into the night.
Barely 120 yards away, at the opposite end of the stadium,
another family gathered in the catacombs, beneath a dim
lightbulb, stealing a few moments of quiet celebration before a
bus rushed the Florida team to its charter flight. Jon Wuerffel
wore a replica of his son's jersey and stood next to his
24-year-old daughter, Sara, who will be married on Oct. 26, an
open date for the Gators. "Otherwise," she said laughing,
"nobody would be at my wedding."
In the middle of the group was Danny, quietly scarfing down
handfuls of popcorn from a large plastic bag that his mother
held. He wore a striped, button-down shirt, blue jeans and a
contented look that might best be described as a smirk.