Genius takes many forms. In the case of Florida coach Steve
Spurrier, it has taken the form of offensive creativity--the
beloved ball plays, as he calls them, that propelled the Gators
in seven years from outlaw mediocrity to last season's national
championship. But there can also be genius in a simple phone
call, such as the one Spurrier made to Kansas State codefensive
coordinator Bob Stoops in the winter of 1996, offering him the
defensive coordinator's position at Florida. That small piece of
fiber-optic business paid a huge dividend in the Gators' 33-20
victory over Tennessee last Saturday and has at least
temporarily turned the Florida program on its head. It's true
the Gators still lack balance: Now their defense is much better.
As Florida sent the Volunteers into consolation mode for the
fifth consecutive year (and quarterback Peyton Manning for the
fourth), Spurrier's offense relied almost exclusively on the
big-play receiving of junior wideout Jacquez Green (eight
catches for 185 yards) and the second-half running of senior
Fred Taylor (134 yards on 17 carries, after only three yards on
one carry in the first half). The Gators looked as if they were
still struggling to replace last year's Heisman Trophy-winning
quarterback, Danny Wuerffel, and the two wide receivers taken in
the first round of the NFL draft, Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard.
The defense, on the other hand, was relentless. It intercepted
Manning twice, sacked him twice, pressured him on at least a
dozen more of his 51 passes and made him suffer for his 353
passing yards. The Gators also held Tennessee to 45 yards on 20
rushing attempts. In the dressing room after the game, Spurrier
gave Stoops a game ball for the third time in his two years in
Moments later Spurrier leaned against a wall outside the
coaches' dressing room, sipped from an orange can of sports
drink (guess which one), savored the victory that would vault
the Gators to No. 1 and thanked heaven for Stoops's presence.
"Shoot, yes, this is what I was thinking about when I hired
him," Spurrier said, running a hand through his sweat-matted
hair. "Can you imagine this game in the old days? If we played
that bad on offense back then, we'd have had it very tough.
Might not have won at all."
September 28, 1997
Those old days would be Spurrier's first six years as Florida's
coach (1990 to '95), when he honed the Gators' offensive edge
but lost four games in which Florida scored 28 points or more,
and won or tied four others in which the opposition ran up 30 or
more. Spurrier's philosophy was simple: Outscore everybody. The
flaw in that thinking was exposed in the national-championship
game following the '95 season, in which Nebraska treated the
Gators like tadpoles as it rang up a 62-24 Fiesta Bowl victory.
Meanwhile Stoops had built a unit at Kansas State that led the
nation in total defense and probably in total attitude. On the
statistics alone, Spurrier called.
He got himself an assistant for whom coaching defense is what
politics is to a Kennedy. Bob Stoops's father, Ron, was the
defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High in Youngstown,
Ohio, for 30 years, until his death in 1988. Bob's brother Mike,
34, worked with him at Kansas State and is now defensive
coordinator for the Wildcats. Another brother, Mark, 30, coaches
defensive backs at Wyoming, and a third, Ron Jr., 40, is
defensive coordinator at Boardman High in Boardman, Ohio. "It
had to be something with my dad," says Bob. "We all understand
defense pretty well." Bob, 37, was a four-year starter as (what
else?) a defensive back at Iowa. He became codefensive
coordinator at Kansas State in 1991 and there developed many of
the attacking schemes that are now immensely popular in the
Stoops approached Tennessee as a professional and personal
challenge. His pet blitz packages and bump-and-run coverages
would be severely tested because Manning is such a gifted
passer, with superb vision and a quick release. "We knew we had
to get to him in three seconds or less, because he's going to be
effective if you don't," Stoops said after Saturday's victory.
On the personal level Stoops was angry that the Volunteers
constantly talked about their "comeback" in last fall's game
against Florida, which Tennessee lost 35-29 after trailing 35-0.
The Vols scored their last touchdown in that game with just 10
seconds to play. "It was silly," Stoops said. "We backed out of
our blitzes and made them use time to score. They picked their
way up the field with short stuff. It didn't even seem like they
were trying to win."
A single play on Saturday--perhaps the most significant of the
game--illustrated Stoops's high-risk defensive philosophy. With
the Gators leading 7-0 in the final minute of the first quarter
and Tennessee facing third-and-11 on the Florida 24, Stoops sent
right cornerback Elijah Williams on a blitz from bump-and-run
coverage far outside the interior line, a huge risk. But
Williams and tackle Ed Chester reached Manning together and
forced a horrible throw into the middle of the field. It was
intercepted by junior strong safety Tony George, who ran 89
yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. The Vols never really
The interception was the biggest play in a huge game for George,
a 5'11", 200-pound fourth-year junior who, like his coordinator,
is a child of the Midwest. George also helped sack Manning once,
had three solo tackles, broke up two passes, forced one fumble
and recovered another. He's a prime example of the huge talent
pool that may keep the Gators in the Top 5 for years to come.
George sat behind 1996 Thorpe Award winner Lawrence Wright for
two seasons before being elevated to starter this year, and
there's no more certain indicator of a team's arrival as a
powerhouse than its ability to replace quality with more of the
same. George, in fact, chose Florida over Tennessee because
Gators coaches told him he would sit and mature as a redshirt in
his true freshman season, a luxury the Volunteers didn't offer.
"Tennessee was talking about playing right away, and I didn't
want any part of that," he says.
His interception was prosaic--the product of solid coverage and
heavy pressure on the quarterback--but his runback was poetry.
He slid to the left sideline and then rolled past the Gators'
bench. Twenty yards from the end zone, George raised his right
hand toward the sky. Sitting in the players' family section of
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, among the school-record crowd of
85,714, was 15-year-old Tari George. Tony's gesture was for her,
another message among many from her big brother. "Everything I
do is for her," Tony says. "I started thinking about her as soon
as I reached the sideline and turned up."
Tony, who grew up in Cincinnati, was six years old when Tari was
born, the last of six children of their mother, Arizona, and
father, Houston. At two, Tari was diagnosed as having cerebral
palsy, which was probably caused by oxygen deprivation during
birth. Her left side is very weak. She walks with a limp, and
her left arm just hangs when she moves. Tari would often play in
the same parks where Tony played basketball and baseball with
his friends, and when other kids would make fun of Tari, Tony
would take them on. Then, one afternoon when he was 15, Tony
took a different approach. "I decided not to fight," he says. "I
just told them all to try to do what Tari does. Try to tie your
shoes with one hand."
She would reward him for his courage with some of her own in the
fall of 1991, when Tony was a sophomore at Winton Woods High. At
home after football practice one night he had to run to use the
bathroom constantly and was eventually taken to the hospital,
where doctors told him that he was diabetic and would require
two insulin shots a day for the rest of his life. He was
dumbstruck and consumed with self-pity. Then nine-year-old Tari
visited him at the hospital. "She walked in, looked at me and
said, 'Oh, don't be silly, you're going to be O.K.,'" says Tony.
"I mean, how could I feel sorry for myself after that?" Tari and
Tony inspire each other now, she pushing him to compete and
succeed, he reminding her that she's not alone in her daily
It was dark and humid on Saturday evening when George popped
through a metal door beneath the south end zone of the stadium.
Three fans handed him a poster to sign and then politely left.
Twenty yards away Arizona stood wearing her son's white number 1
jersey from the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. "He waited for his time to
shine," she said, gently nodding. "Yes, he did; he waited for
A slender teenage girl approached from Tony's left, smiling
demurely. Tari put her strong right arm around Tony's waist as
he pulled her close with his left arm and kissed her on the
cheek. Together they swayed gently in the night, and only then
was Tony's newfound stardom made full.