A Pandemic, A World War and A History Lesson for the Florida Gators

Florida joined the SEC and became a powerhouse following two previous global occurrences. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

In 1918, the Florida Gators football team—under Head Coach Alfred L. Buser—played one football game. It was a 2-14 loss to a team assembled by Camp Johnston, a U.S. Army training camp in Jacksonville. The U.S. military creating teams on bases was common, a way to keep soldiers busy and in shape, providing camaraderie during World War I.

The military taking most college aged men was one issue for universities hoping to field their own teams. The other? A global pandemic.

The Spanish Flu—which originated in Kansas but was given the name when Spain was the first country willing to address the virus—was ravaging the global population. A third of the world’s population died during four waves of the influenza. So, understandably, football was a casualty.

In 1942, the United States was gearing up that same age group of young men, preparing them for another World War. The Florida Gators were able to still field a team that season, going 3-7. Under Tom Lieb, UF began the season 3-1 and then lost the following six games as coaches and players were drafted into the war effort. By season’s end, the majority of the team was in camouflage, fighting the Axis Powers. As such, there was no season at all in 1943 while the boys were still fighting the war.

Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd
We are going to get on the other side of this someday.

Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin pointed to both of those seasons as an example during a recent call with the University Athletic Association staff.

“We are in a period of disruption but we’re not the first to ever have through this. We’re not even the first at the University of Florida to have gone through it. In both of those instances, we came back really strong.”

Between the 1918 flu pandemic and WWII, as Stricklin points out, the Southeastern Conference was formed (1932). Florida was a charter member of the conference and has been a part ever since. Following WWII, UF began to become the nationally known program it is today.

“We’ve had a lot of success in the last 70 years when we haven’t had disruption. We may have some disruption this year, and we’re going to have to be nimble and we’re going to have to be flexible.”

Stricklin has already seen his coaches and staff began to accommodate the different world in which the coronavirus COVID-19 has thrown us. Virtual meetings and recruiting and YouTube workouts are all part of the norm. Quarantine for anyone showing symptoms, regular testing and distanced summer throwing sessions are the reality for the moment.

If you don’t grow, you die. Each lesson learned during this time can be a revelation and push not only the Florida Gators but all of college football to adapt into a better, stronger version of themselves. It’s typically when we are put in our worst situations that we become our best selves. So while in theory, everyone wants to get back to normal, there are lessons that can be taken from this time.

“Our football coaches talk about these virtual recruiting visits they have been conducting and what a great way it is to reach potential student-athletes in different parts of the country that may not have easy access to drive to Gainesville. I can totally see that being something that continues. That’s probably a really minor example. There’s obviously many more.

“We’re going to learn a lot of things that we can do different because we were being forced to learn to do them different, and probably otherwise we wouldn’t have learned those lessons.”

As much as life is destined to change to a point that will become permanent, Stricklin knows there is also plenty that will stay the same.

“People are still going to have a demand to watch live sports. People are going to, I think, have a real demand to really want to come together and socialize, especially at big events and happenings.

“Even now, with all the direction we’re getting from authorities on how we should be social distancing, you see a lot of the instances of where people are not heeding that advice is because they want to socialize, they want to be connected to one another. That’s something college athletics does really well, is we connect current student body, we connect alumni, we connect people who are just friends of the university and just want to be a part of it. I don’t think that part is going to change…

Will this be the scene with college football this fall? Photo Credit: Chad Ritch

“I think it’s real important that we all understand that there is going to be a day when there is a vaccine, or there’s some medical advancement where we can get back together and we can provide a safe avenue to our athletes. I hope it’s really soon. I think we all do. But whenever that time comes, we’re going to make sure the University of Florida Athletic Association is ready and prepared. We’re going to continue to try and create a championship experience with integrity.

“We are going to get on the other side of this someday.”

And when that happens, lessons will have been learned, adaptations will have been made and the Florida Gators will be stronger for it all; history proves that to be true.

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