Florida Football Flashback: A Star Is Born

It was the spring of 1990, just a few days before the Gators played the Orange and Blue Game in Jacksonville since the artificial turf at Florida Field had been ripped out and real grass installed at the insistence of new head coach Steve Spurrier. To make the game fun, Spurrier appointed two of his assistant coaches head coaches for the game and held a player draft. The head coach of the Orange team, John Reaves, had the first pick and to the surprise of many chose Shane Matthews, the same Shane Matthews who had been the sixth string quarterback the year before and who had never taken a snap in a college football game.

“That’s the only time in my life I ever got drafted and it gave me an awful lot of confidence,” Matthews remembers. He went on after his Florida career to spend 14 years in the National Football League, remarkable for a quarterback by any standard but especially for one that had to sign on as an undrafted free agent.

Matthews lived up to his number one draft pick billing that Saturday in Jacksonville by completing 9-15 passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns. Most importantly, he didn’t throw an interception. Kyle Morris, who had started most of the games the previous two seasons, threw for 283 yards in that spring game but he threw four completions to the Orange defense. Lex Smith, who split time with Matthews on the Orange team, completed 10-14 passes but he also fumbled four times.

Spurrier noted after the game that Morris would start the fall as the number one quarterback “but the other players will have a chance to beat him out in the fall.”

The season opener against Oklahoma State was September 8. On August 20, Spurrier named Matthews his starting QB and a week later, the Head Ball Coach reaffirmed that decision, something that didn’t necessarily go over all that well with the media, boosters and fans.

How in the heck could Spurrier start a quarterback who had not only never taken a college snap in two previous years but whose dad – Pascagoula (Mississippi) High School coach Bill Matthews – had asked for a chance to take some snaps in scrimmages back during the spring?

“I didn’t get into any scrimmages the first week or so of spring ball,” Matthews remembers. “John Reaves (former UF quarterback and Spurrier’s tight ends coach at the time) took me under his wing. I was throwing to the tight ends every day and just absorbed whatever he was telling me to do. Well, the first couple of weeks I didn’t get into a scrimmage. My dad came over to watch practice and after practice he went up to introduce himself as a high school coach and he told Coach Spurrier, ‘I know this is your team but I hope you will just give him a chance.’ Coach Spurrier kind of apologized to him and said he’d make sure I got into some scrimmages. Coach Reaves was in his ear the whole time, too. He was kind of the one guy that was for me from the start.”

That chance was all Matthews needed. The offense, which became known as the Fun ‘n’ Gun with Matthews running the show from 1990-92, was complicated enough that every other Florida quarterback that played for Spurrier required a year to learn it.

Matthews picked it up from the very beginning.

“It just clicked for me,” he said. “Being a coach’s son and having been around football all my life – that has a lot to do with why I lasted in the NFL for 14 years – I was fortunate that I didn’t have to study playbooks. Once I saw a play the first time, I knew exactly what I needed to do and what everyone else had to do. I don’t know if it’s a photographic memory for football or what. It’s actually (the Fun ‘n’ Gun) a simple basic offense but it has a lot of complex things in it. I think my mind and Coach Spurrier’s mind just think a lot alike.”

So much alike that before the Gators took the field on that September afternoon against Oklahoma State, Spurrier asked Matthews if there were any special plays he wanted to run. Matthews suggested a screen or a draw to start the game.

Spurrier’s response surprised him.

“He told me, ‘They ain’t paying me all this money to come run the football’ and I thought oh my, this is going to be fun.”

Florida won the toss and elected to receive. On the game’s first play, Matthews faked a draw to Willie McClendon and connected with Ernie Mills for a 26-yard gain sending a sparks of electricity through the air at sold out Florida Field. Before the crowd could catch its breath, the Gators were going no-huddle and Matthews delivered a 17-yard strike to Tre Everett. Again, operating without a huddle, Matthews and Mills connected again, this one for 22 yards to the Okie State five. Two plays later, Dexter McNabb scored the first touchdown of the Spurrier era.

Five plays. 70 yards. 1:50 off the clock.

By halftime, Matthews had already thrown for 239 yards, He finished the game 20-29 for 332 yards and a touchdown on a 50-yard pass to Everett. He also scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak. The Gators, offensively challenged and so predictable the previous two seasons – 1988 with the Amedeeville Horror (offense coordinated by Lynn Amedee that averaged 155.8 yards passing per game); 1989 under Whitey Jordan that averaged 148 passing yards per game – racked up an almost unheard of 567 yards.

It was a rather auspicious start and the star was the guy who admits he might have transferred out if the NCAA’s transfer portal had been in place at the time.

“If the transfer portal had been around back in 1990, who knows what might have been?” Matthews said. “My mom and dad both went to Ole Miss and I had caught a lot of grief when I chose Florida. A lot of people said maybe I should have gone to Ole Miss. I kind of knew that if was at Ole Miss I would have been starting but my parents didn’t want me to transfer and thank goodness I didn’t.”

The Oklahoma State game was the beginning for a most impressive career. Matthews went on to be named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991. He led Florida to the best record in the SEC (9-2) in 1990 (Gators weren’t eligible for the league championship due to NCAA probation from the previous staff) and UF’s first SEC title that counted in 1991 when the Gators won a then school record 11 games. In 1992, playing with a depleted offensive line that required freshmen to start at both tackles, the Gators went 9-4 and almost won the first SEC Championship Game in Birmingham, falling to eventual national champion Alabama, 28-21.

“The 1992 season was a tough one for me,” Matthews said. “We lost a lot of good players from 1991 and we were playing with two freshman tackles, plus we lost two of our first three games (31-14 at Tennessee and 30-6 at Mississippi State). I had lost my mom so at the start of the season, it was tough on me … and then we went to Mississippi State, which always played us really physical, and with me being from Pascagoula, it was pretty tough."

But that changed. Matthews led the Gators to seven straight wins and a surprising SEC East Championship in the first year of division play in the league. UF lost its final two regular season games to third-ranked Florida State and unbeaten second-ranked Alabama. Matthews capped off his career by throwing for 242 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Gators to a 28-6 win over North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl.

“It didn’t end the way we all had hoped, but we were a good football team that kept getting better that year,” Matthews said. “We rallied the troops after that 1-2 start and ended up being a good team. We ended up being a better team than the Miami team Alabama played to win the national championship.”

Perhaps the storybook beginning didn’t have the storybook ending that Matthews might have wished but it was a remarkable career that saw him complete 722-1,202 passes (60.1%) for 9,287 yards and 74 touchdowns. He also ran for seven touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass. He was 28-9 as a starting quarterback and remains the only quarterback in Florida football history who never lost a home game.

Not bad for a guy buried so deeply on the depth chart that Spurrier was being questioned before he ever coached his first game at UF.

“I think the fans and boosters were a lot more nervous than I was or Coach Spurrier was that first game,” Matthews said. “I think Coach Spurrier caught a pretty good amount of grief for starting a quarterback who had never played before but he wasn’t nervous. I admit, I was a little bit nervous. I always believed that if you’re not at least a little bit nervous and have some butterflies in your stomach that you just don’t care.”

Shane Matthews cared, but whatever nerves he had that September day in 1990 he kept to himself and then took it out on Oklahoma State.

A star and Gator legend was born that day.

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