By BUDDY MARTIN
My how the mighty have fallen.
We are almost looking through a glass darkly at a once-dadgum great college football rivalry between Bobby’s Free Shoes U. teams and the HBC’s Fighting Danny Wuerffels.
Whatever happened to the greatness of Florida vs. Florida State?
Ah, those were the days my friend when the Gators and ‘Noles reeked with swagger, streaking around ball yards with jet-like speed and lighting up scoreboards as if they were Christmas trees. That is, whenever they weren’t overshadowed by name-calling, finger-pointing, leg-twisting, late-hitting quarterback smackdowns at the echo of the whistle.
At times, got downright nasty. The kind of WWE cage match stuff that people pay a premium price to view these days. And we loved it!
First of all, who the hell ever heard a whistle echo?
Yet all that all added to the spicy flavor of a combustible rivalry that every year became must-see TV around Thanksgiving and sent tremors through the top five college football rankings.
FSU had the better of it – Bobby Bowden went 7-4-1 vs. Steve Spurrier-- but the sweetness of the 52-20 head-to-head BCS championship win in Sugar Bowl was the most cherished. That’s how Spurrier sees it, and chooses to remember that fateful day, Jan. 3, 1997 when Florida won its first national championship.
“They may have won more times, but we won the one that counted,” the HBC said in his book, Head Ball Coach: My Life in Football.
First, Florida had to get the Sugar Bowl rematch after the loss in Tallahassee -- No. 1 UF losing 24-21 to No. 2 FSU in only the fourth time two unbeatens had met in a regular season finale.
The HBC said he had a good feeling despite having lost the last meeting with both starting offensive tackles injured. After watching the game film Spurrier determined FSU had hit his quarterback between 30-36 times – many of them late “echo of the whistle” hits. He railed on it, loud and clear, to the media. It was prime motivation for the Gators.
“I got a feeling we're going to be half of it hanging on Bourbon Street in the wee hours of the morning,” he had predicted, Yet he also knew a lot of things had to fall their way to win the title after losing to the ‘Noles.
“Three teams had to lose and we had to beat Alabama and FSU back to back to win it all. And that's what happened,” he recalled. “We count our blessings all the time for that to rematch. That's the way it worked out.”
Our selective memories choose a variety of scenarios, experiences, recollections and feel the impact of emotions that resulted from them. You have to appreciate the challenge at hand for Spurrier, so no wonder he clings to that national title game as his sweetest memory.
“Eleven of the twelve years that we played them when I was coach here, they were in the top five in the nation,” he said this week. “A lot of times they were number one, but always in the top five. And we were almost always were in the top 10 …sometimes the top five.”
In a rare, magnanimous compliment to the ‘Noles, Spurrier also acknowledged Bowden’s success: “Bobby Bowden really had his team rolling up there in Tallahassee.”
Oh for those days again, as FSU limps into The Swamp with an interim (so far) coach as a 17-point underdog in the 64th edition of what some people are referring to as “The Sunshine Showdown.” Yeeecchhh! What is it, a beach party or a football rivalry?
Back in the ‘90s Florida-FSU was THE college football rivalry. The winner of the 12 games played for five national championships.
Back then I could have made a case for it being more important, bigger and better than Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma and Auburn-Alabama rivalries.
Today, sadly, it’s not even the biggest game of the day, or night.
I’m old enough to have been sitting in the stands as a college sophomore when on the very first kickoff of the first-ever game in 1958 Bobby Renn nearly returned it for a touchdown. Thanks to the back-pedaling Jimmy Dunn, who was smaller than 90 percent of all college quarterbacks, Renn was dragged down to a sigh of a relief from the fans. The Gators went on to win that game, 21-7.
Seven years later, the Seminoles beat the Gators for the first time, 16-7. In 1964 two stars were born on the Steve Tensi-to-Fred Biletnikoff connection. Spurrier didn’t start and came on for Tommy Shannon in the second half, as scheduled.
“They had a good team that year. And that was a fun game,” Spurrier recalled. “We're down 13 to nothing. We went right down the field, scored in the fourth quarter. It was 13-7. And one of the assistant coaches told Coach (Ray) Graves we should onside kick. And we had about eight minutes left. So they got the onside kick and then they made a field goal. Pretty much put it out of range.”
Spurrier said the kicker was “(Les) Murdock” (correct). And he added: “And then later found that that was his sixth year of playing college football. So he wasn't even eligible. But anyway, they'd beat us. And that was their first victory.” (Perhaps accurate, but uncorroborated.)
So where does the Florida-FSU rivalry stand today?
Let’s be honest here. After playing huge rivalry game for 61 years, memories have dimmed a bit about its glory days. Some people never knew. Some people don’t care. And others have moved on to Georgia or even LSU because of the SEC competition.
In fact even, Dan Mullen kinda low-keyed it in his Monday presser, with a conversation like this:
Q: Did you catch some of Tim Tebow’s final game at Swamp in 2009?
Mullen: “I wasn’t concerned about that at all. I was celebrating an Egg Bowl win. I probably had official visits on campus, I’m sure, whatever we were doing in recruiting. I wouldn’t have even had any idea of what was going on in that game to be honest with you.”
Q. Hard to believe that was the last time UF won against FSU in the Swamp?
Mullen: “No idea about that.”
Q. You didn’t realize the Gators haven’t won in 10 years in The Swamp against them?
Mullen: “No. I know we won last year. I know they lost the year before because I was watching the year before. You know, I was taking some phone calls. I knew they lost that one. I was just watching to see what the team looked like.”
Q. What did you think?
Mullen: “You know, I did have family in town flipping to different games. Nah, I don’t know. Whatever. I don’t remember what I was doing 10 days ago.”
Q. All I was saying, that’s a pretty big gap, right?
Mullen: “Yeah, it seems that way. They’ve had some really good teams come through in that time frame. I guess you look back in that time frame, Florida has kind been down a little bit and they’ve had a couple of good teams so I guess you could see why that happened.”
C’mon Coach Mullen, you can do better than that! Read up on it!
Or go down the hall and talk to Spurrier.
Think Egg Bowl x 100.