• Ainslie Lee

Shane Matthews: The Underdog Turned Under Appreciated

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Finding him on the depth chart was like finding his hometown on a map – not impossible, but far from easy.

Cleveland, Mississippi, was home to just over 15,000 people in 1990. If you look hard enough, you’ll find the dot in northwest Mississippi, near the Arkansas border. Shane Matthews was born there but moved to Pascagoula on the gulf coast his junior year in high school, so he claims both places. So you have to drill down a bit to find his roots — just like you had to in order find Shane Matthews on Florida’s offensive depth chart heading into the 1990 season.

Like Cleveland, Matthews didn’t have much size to him. When he came into Florida as a freshman in 1989, he weighed all of 165 pounds.

But if athletes like Shane Matthews started listening to their naysayers and stopped playing sports because their rise to stardom looked too difficult, we wouldn’t have the stories of Rudy Ruettiger, Kurt Warner or Kyle Trask.

We also wouldn’t have the story of Shane Matthews. And without him, Florida football might be much different than it is today.

To call him the sixth-string quarterback might have been a stretch. If college football teams had camp arms, that might have been a better term for the Mississippi native.

For Matthews, his time at practice was spent with the tight ends.

While first-year head coach and offensive sparkplug Steve Spurrier coached the quarterbacks, Matthews got some of his early direction from tight ends coach John Reaves.

And while the pairing initially seemed pointless for the aspiring SEC quarterback, things eventually started taking shape.

Reaves, an All-American quarterback himself at UF from 1969-1971, began to see the same gunslinger that threw for over 3,500 yards in just two years at Pascagoula High School. But this time, in the Orange and Blue.

Shane's father, Bill Matthews, who coached football at Delta State,’doubled as dad an coach at Pascagoula High School. Courtesy of Biloxi Sun Herald

In the spring of 1990, Florida was set to hold its spring game in Jacksonville while Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was undergoing renovations.

“John Reaves was the head coach of the orange team,” Matthews remembers. “He got first pick … and he picked me.”

A few decent performances from Matthews during in-practice scrimmages ahead of the spring game spared Reaves of any criticism.

And once in Jacksonville, all but one quarterback on the roster struggled.

Tickled pink was John Reaves, who watched his first pick torch Florida’s championship-caliber defense.

Like any program with a new head coach, there were plenty of questions to be asked in the preseason – particularly, but unsurprisingly about who would start under center for the Gators. Surely most had heard about what took place during the spring game, but certainly that didn’t mean Spurrier would start a quarterback that had never taken a snap in a game.

Coy, as usual, Spurrier had previously told the media that he didn’t know who would start for Florida. But whoever it was, they’d lead the SEC in passing that year.

Whether Spurrier’s prophecy hinged on the confidence in his play-calling or the actual talents of his starting quarterback, I couldn’t tell you. But it didn’t much matter.

“I was accurate, had good anticipation… all the stuff that Coach Spurrier wanted out of his quarterbacks,” Matthews says of his spring game performance. “And next thing I know, Coach Spurrier named me the starter.”

After Spurrier named Matthews shortly after the spring game in 1990, many believed Spurrier’s prediction to be as good as gone.

"No one else can say that they were Spurrier's first quarterback, so that's cool," Matthews says. Courtesy of AP

Gator boosters weren’t thrilled that someone as inexperienced as Matthews was Spurrier’s idea of changing the culture of a football program.

But it wouldn’t take long for them to get over it.

The Gators were set to host the Oklahoma State Cowboys, who were 1-0, in Spurrier and Matthew’s first start.

Seventy-five yards in 75 seconds. Spurrier, Matthews and the Fun-n-Gun had made landfall.

“We didn’t really know much about Shane and their offense,” OSU head coach Pat Jones said after the game. “We watched some Duke films from last year, but that was probably misleading.”

In his collegiate debut, Matthews went 20-for-29 for 332 yards. But more importantly, his opening performance, which led the Gators to a 50-7 victory, eased Gator Nation’s anxiety.

Florida’s thumping of OSU was impressive. But if Matthews really wanted to garner the trust of the Florida Faithful, he’d have to do it on the road – in one of the most intimidating atmospheres of college football.

Bryant-Denny Stadium, just as it does today, housed one of the most dominate college football teams in the country.

“In my opinion, that is the most important game in Florida football history,” Matthews told GatorBait. “The reason I say that is because there were great teams before 1990, but could never get over the hump for whatever reason. Whether it was winning conference road games or just laying an egg here or there. Playing Alabama with all of their rich tradition at their ball park… and we sputtered around a little bit, but we found a way to win that game on the road. I think that’s the game that kinda caught everyone’s attention and said ‘Florida is that sleeping giant that has woken up.’.”

Florida’s 17-13 win in Tuscaloosa that day was nowhere near as explosive as the one in Gainesville the week prior.

But a gutsy play call and softly thrown ball from UF’s 1-yard line kept Florida’s head above the rising tide.

“I thought he was crazy as hell,” Matthews remembers thinking after the deep post pattern was signaled in. “We hadn’t blocked them all day.”

If not for that 70-yard Matthews-to-Ernie Mills hookup, three Will White interceptions and a punt block returned for a touchdown, the Gators wouldn’t have won the ball game.

But they did. They needed to.

“That’s the one game that stands out to me the most,” Matthews told GatorBait. “Pretty much out of my entire career, because I think that’s the one that laid the foundation for everything that we did from there on.”

From then on, Matthews kept on keeping on.

Matthews, at the helm of Spurrier’s Fun-N-Gun offense, continued to roll through opponents.

By the end of the 1990 season, Matthews had shattered passing records at Florida with 2,952 passing yards and 23 touchdowns. After leading the Gators to a 9-2 (6-1 SEC) record, Matthews led the league in passing and was named SEC Player of the Year – just as Spurrier had prophesized of his quarterback.

Matthews, on the coattails of a SEC Player of the Year recognition, continued to torch defenses.

Finishing 10-2 (7-0 SEC) in ’91, Florida avenged it’s lone SEC loss from the year prior with a 35-18 win over the Tennessee Volunteers. Florida’s perfect record over SEC opponents earned it its first ever conference title.

In 1991, Matthews threw for 3,130 yards, 28 touchdowns and maintained a 60.4 completion percentage – all of which led the SEC for the second consecutive season.

After all, airing the football out as much as Florida’s offense did was unheard of in the SEC.

“Before Spurrier got into the Southeastern Conference, it was mostly a running league … with the Bo Jacksons, the Herschel Walkers, Emmitts… those type of players,” Matthews says. “And he comes in throwing it all over the place. It was just fun to play in. We actually had fun in meetings, we had fun on the practice field.”

Meanwhile, high school prospects around the country were taking notice of all the fun being had in Gainesville.

Guys like Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green, Jabar Gaffney and all of these other skill players wanted to come to Gainesville and play for Spurrier and be a part of his play style, Matthew explains.

If not for all the fun Matthews had in the Fun-N-Gun, the commitments of skill players like Emmitt Smith are all but guaranteed. Courtesy of Matthews' Twitter

The same went for the quarterbacks who watched Spurrier and Matthews coexist in a state of offensive combustion.

In his senior year, Matthews was not only grieving his mother’s lost battle to breast cancer, but he was also dealing with a talent-depleted roster in ‘92.

“It was the most disappointing year of my three years of playing,” Matthews told GatorBait. “Just because we lost more games.”

The 1992 season also marked the first year that the SEC was split into East and West divisions.

Florida finished the 1992 regular season 8-3 (6-2 SEC). But despite a pedestrian record, the Gators slid into the inaugural SEC Championship game thanks to a head-to-head victory over Georgia, who also had a 6-2 conference record, and Tennessee’s three-game skid in October.

“Not a very good football team at all,” Matthews says of the scrappy 1992 Florida squad. “Playing an outstanding football team.”

Just like in week two of 1990, Matthews had an opportunity to prove himself against college football prowess, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Florida ended up losing the contest, despite Matthews believing the Gators were the better team.

After trading scores all game, a poor decision on Matthews’ part took the Gators out of position to win the ball game – but maybe it was best that way.

“We had them on the ropes and I made a bad decision there at the end trying to win us the ball game,” Matthews said of the now-famous Antonio Langham interception. “And that’s the play that changed college football.” (Matthews wouldn’t say it, but Coach Steve Spurrier commented that one of the receivers may have run a wrong route, as well.)

The 1992 SEC Championship game marked the first-ever conference championship game amongst all college football conferences.

“If we were to beat the No. 1 team in America (Alabama) playing an extra game, and knocking them out of a chance to play for the national title, there would have been no more conference championship games,” Matthews explains. “It sucks that I threw the interception and that we lost because I would have loved to win the SEC that year, but in hindsight, it was good for college football that I made that mistake.”

Following his career at Florida, Matthews was projected to be the third quarterback drafted behind Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer.

A third or fourth round prediction turned into a sixth or seventh round prediction. And then a sixth or seventh round prediction turned into an undrafted free agent.

Once again, Matthews found himself buried. But this time, he didn’t have five guys in front of him.

This time he had as many as 224 guys in front of him.

Matthews eventually signed with the Chicago Bears, where he remained the backup for four seasons, followed by a two-year stint with the Carolina Panthers in ’97 and ’98.

In 1999, however, Matthews returned to Chicago for his best season in the big leagues.

Matthews' second stop in Chicago proved much more fruitful than his first. Courtesy of Chicago Bears' Twitter

Just when Matthews’ career in the NFL began to come to fruition, the former Gator suffered a severely pulled hamstring five games into the 1999 season. Following the injury, Matthews was unable to pick up where he left off and never quite found long term success in the NFL.

“Somehow I lasted 14 years,” Matthews reflects. “Mostly because of my mind. I was a good teammate, but I can learn an offense in less than an hour… I never studied my playbook one day in my entire life. So that probably helped me because coaches knew they could count on me.”

Holding a clipboard helped Shane develop a “coaching mentality,” something that came naturally for Matthews, whose dad coached him through high school.

And once the 14-season NFL veteran had wrapped up his playing career and settled down with his family in Gainesville, it was no surprise that he’d end up trying his hand in coaching.

What started as coaching his son Luke’s flag football, baseball and basketball teams eventually turned into a high school coaching career.

Ryan McGriff, who walked on at UF, was coached by Matthews at Gainesville High in 2011. Courtesy of Brad McClenny/Gainesville Sun

“I love coaching high school ball,” Matthews says. “I was fortunate here in Gainesville to coach at both Buchholz and Gainesville High, who both had good quarterbacks. And that makes a difference.”

At 50 years old, Matthews sits in his Newberry home and occasionally thinks about what could’ve been had he forfeited those 14 years in the NFL.

“I always wanted to be a college football coach,” Matthews told GatorBait. “I had talked a bunch to coach Spurrier about being a college coach while I was playing … But by the time I had retired, I was 36 years old. I wanted to be able to see my son’s games and my daughter’s dance recitals. And if you’re a college coach, you don’t get to do that… you’re too busy.”

Now, though he is empty nested, Matthews would face an uphill battle to get into the world of college coaching.

In January, Matthews launched his popup daily podcast, “Pod Up With Matthews in The Morning.”

Matthews' show can be heard each morning on Facebook and Youtube.

Matthews has dabbled in the broadcast space in the past couple of years, including co-host gigs with ESPN Gainesville’s Steve Russell.

Through seven months of daily broadcasts, Matthews has welcomed Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel, Jack Youngblood and many, many others who are revered by Gator fans.

Spurrier and Weurffel both yield bronze statues outside of The Swamp to commemorate them winning the Heisman Trophy.

But one could very well make the argument that Spurrier could be standing alone outside of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium if not for Shane Matthews, who started it all.

It was hard to find him on the depth chart in 1990, but 30 years later, it shouldn’t be as hard to remember him. Because without him, Florida football’s success might not be where it is today.

Florida fans owe a lot to the lanky kid from that tiny dot on the map, Cleveland, Mississippi – the unsung hero of Florida football.

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