TEN THINGS THAT MAKE ME THINK WHAT IF?
(1) What if Ara Parseghian had succeeded Bob Woodruff?
Before Ray Graves was offered the Florida job, UF president Dr. J. Wayne Reitz had his eye on Ara Parseghian who was turning Northwestern from Big Ten dormat into a respectable football program. At Miami (OH), Ara had gone 36-9-1. In his first two seasons at Northwestern, the Wildcats were 4-13-1 including an 0-9 1957, but then came a 5-4 1958 and a 6-3 1959 which included a 45-13 thrashing of Bud Wilkinson and Oklahoma. Dr. Reitz had at the top of his list Parseghian and Delaware coach Davey Nelson, who was highly recommended by General Bob Neyland, who served on the NCAA rules committee with Nelson. Nelson turned him down and Reitz almost had a deal with Parseghian, but Northwestern, sensing it might challenge for the Big Ten title in the next two years, gave Parseghian a raise and made promises to upgrade facilities as well as give his assistant coaches raises. Northwestern never won the Big Ten, but that didn’t stop Notre Dame from hiring him in 1964. Parseghian went 95-17-4 at Notre Dame. Would he have had that kind of success at UF where it would have been easier to recruit than at academic blueblood Northwestern? Meanwhile, at Florida, Dr. Reitz turned to Bobby Dodd, who recommended his defensive coordinator Ray Graves. Graves took the job for the enormous sum of $19,000 a year, which was actually a pay cut from what he was making at Tech, but it was, after all, a head coaching job. Under Graves, Florida emerged from the dark ages, went 70-31-4 over the next 10 years and took the Gators to five bowl games.
(2) What if Gene Ellenson had succeeded Ray Graves?
Coach Ellenson was offered the Georgia job back in 1964, but upon receiving promises that he would be the successor when Ray Graves retired, he elected to stay on at Florida. Ellenson was a brilliant defensive coordinator but every bit as important, he was the heart and soul of the team. His pregame speeches were legendary and some of his motivational tactics such as the hatchet in the crown of the helmet with a note “We’re going to kill your quarterback” that was allegedly signed by the FSU defense (Florida won the game 9-3) were the things legends are made of. I have to believe that Gene Ellenson would have been the right coach to take the Gators to even greater heights than Coach Graves. He was a decorated war hero (two silver stars pinned on his chest by General Patton during the Battle of the Bulge) who people trusted instantly. I believe he would have hired the right assistants and would have brought about an integrated Florida football program as fast or faster than Doug Dickey.
(3) What if Lou Holtz had said yes when offered the job after Doug Dickey was fired?
When Douglas Adair Dickey was fired after a 4-7 season in 1978, at the top of Florida’s wish list was Lou Holtz, who was not exactly the happiest of campers with Frank Broyles constantly looking over his shoulder at Arkansas. Holtz had been at Arkansas two years (20-3-1 record) but he was looking and Florida had long intrigued him. Holtz had conversations with the Florida administration but didn’t get a definitive offer. This was the days before cell phones, so when Florida did decide to make the offer, Holtz couldn’t be reached. So, there was no official offer made. Holtz went on to go 40-18-1 in the next five years at Arkansas but he only tied for the Southwest Conference title one time. The problem at Arkansas was the same one everybody has – recruiting to Fayette Nam. It’s not exactly the garden spot of the earth and it’s not the easiest place to recruit to. At Florida, he certainly would have recruited well and in those days, Holtz offenses were wide open. He would have inspired the masses. With Holtz in the rearview, Florida turned to Charley Pell, who had turned Clemson into a powerhouse in a short time.
(4) What if UF had stood by Charley Pell and weathered the NCAA storm?
Florida got hit hard by NCAA sanctions in 1984. Thinking it would ease sanctions, UF offered to fire Pell. UF was NOT going to get the death penalty. That didn’t happen until 1987 when SMU got caught cheating for the third time in a decade (1981 and 1985 were the other two times). Other schools stood by their coaches: Oklahoma stood by Barry Switzer in 1973; Clemson stood by Danny Ford in 1982; Texas A&M stood by Bear Bryant in 1957 and by Emory Bellard in 1977 (he was fired for losing in 1978, not for cheating); Georgia stood by Vince Dooley in 1978, 1982 and 1985; Kentucky stood by Fran Curci in 1977; Southern Cal stuck by John Robinson in 1982 … and so on. Even with the sanctions and scholarship limitations, I don’t think Florida football would have slipped nearly as far as it did if Pell had remained the coach. For all practical purposes, he left behind an NFL team in 1984-85. He was the master recruiter (not all the violations were heinous … see Dale Dorminey and the violation for him getting a pack of Juicy Fruit and a Sprite) and Florida would have still gotten the better players in the state. With Pell gone, Miami and FSU cleaned up.
(5) What if Bill Arnsparger had his way and had hired Mike Archer?
Athletic director Bill Arnsparger did not want Steve Spurrier as its head coach. It was only after having his thinking “nudged” a bit by Ben Hill Griffin that he came around to hiring Steve Spurrier. Arnsparger wanted Mike Archer, who succeeded him at LSU. Under Archer, LSU went from 10-1-1 to 4-7 in 1989, yet that’s who Archer wanted. After a 5-6 in 1990, LSU fired Archer. I have to think Florida would have been sent back into the football dark ages under Archer. Good assistant. Horrible head coach.
(6) What if Steve Spurrier had elected to stay rather than leave for the NFL?
I’m of the opinion that if Spurrier had stayed, Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell and Lito Sheppard would have stayed another year rather than bolt to the NFL. I’m also of the opinion that the Heisman Rex Grossman was denied in 2001, he would have won it in 2002 with Spurrier calling the plays. In Spurrier’s 12 years at UF, the Gators won 10 or more games all but three seasons. I have no doubt the 2002 Gators would have won the SEC championship. Beyond that, I think the trend of nine or more wins would have continued.
(7) What if Ron Zook had been able to hire the people he wanted?
Zooker did NOT want to hire Ed Zaunbrecher as his offensive coordinator. He wanted Larry Fedora, but was told that Fedora didn’t have enough experience (he was at Middle Tennessee State). Zaunbrecher changed UF from a vertical passing game into one in which the bubble screen was king. Basically, he turned Rex Grossman into a pedestrian QB. There were other assistants that Zooker wanted to hire but for a variety of reasons (money for one thing) wasn’t allowed to hire. Would that have made a difference for a head coach who was learning on the job?
(8) What if Zooker (a) didn’t have the frat house incident and (b) hadn’t lost to Mississippi State?
The frat house incident really was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but there was no way UF president Bernie Machen was going to fire Zooker after that. If he had, it would have sent a signal to every frat house out there that you can get a coach fired if you provoke him enough. Zooker was basically dead man walking right then but he lost to Mississippi State in Starkville, 38-31, and that was the excuse needed to fire him. Had he won that game, UF would have been 6-2 with the only losses by two points to Tennessee in Knoxville and three to LSU. Zooker was fired on the Monday before the Georgia game. Florida lost that one 31-24 and I have to believe the Gators would have won if not for the distraction of Zook being fired. If – a lot of ifs here – he hadn’t lost to MSU and then beaten Georgia, would UF have fired Ron Zook?
(9) What if Cam Newton had stayed out of trouble and hadn’t transferred to a juco?
Cam Newton’s problems were bigger than academic. Although he was initially charged with stealing a laptop, he actually had bought it hot and knew it was stolen when he bought it. A deal was made with the state attorney that if Newton turned in the computer and fingered the thief, he would get off with probation. When police arrived at his dorm, Newton panicked and tossed the computer into a dumpster below his window. The academic problems compounded things so he transferred out and went to Blinn College in Texas where he won a juco national title and then to Auburn in 2010 where he led the Tigers to a national title while winning the Heisman. Had he stayed at UF and out of trouble, he would have used the 2008 as a redshirt and would have been eligible in 2009. With Tebow gone after the 2009 season, Newton would have had a good enough UF roster to win the SEC East and perhaps the SEC title in 2010. Urban might not have retired and the wheels might not have come off the UF program.
(10) What if Jeremy Foley had hired Dan Mullen after Urban resigned after the 2010 season?
Mullen went a surprising 5-7 his first year at Mississippi State (2009), then pulled off a shocker by going 9-4 in 2010. When Meyer decided to hang up his whistle (temporarily it turned out), Foley could have hired Mullen, who would have been a good fit since he spent five years recruiting the state and already knew the UF culture. Instead, Foley zeroed in immediately on Will Muschamp, who was the head coach in waiting at Texas. Like Ron Zook, Muschamp had never been a head coach before so it was on-the-job training. I have no doubt that Muschamp is a good man and is going to prove himself to be a very good head football coach, but he needed experience and didn’t have it. While Mullen only had two years of head coaching experience, he had turned Mississippi State around and ended up taking MSU to eight straight bowl games before he got the call from Scott Stricklin to take over UF after the 2018 season. I don’t doubt for a second Dan would have been wildly successful at UF had he gotten the job back in 2011. I don’t think for a nanosecond that Georgia would be dominating the SEC East if Mullen had gotten the job back then.