The first DB of DBU

Former UF All-American Tannen living a charmed, colorful life

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Former UF All-American defensive back and New York Jets player Steve Tannen has retired in Gainesville. [Alan Youngblood/Gainesville Sun]

The former All-American was at the bar at Ironwood Golf Course, spinning stories.

Nearing 70, former Florida standout Steve Tannen can weave stories ranging from blocking a punt in the Gator Bowl to hanging out with Joe Namath to being on the set of the A-Team with George Peppard and Mr. T.

Tannen, who returned to Gainesville to retire in 2012, is still living a colorful life, back where he starred as a defensive back at Florida under Ray Graves from 1967-69. Before there was Vernon Hargreaves, before Quincy Wilson and Joe Haden and even Lito Sheppard, there was Tannen, one of the first great defensive backs in Florida history.

In three years on the varsity (freshmen were only allowed to play on the scout team in the 1960s), Tannen had 11 career interceptions, was an All-SEC first-team selection in 1968, and in 1969 earned first-team All-American honors. In 1969, Tannen helped lead UF to a 9-1-1 record, the best in school history to that point. In his final college game, Tannen blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in UF’s 14-13 upset of Tennessee in the 1969 Gator Bowl.

“We had a really good group of people and quite frankly, football wasn’t such a big deal,” Tannen said. “Now in the 1960s, football was a great sport and everybody loved it but it didn’t come with all the machination that they have now, money and agents and publicity.”

A hard hitter

Tannen’s post-football life — as an actor, an artist, a carpenter and a teacher — all fit into his creative, jovial personality. But make no mistake. On the field, Tannen was a fierce competitor and hard hitter. Former Florida receiver Carlos Alvarez was on the scout team as a freshman in 1968. During Florida State week that season, Alvarez had to mimic Ron Sellers, a Seminole receiver who had a penchant for going over the middle of the field.

“That was the toughest week of my Florida career,” Alvarez said. “Taking those hits from Steve Tannen.”

Tannen said he hasn’t seen much change in terms of how defensive backs play compared to when he played in the 1960s. At 6-foot-1, Tannen was a taller, rangier cornerback, who ran the 40 in 4.55 seconds and was a champion high hurdler at Miami Southwest High.

“A little bit more press coverage,” Tannen said. “When I played, we called it bump and run. So they do that more. The size of the defensive backs in college at least seems to have not changed a whole heckuva lot since I played. Some of the pros are a little bit bigger, taller and heavier. But the rest of the positions have all changed, the receivers, the linemen, everybody is twice as big as they were and can’t play a whole game.”

One aspect that has changed is stricter rules about hitting receivers over the middle. In 2016, the SEC adopted a targeting rule that included player ejections for defensive players who hit “defenseless” receivers above the neck and shoulder area. In Tannen’s day, receivers thought twice about running routes over the middle of the field because of those higher hits.

“The game of football is about hitting somebody,” Tannen said. “If you try to outsmart them the chances are you are going to lose. To me, the people that hit harder, you block better, you tackle better, 90 percent, 95 percent of the time you win.

“I think the rule change is a good one but I also think there has to be some kind of understanding about a split-second decision. You go to hit somebody with your shoulder and they happen to spin in the air or move or do something and you end up hitting him in the head. I mean, it’s unfortunate but it’s accidental and I think that it’s hard to legislate that.”

From NFL to acting

Tannen was a first-round pick of the New York Jets in the 1970 NFL draft, joining the team the year of the AFL-NFL merger and a year after the Jets won Super Bowl III. He played in the first-ever NFL Monday Night Football game between the Jets and Cleveland Browns.

The Jets played at Shea Stadium in the early 1970s, and during the first six weeks of the season, while the Mets were finishing the baseball season, the Jets trained at Rikers Island, which was also home to New York City’s Jail. Tannen recalled a prison band greeting the team for practices. Once, then Jets coach Weeb Ewbank allowed one of the inmates to race against the Jets fastest player at the time.

“That guy was running in his underwear and our guy was running in pads and our guy beat him but it was funny,” Tannen said. “It was really interesting.”

Tannen said he developed a friendship with Namath. While most of the players lived on Long Island, both Tannen and Namath lived in Manhattan and the two would commute in together for practice. By then, Namath was a star for not just leading the Jets to a win as quarterback in Super Bowl III, but for his marquee appeal and charisma off the field as well.

“He was preceded by his reputation,” Tannen said. “I couldn’t say there was much magnetism that I could see except everybody treated him a certain way. Everybody loved the guy and fell over backwards to do what they could to endear themselves to him.”

Tannen’s pro career was cut short by a string of shoulder injuries, but in five seasons, Tannen still finished with 12 career interceptions in 61 games. By then, though, Tannen had began taking acting classes in New York City. In Tannen’s first role, in a mob movie, he was asked by the director if he could run fast and fall down. “I told him, I used to do that for a living,” Tannen said. In the scene, before the credits rolled, Tannen was gunned down while running through a garbage dump on City Island in New York City, “That’s how I got my SAG card,” Tannen said.

Tannen then moved to California to pursue acting full-time. His IMBD credits include roles in 19 movies and TV shows ranging from 1977 to 2007. In the ’70s hit TV show Baretta, Tannen played a bad guy and got his nose bloodied while being thrown up against a wall by actor Robert Blake. He was a sergeant on two A-Team episodes. One of his favorite roles was playing Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Hanratty in the 1980 made-for-TV movie, “Fighting Back, The Story of Rocky Bleier.”

“I was never a star, by any means or imagination, but I was able to get a bunch of jobs,” Tannen said.

Tannen didn’t just act during his time in Southern California. He illustrated children’s books, had artwork showcased in galleries, helped coach high school football, worked in construction and spent his final years in California teaching carpentry and math at Los Angeles Technical College.

“Of all the things I did, that was the most closely associated with my psyche I guess.” Tannen said. “I really enjoyed teaching only if it was for a very short time.”

Still a competitor

In retirement, Tannen has stayed active. Until a recent back issue, Tannen was golfing three times a week at Ironwood and riding his bike three times a week.

“My handicap is 15,” said Tannen, who will turn 70 on July 23. “When I was playing in California I probably had it down to between an 8-10 and then I didn’t play for about six or seven years and I started playing again when I came to Gainesville.”

Tannen said he retired to Gainesville to be closer to family. His two sisters, Marsha and Tina, live in North Central Florida, along with his nephew and great nephew. Former UF football coaches Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain both invited Tannen to practices.

“I haven’t met Coach (Dan) Mullen yet, but I’ve been to several of his functions,” Tannen said.

Tannen also said he doesn’t attend Florida football games, preferring to watch games in his air conditioned home.

“I can run back-and-forth and back-and-forth and kind of dissect what’s going on,” Tannen said. “I can’t really do that at the games and I really don’t watch it with anyone else, either, because they don’t know how to watch it the way I like to watch it.”

While Tannen said he could do without some of the showboating in today’s college football (“In our day, if you drew attention to yourself, your teammates would beat you up,” Tannen said), he takes some amount of pride in being the precursor for UF’s current “DBU” moniker. In the last 18 years, Florida has sent 22 defensive backs to the NFL, with several going on to long, productive careers.

“I don’t know what the numbers, but it just seems like over the several years Florida has had one or two really good defensive backs, so I’m happy for that,” Tannen said. “I don’t think I’ve had anything to do with that, but I’m happy to be a part of it.”

 

24 COMMENTS

  1. I had the pleasure of watching Steve Tannen his junior and senior years. In 1968 the Gators quickly climbed to 4th ranked nationally before a 22-7 loss at North Carolina in heavy rain and in a muddy field. Injuries took care of dashing the rest of the hopes. But Tannen, Jack Youngblood and a trim linebacker, David Ghesquire, stood out.

    In ‘69 Tannen was matched one-on-one against Houston wide receiver star Elmo Wright in our 59-34 upset win. They were two of the most dominating players in the country. Amid the offensive explosion, including the amazing John Reaves to Carlos Alvarez debut and 70-yard TD on the game’s third play from scrimmage, the Tannen vs Wright battle remains a vivid memory. Steve Tannen was so talented and bright that he would be a star at DBU today, as well. Thanks for catching us up on one of the best ever.

  2. I was a jr. high school kid but remember selling cokes at the games and watching Tannen, Reeves, Alvarez, Youngblood and the boys lighting up the field. Exciting times of good football; never quite got to the top but a lot of fun trying. Great to hear that he went on to the Jets for a pro career and was also a successful actor. And Otis Boggs calling the games on the radio – brings a smile to my face!

  3. I caught Gator Fever in ’79 so I didn’t know about Steve Tannen. Thanks Pat for the great column. It is very interesting. He certainly has lived a full life. I hope his back surgery turns out okay. The Gator Nation will be pulling for him.

  4. John Symank was a great Gator halfback in the 50s. Went on to 7 year career as no-holds-barred DB for the Packers.
    He is only 5-11 and at 180 pounds he is the lightest man on this squad. Compared with the others he looks like a baseball infielder, but he is a football player. . . . There is no actor in Symank. He is serious and intense, and in a game he would just as soon break your leg as not. He has made it in this league because he gets a great deal more out of himself than his ability and size justify . . . but John gets the maximum out of himself in every game, and if I had thirty-five others like him I would have a far better team than I have. ”
    — Coach Vince Lombardi, describing Johnny Symank

  5. UF sports were very different back then. No SWAMP at that time. The stadium had open end zones and you could walk into games and sit almost anywhere after halftime (only way I could afford to get into a game back then). Hot and steamy Alligator Alley for basketball games. No baseball stadium that I can remember. Track was a club sport, I believe (Frank Shorter used to train on and around campus). Soccer, no. No tennis teams either. No women’s sports hardly at all. The UF athletic swimming pool was next to Alligator Alley and not much of one. How times have changed since 1969 concerning UF sports and how sports now impact life on and off campuses nationwide. And, Mr. Tannen, get off your lazy butt and go to some games in The Swamp!!!

  6. I must have gotten a piece of the story wrong, anyone correct me if possible.
    I was under the impression is the gators really didn’t do much until 1960, when Ray Graves came along, and what Graves did was create a position for one of the safeties called monster man, in my eleven year old mind, at the time, getting hit by a monster man was like getting run over by a truck or hit by a bullet or some other awful fate.
    I had thought the monster man thing was the real beginning of DBU, and that although Steve Tannen was the greatest of the 1960’s group, there had been a couple of other guys as well. Carlos Alvarez gave us the reminder about Steve Tannen in his comments on an article last week. this article, which has to be right since mr. tannen himself was quoted, says he was a cornerback, not a monster man at all. it does seem to say Mr. Tannen had all the traits of a true “monster man”. I was a little young so forgive any misconceptions.
    And of course I can remember Keith Jackson using the term monster man in different telecasts and of course in Ocala sandlot growing up we would love to call ourselves a monster man or whatever.

    thanks, great article, great info

    • I remember Gator football as pretty much holding its own thru the 50’s, not great but not bad, and my Dad being fanatic anyway as though they were the best of the best. And I became a fanatic too in 1960 when Ray Graves came aboard and I was finally old enough to understand what was going on–really going on–save for the obvious fact that down there on the field were the biggest men I had ever seen in my life. I’ll never forget meeting Bob Wehking on the field after the Ga-Fla game….a giant at probably 250 lbs…compared to Larry Libatore soaking wet at 138 pounds. Or Vic Miranda, Bob Hoover, Bobby Dodd Jr….

      Some good years in the 60’s and 70’s….and the 80’s too for the most part……loved every minute of it even when overseas…..but Gator football didn’t really come into its own until the second coming of SOS. That changed everything from A to Z. Then we went sour with Zook, resurrected with Myer, and couldn’t quite find our way back with Muschamp and Mac. Until now. This is surely the 3rd Gator dynasty, all the signs are in place, and once it gets rolling all we have to do is be smart, play fair, and win-win-win. Is this a great time to be a Gator, or what? I only wish my old man could still be around to see it.

  7. Great article. I spent 1 year at U of F and roomed in Murhree dorm. Tannen was a freshman and roomed just across the hall with a lineman named Wayne Griffith I believe and one other player whose name escapes me. I had a car (when it was running) and remember taking Steve to a burger joint one night to pick up some food. He was quite a character then and I was pleased he did so well in his football career and life in general.

  8. Some affirmations and Amens! The Gators were so-so, won more often than they lost under Bob Woodruff through the 1950s. Meantime, Ray Graves has invented the prototype of modern defense as Bobby Didd’s coordinator at Georgia Tech, a great Florida rival in those days. Graves even authored a book about his 4-3 defense with a monster back.

    In Graves’ 10 years Florida our together it’s best era to date with a Heisman-winning quarterback, stadium expansions and a bunch of All-Americans. Tannen was his best DB but not at all the only one. In the 1950s the Gators had Johnny Symantec and Bernie Parrish, both with NFL careers.

    Tampa’s memory of Gator sports in 1969 is almost clear. The baseball stadium is right where it is today. A friend of mine at the time, Laurie Vidal, was a big back-up first sacker and outfielder. Laurie’s dad owned a pharmacy in town. We had a track team, men’s and women’s tennis and a long history of great golfers. Dave Fuller coached baseball, Buster Bishop golf. Our men’s and women’s swimming teams often dominated, especially against visiting Northern teams forced to compete in our outdoor pool in the dead of winter.

    Lots of great memories.

  9. Track was a club sport? Good God! Florida had the first composit all-weather track. The Florida Relays was the biggest meet in the South! Billy Cannon came to town and won the shot put and the 100 yd. dash. Dave Sime (Christian McCaffery’s grandfather) ran in the Florida Relays before he won the Silver Medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Percy Beard, the Florida Head Coach invented the concrete circle for the shot and discus! Also a Silver Medalist and world record holder in the high hurdles. Gators were always near the top of the SEC. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Beard

  10. I might have to disagree. Bruce Bennett came to Florida as a QB after leading Wright Bazemore’s Valdosta High to two State Champoionships. He was named All American safety by UPI in 1965 and All-SEC in 1964 and 1965. He had 13 interceptions as a Gator including 3 in 1963 as I watched us beat Georgia in a 21-14 victory. ( (Tannen had 11 career interceptions.) Tannen’s pro career was probably more illustrious since he played in the NFL while Bennett played in the CFL garnering many honors including a Grey Cup and All-Pro. It would be an injustice to not consider him on equal footing with Tanner. Both Gator Greats and the cornerstones of DBU.

  11. thanks guys for the info on the earlier years players. Its fair to say that we have one @#** of a tradition at defensive back, and defense in general, and of course we’ve had some incredible offenses too. I like our future, and conversations like today remind me how lucky we are to be gators.

  12. Track was NOT a club sport. We competed in the SEC and nationally. It was varsity. Carlis Alvarez damaged his knee as a member of our track team. I went to a meet at UF while a student. We did have a wrestling team, too, that was eliminated due to a Title 9 to reduce the number of scholarships for men so they could balance with new scholarships for women. That marked the advent of women’s golf, probably women’s tennis and maybe women’s track, eomen’s basketball and eventually softball.

  13. Thanks, Veal, for highlighting Bruce Bennett, a great All-American from the Spurrier teams. Graves’ Gators has seven guys make All-American in those three years. Another DB of note in that era was Hagood Clark, pronounced hay-good.

  14. I would like to add a side note to the 1963 game with Georgia. Even though Bennett picked off three passes the true hero of the game was Larry Dupree from Baker County. Thursday night before the game Larry’s wife gave birth to their first child a stillborn baby girl. Larry did not travel with the team to Jacksonville on Friday but after staying up all night Friday grieving over the loss of their first child and with his wife’s blessing was escorted by the FHP to Jacksonville for the game ( I can’t remember if he actually made it in time for the kickoff). He went on to rush for over 70 yards, scored a touchdown and had a 70 yard run called back because he allegedly stepped out on the 40. It was one of the most remarkable and courageous performances ever by any Gator player.