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.”