Making noise and taking bows
Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 1:01 a.m.
For a school that went so long without winning any national championships, the University of Florida has learned in a hurry how to celebrate them.
The Gators showed again Saturday they know how to throw quite a party.
Ten years after Steve Spurrier's team won the school's first national title in football, and nine months after Billy Donovan's basketball Gators were celebrated for winning that program's first national championship, the Gator Nation came together again in The Swamp on a warm January afternoon to honor the 2006 Gators for their 41-14 victory over Ohio State on Monday night in the BCS National Championship Game.
"That was awesome," UF coach Urban Meyer said.
In an emotional one-hour ceremony that saw players and coaches choking back tears and kept an crowd of 70,000 - according to UF sports information director Steve McClain - cheering and on its feet, it was a real blast from the past that rated the highlight of the afternoon.
It came near the end, when former Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel, the quarterback on the 1996 national championship team, strode onto the stage and congratulated the 2006 team. Then, he presented the MVP trophy from Monday night's game to senior quarterback Chris Leak.
Wuerffel was a surprise guest. "It's great today to be a Florida Gator," Wuerffel told a captivated audience. "As a former player with an opportunity to represent all the players for the last 100 years in congratulating this team, and especially as a member of the 1996 national championship - congratulations.
"That was one of the most dominant football games I've ever seen. I've seen a lot of dominating football games. I've been in a few. Just ask FSU (which the Gators routed 52-20 in the 1996 title game in the Sugar Bowl). Congratulations to this team and to coach Meyer. We're so glad to have you as our coach. It's great to be a Gator."
Wuerffel's comments sparked one of many standing ovations. The fans then amped it up even higher when Wuerffel presented the MVP trophy to Leak, the once-beleaguered quarterback who drew the loudest ovations throughout the day.
"He's gone through a lot of highs and lows, a lot of adversity," Wuerffel said of Leak. "He handled it with so much poise and pride. I have admiration for him.
"In the history of Florida football there have been some incredible quarterbacks who have played on this field. He'll become the second to wear the national championship ring."
Leak fought back tears as he addressed the crowd.
"I can't say enough about the appreciation we have for all the fans, our families and everyone else who helped us get to this point," Leak said. "Even with this award, my greatest accomplishment I've ever made here is to graduate as a Gator.
"I can't say enough about my teammates. They've been through so much and fought through so many things. They're warriors, road warriors, and they're defenders of The Swamp. Once a Gator, always a Gator."
The Gators suffered five-loss seasons in each of Leak's first two years (2003-04) at UF under Ron Zook. Since Meyer took over after the 2004 season, Florida is undefeated at home and won the school's first SEC title since 2001.
On Saturday, the Gators and their fans celebrated being national champions again for the first time in 10 years.
"I think it really sunk in today that we're national champions," senior defensive tackle Ray McDonald said. "I was just trying to enjoy the moment and the feeling. We appreciate our fans coming out and showing their support. They've been doing it all year.
"It's just been a real exciting year for us and it was real exciting today. We went out as coaches and teammates for the last time today. It's been a real exciting day."
UF fans were eager to show their appreciation for this team, with many starting to fill the east and west stands two hours before the start of the ceremony. While the crowd waited for the appearance of the Gators, a replay of Monday night's game was being shown on the two jumbo screens high atop each end zone.
The fans cheered each positive play, each touchdown.
But the real noise came when the team ran out of the visitor's tunnel shortly after noon.
"(The experience) is overwhelming," Leak said afterward. "At the same time, it's a big relief because you put so much heart, so much hard work into getting to this point.
"Being out there with my teammates and coaches . . . I'm real appreciative of them. I just feel real blessed. The Lord could not have put me in a better situation. It's a great feeling. It was a very emotional day. I'm just trying to take everything in. There are thousands and thousands of athletes who don't get to have this feeling. I'm very blessed."
After the UF basketball team won the national title in April, forward Joakim Noah challenged the football team, saying it was their turn to win a national championship.
McDonald said the football players have gotten back to Noah on that this week.
"We thanked (the basketball players) for setting the tone for us," McDonald said. "We felt we had to get one (a national championship). They're probably going to get another one this season. We told them they now have to outdo us. They have to set the tone again."
The tone is winning championships.
Florida is the only school in NCAA history to hold national championships in both basketball and football in the same calendar year.
On the day the Gators were celebrating the national championship, Meyer was working his cell phone, sending text messages to recruits (four recruits also were in attendance).
"I've told (recruits), if there's a better place, tell me and I'm going to go with you," Meyer said. "I can't imagine a better place, especially right now."
As for next year's team, junior free safety Reggie Nelson confirmed to members of the media that he will leave for the NFL as expected. He will join defensive end Jarvis Moss and cornerback Ryan Smith in forgoing their senior seasons. Junior wide receiver Andre Caldwell has said he will return.
Junior middle linebacker Brandon Siler has not indicated what he will do. The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is Monday.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 374-5022 or andreur@
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