Past Peach Bowl trips fruitless for Gators

Florida quarterback Chris Leak (12) scrambles away from Miami's Bryan Pata, lower right, during the first half of the 2004 Peach Bowl in Atlanta. [John Amis/Associated Press]

Florida has had some memorable trips to Atlanta — winning football and basketball championships there — but the Peach Bowl has been another matter.

Florida will be playing in its third Peach Bowl on Saturday and to say the other two didn’t go well would be an understatement. In fact, the games could be the title of a Bravo show.


The buildup

1981 — Some of Florida’s players voted to go to the Empire State Bowl. Some voted not to go anywhere. Florida coach Charley Pell told them to vote again.

“Charley wanted to go to Atlanta, I guess for recruiting,” said quarterback Bob Hewko.

Starting quarterback Wayne Peace said there were players on the team who were “just tired of football” that year.

“Let’s just end this thing,” he said.

Instead, in a close vote by the seniors the next night, the Peach Bowl was the winner.

2004 — The Gators had an emotional season. Ron Zook was fired midway through the season, but coached through a win at FSU. He would not be around for the bowl game, instead taking a job at Illinois.

“It was very emotional,” said quarterback Chris Leak. “We loved Coach Zook and we had a new coach coming in after the bowl with a new staff. I was thinking about going to play for him. There were even a couple of walk-ons who wanted to do a protest.”

At least one coach on the Zook staff didn’t want to coach in the game and only agreed to when it was pointed out his contract was not completed. During practices both in Gainesville and Atlanta, some assistants who would join Zook after the game wore “Illinois” shorts to practice.

The opponent

1981 — West Virginia came in with an 8-3 record, but was unranked. The Mountaineers, coached by legendary Don Nehlen, had two losses to top-five teams, but had finished with a loss to Syracuse.

“They had Darryl Talley (who went on to play in four Super Bowls with Buffalo),” said tight end Mike Mularkey. “I remember that.”

They were also quarterbacked by Oliver Luck, the current XFL commissioner and father of Andrew Luck of the Colts.

2004 — The Gators would face Miami, which came in ranked 14th, in a battle of rivals.

“We had a great crowd there, but it was strange to be playing an in-state rival,” Leak said. “They had beaten us my freshman year and I kept thinking about that. That was part of the emotions of the game.”

The game

1981 — Florida could do nothing on offense and West Virginia prevailed 26-6. Florida’s only score came late in the game when Hewko, the back-up to Peace, hit Mularkey from 22 yards out.

“I saw Coach Pell in the elevator going to the game and told him it as my kind of weather because I’m from Pennsylvania,” Hewko said. “But he waited until the end.”

Florida managed only 105 total yards in the slop of Fulton-County Stadium thanks to minus-30 yards rushing.

“It was cold and wet,” said Mularkey. “It was the worst conditions I ever played in. It was so bad, the next year we got invited back and the seniors voted against it.”

2004 — The Gators were missing their special teams expert in Zook and it showed. The Gators had a field goal try to take the lead but it was blocked and returned 78 yards for a score by Devin Hester.

Later in the game, Miami’s Roscoe Parrish returned a punt 72 yards for a score. Miami won 27-10 despite the fact Florida outgained the Hurricanes 406-277.

The Gators had eight penalties and Leak threw a pair of interceptions.

“So many things could have gone better,” Leak said. “We were used to putting up 30-plus points a game. We were undefeated at Bobby Bowden Field, but we couldn’t get the Hurricanes.”

Former UF quarterback Brock Berlin threw for 171 yards and a touchdown for Miami.

The aftermath

1981 — The following spring, Pell gathered the team at the entrance of the practice field.

“He had the rising juniors rip the tape off the reels and the rising seniors bury it in a hole,” Peace said. “And the next day, he had a big rock put on top of the hole. He told us we had to touch it every day to remind us we could never play like that again.”

Said Hewko, “I bet that tape is still out there. Someone should dig it up like Geraldo Rivera after Al Capone’s vault.”

2004 — Urban Meyer arrived at Florida and started changing the culture immediately. He kicked the players out of the locker room and forbid them from wearing Gator gear to work out.

The process continued throughout the season. After a late-season loss to South Carolina, Meyer booted a pair of players off the team on the tarmac at the Gainesville airport.

The next year, Florida won the national championship.


  1. That 1981 game was cold and nasty. I remember getting a flat tire near the stadium earlier in the day.
    Like all good gator fans we won the battle of insults that day against their fans, but no one does that sort of thing anymore.

  2. I was at the 2004 game thankfully in the Georgia Dome…and recall the Peach Bowl historically having horrible weather in the past although I don’t recall the 81 bowl. I lived in Atlanta for about 15 years and this time of year can bring that cold dreary rain as the norm. The 2004 game was a weird game…and for some reason Ciatrick Fason did not get the touches he should have…oh well, let’s make new memories with CDM.