JACKSONVILLE — The 25th TaxSlayer Gator Bowl was significant in several ways.
Mainly, it was the precursor to a changing of the guard that impacted the fortunes of the University of Florida and University of Tennessee for years.
When Tennessee (7-5) and Indiana (8-4) kick off on Thursday in the 75th Gator Bowl at TIAA Bank Field, it will be 50 years and five days since the 1969 game in which the Volunteers and coach Doug Dickey lost to his alma mater, the Florida Gators, 14-13.
Two days later, Dickey bolted from Knoxville and accepted the coaching job with the Gators, replacing Ray Graves.
The lure of coaching where you played is strong. Steve Spurrier jumped at the chance and Florida went to heights never before attained. Kirby Smart has turned Georgia fortunes around, though not yet to that success level.
Scott Frost (Nebraska), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) and Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State) are other current examples.
It didn’t work out for Mark Richt (Miami), Matt Luke (Ole Miss) or Barry Odom (Missouri).
But there’s no doubting the powerful pull. After coaching at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, Bear Bryant took the Alabama job because “Mama called.”
“You always have that in the back of your mind when you’re coaching somewhere else,” Dickey said earlier this week before watching Tennessee practice at UNF’s Hodges Stadium. “I think a lot of guys who go into coaching want to eventually return to where they played.”
Dickey also has a long history with the Gator Bowl, in his adopted hometown of Jacksonville.
“Played in this game, coached with three teams in this game and was an athletic director in this game,” he says with considerable pride. “This has always been a big game for the teams who play here and I’m very fortunate to have been involved as much as I have.”
Dickey was a Gator quarterback in 1953 and completed 4 of 5 passes for 65 yards in a 14-13 victory over Tulsa, the Gators first-ever bowl victory.
After serving in the Army, Dickey joined the Arkansas staff under Frank Broyles, and coached in the 1960 Gator Bowl, a 14-7 victory for the Razorbacks over Georgia Tech.
Dickey coached at Tennessee from 1964-69 and won two SEC titles. The second, the year the Volunteers were invited to the Gator Bowl, was the last time the SEC champion played in Jacksonville.
But it’s the 1969 Gator Bowl that carries the most significance for Dickey. In addition to being his third Gator Bowl, it marked a key change in his career.
After the Vols wrapped up the SEC title that year, Dickey began wondering about his next move.
“I had done pretty much everything you could do there,” he said. “Won two SEC titles, was recognized for winning a national championship [in 1967, by Litkenhous] … I was looking forward to another challenge.”
Dickey heard that Graves was planning to retire, and contacted UF president Stephen C. O’Connell a few weeks before the Gator Bowl — which had invited two SEC teams because Florida and Tennessee had not played that season.
Contrary to public belief — and the rumors that swirled throughout game week — Dickey said he was not offered the job on an official basis until two days after the game.
“Nothing was done before the game,” he said.
“We all heard that it was possible coach Dickey would leave,” Fulmer said last month during a visit to Jacksonville. “But I can tell you from personal experience, it’s tough to turn down a chance to coach where you played.”
Dickey said coaches didn’t have agents in those days. All communication was done either on the phone or face-to-face meetings between him and O’Connell.
“We didn’t need an agent to get in the middle of things,” Dickey said.
Dickey went on to compile a 53-48-2 record with the Gators and went 0-4 in bowl games.
“We won a few games, lost a few we would have liked to have had,” he said. “But I was glad for the opportunity.”
He was replaced by Bill Battle, who never came close to Dickey’s success in seven seasons with the Vols. And it wasn’t until Johnny Majors took over in 1985 that UT won another SEC title.
Dickey oversaw the expansion of Neyland Stadium to more than 100,000 seats and the construction of new basketball and baseball facilities before retiring in 2002.
Since moving to Jacksonville, Dickey has spent most of his days enjoying golf at the San Jose Country Club, where he shoots his age (87) or better with frequency.
He said he’s enjoying Gator Bowl week as a fan. Dickey attended a Tennessee practice wearing a hat in Tennessee’s orange with the numbers “1969” on the front and will be one of the many past players and coaches who will appear on game day for an autograph session at Daily’s Place Flex Field and to be honored before the game.
“It will be fun rooting for the Vols,” he said.