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Steve Spurrier's near-miss Florida football teams remain close to his heart - Whitley

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Steve Spurrier gazed at a framed photo earlier this week. After 30 years, what he saw still looked a little weird.

It’s of him and that year’s Florida football team. They were posing in an end zone after a big road win.

But it wasn’t just any end zone.

“We’re the only team to ever take a team picture after beating Vanderbilt,” Spurrier chuckled.

Celebrating a win over the Commodores usually means you had a year to forget. But Florida will not only remember the 1992 and 1997 teams this weekend. Those oddballs will reunite and be honored at Saturday’s game against South Carolina.

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What made them odd was they didn’t win SEC tiles. Had they managed that, the Gators would have won seven in a row from 1991-97.

“People must think the ’92 and ’97 teams weren’t very good,” Spurrier said.

He’d like to set the record straight.

1992, 1997 UF football teams had great attitudes

Winning the Southeastern Conference isn't everything.

That sounds almost blasphemous to anyone who followed Florida back when “Seinfeld” ruled TV and grunge ruled the radio. Spurrier was on a no-apology tour, ransacking SEC villages and taking no prisoners.

Then Florida coach Steve Spurrier shuffled quarterbacks Doug Johnson (12) and Noah Brindise (17) against Florida State during their game in November 1997.

Anything less was seen as failure. But the ’92 and ’97 teams hold a special place in Spurrier’s heart.

“It was the attitude those guys had,” he said. “Look at how they finished. They played for their teammates, their friends and their university.”

After their SEC goals dissolved, they didn’t pout, fracture, mail it in or head to exits. There’s a larger lesson there, though not many fans were thinking along those lines on Oct. 1, 1992.

Mississippi State walloped the most inexperienced roster Spurrier ever had 30-6. The 1-2 Gators had already lost at Tennessee, so the Volunteers had an insurmountable lead in the SEC East and the season wasn’t even four games old.

Only the lead didn’t turn out to be insurmountable. Tennessee lost three straight games, two of them by a single point. The last one came the day Florida upset No. 7 Georgia for its fourth straight win.

“We got all pumped up on that bus ride back from Jacksonville,” Spurrier said.

After being left for dead on the side of the SEC road, hopes for an East Division were back.  All the Gators needed was to beat South Carolina and Vandy.

That explains why Spurrier still fondly gazes at that picture in his office.

It was the first year the SEC had two divisions and a championship game. The concept has generated a few billion dollars since, but it was controversial at the start.

Skeptics feared an upstart (Florida) might derail a national-championship run by a team (Alabama). SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer’s worst nightmare almost came true when UF rallied to tie Bama 21-21 late in the title game.

“If Florida wins, it just cracks the world,” ABC’s Keith Jackson bellowed to a national audience.

It didn’t quite happen. Shane Matthews threw a pass toward the sideline.

“The receiver was supposed to run a five-yard hitch,” Spurrier said. “He ran about eight yards.”

Antonio Langham slid in, intercepted the ball and returned it 27 yards for the winning TD. Kramer was resuscitated, and the Crimson Tide went on to beat Miami and win the national championship.

The left-for-dead Gators went on to win the Gator Bowl and finish No. 10.

Then came four straight SEC titles, and a national championship in 1996. Then came the year in which Spurrier almost pulled out all his hair.

The Gators were 5-0 and ranked No. 1 on Oct. 11, 1997. It all came apart when LSU intercepted four Doug Johnson passes en route to a 28-21 win in Baton Rouge.

Johnson was suspended for a curfew violation, and Spurrier’s Fun ‘N’ Gun passing attack started to sputter and wheeze like a 1990 Chevy Lumina.

Freshman Jesse Palmer wasn’t ready for his big SEC reveal. Noah Brindise, a former walk-on nicknamed “Fat Dog,” came off the bench to save the next game at Auburn.

He couldn’t save the Gators from losing to Georgia and getting eliminated by Georgia. After that, UF pretty much swore off passing and decided to ride the legs of Fred Taylor.

That worked against South Carolina and Vandy, but it all seemed pretty hopeless when No. 1 FSU came to Gainesville. Besides being loaded, word was the Seminoles had deciphered the signals Florida used to send in plays.

Remember two-headed QB play-calling system with Brindise and Johnson?

Spurrier decided to tell his QB the play on the sideline and send him in to execute it. Brindise one play, Johnson the next.

The rotating QB system was wackily effective. The Gators hung around. Johnson hit Jacquez Green for a 63-yard gain.

FSU angels are still weeping.

“Instead of pouting and giving up, that ’97 team had what some people consider the biggest win ever in The Swamp,” Spurrier said.

The 32-29 epic doesn’t quite rank at the top of his greatest hits list, simply because there were no championship implications. But at age 77, Spurrier realizes now more than ever that there's more to life than winning trophies.

There’s getting up after getting knocked down. Keep doing that, and who knows?

You just might crack the world.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

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