SPORTS

Whitley: Spurrier's 'Oh Gosh' moment resonates today

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun

TAMPA — Florida will crush USF this afternoon, but the week hasn’t been without its football worries in Gainesville.

Will Emory Jones look more comfortable at quarterback? Is the pass defense too leaky? Is there real hope of winning the SEC East?

Gator Nation was consumed with similar questions 20 years ago. Steve Spurrier had one his best teams, but Tennessee was coming to town.

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Spurrier and his offensive coaches were studying tape on Tuesday morning, trying to figure out how to maximize Rex Grossman’s arm against Phil Fulmer’s defense. A video assistant popped his head in and said a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers.

 Spurrier thought it was probably a small plane, a freak accident. He went back to work.

 About 15 minutes later, the video guy came back in. Another plane had hit the other World Trade Center tower.

 “What size was the plane?” Spurrier asked.

 It was a big commercial airliner, he was told, not a private plane.

“Oh gosh,” Spurrier said.

Steve Spurrier's film work didn't seem as important on 9/11

The coaches turned off the Tennessee tape and turned on the TV. Like everybody else, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

It will be commemorated all over the country Saturday. At Raymond James Stadium, players who weren’t alive on 9/11 will wear helmets that have “Gators” spelled in stars and stripes.

There will be moments of silence at stadiums around the country, then the focus will return to football. There’s nothing wrong with that. But as cliché as it sounds, that moment of silence really does put things in perspective.

“It was a sad day for America,” Spurrier said.

It also spawned one of the great what-ifs in UF history. The Gators and Volunteers traditionally met in the season’s third game. The winner always won the SEC Eastern Division, so the biggest game of the fall was played before the leaves started to turn.

What if the game were played later, when the teams had worked out their kinks? That suddenly became a possibility in 2001. Not that anyone at UF was immediately concerned about that on Tuesday morning of Tennessee week.

Classes were canceled and everybody was told to go home.

“We didn’t know if there was going to be a massive bombing attack in every city in America,” Spurrier said.

He stayed at work, making sure about 100 players were safe and secure. Athletic director Jeremy Foley had hundreds of athletes and employees to worry about. He also had to help figure out what to do about the biggest event of the year in Gainesville, which was four days away.

President George W. Bush had gone on TV and vowed not to let Al-Qaeda control American lives. The SEC took that to mean that weekend’s games should go on.

“We’re going to go about our business and not be stopped by some foreign terrorists,” UT coach Phil Fulmer said.

The league’s decision prompted an avalanche of angry emails and criticism on radio call-in shows. The ACC and other leagues were canceling games. On Wednesday, the SEC pulled the plug.

“We didn’t change our minds because of the critics,” said Foley, UF’s athletic director at the time. “We all woke up the next day, and it didn’t feel right for anybody.”

Slowly the 2001 season began to return to normal

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium stood sadly silent that Saturday. The Gators played the following week at Kentucky, then returned home to play Mississippi State. A sense of normalcy was slowly returning.

“It felt good,” Foley said, “but there was always a little feeling in the pit of your stomach or nagging in the back of your mind. We were playing a game, and people’s lives had been destroyed forever.”

Those games went pretty much as expected, save a 23-20 upset at Auburn. But, as expected, it all came down to Tennessee.

That game had been rescheduled for Dec. 1. Both teams were 9-1, 6-1 in the SEC East. The winner would advance to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, then on to the BCS title game at the Rose Bowl.

At least that was the thinking, because almost everybody expected Florida to win. The Gators’ average margin of victory in the SEC East was 37.3 points. They were 18-point favorites.

What happened when Tennessee and Florida finally met late in a season?

“They came in here and ran the ball down our throats,” Spurrier said.

Travis Henry had a stadium-record 226 yards rushing. Florida’s offense rolled up and down the field but kept settling for field goals.

Grossman finally hit Carlos Perez for a touchdown with 1:10 left to cut Tennessee’s lead to 34-32. The Gators went for two, but Grossman couldn’t connect with Jabar Gaffney with a pass.

Spurrier later called it the most bitter defeat of his career. And nobody knew it at the time, but it would be his last game coaching his alma mater at the place he’d named The Swamp.

After the Gators beat Maryland in the Orange Bowl, Spurrier took the Redskins up on their $25 million job offer.

He never returned to the stadium where he’d lost just five games in 12 seasons. At least not until he resurfaced at South Carolina.

“Let me tell you what’s ironic,” Spurrier said. “I lost my last game there as Florida’s coach, but I won my last game in the Swamp as South Carolina’s coach.”

This tale has a lot of twists. Florida fans will forever wonder what would have happened if the game had been played as originally planned.

“At the end of the day, we lost the game and a chance to go to Atlanta. All those things,” Foley said. “But again, it was just a game of football.”

Twenty years later, it’s still just a game. Today should remind us of that.

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