Fred Pancoast 1932-2023: Remembering a football coach who was ahead of his time | Whitley
The visionary offensive coach had just gotten his position at Florida. Nobody foresaw the passing revolution he would bring, though his players knew something was brewing.
A revealing moment came right before the season opener. The coach met with his quarterback and top receiver. He told them what the first three plays would be that day.
“We just said, ‘Wow,’ ” the receiver said.
The third play lives in UF football history. It’s also a hint for the following question:
Who was the brains behind the revolution?
Nope, not the Head Ball Coach.
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If you were born before the Beatles, you might know the answer. Otherwise, consider this part history lesson, part eulogy to a man who deserves to be remembered.
Fred Pancoast passed away two Sundays ago in Nashville. He was 90 and retired from coaching 45 years ago. But before Steve Spurrier redefined the art of scoring in the SEC, Pancoast turned league defenses inside-out.
His approach was based on a simple premise.
“Let your guys play the game. And if they see something, let them have a go at it,” Spurrier said. “I know that had a tremendous influence on my career.”
Pancoast's promotion to offensive coordinator in 1969 changed things
UF hired Pancoast as its backfield coach in 1964, so he had a hand in the glory days of Spurrier. But his true artistry wasn’t revealed until 1969.
Florida’s offense had generated all of two passing touchdowns in 1968, a season that featured a 51-0 loss to Georgia. Ray Graves shook up his staff and promoted Pancoast to offensive coordinator.
Back then, the forward pass was about as popular as the Vietnam War. Winning depended on which team could slog it out the best.
“That wasn’t coach Pancoast’s philosophy,” Carlos Alvarez said. “His philosophy was ‘Shock ‘Em!’ ”
Alvarez was a leading member of the shock troops, of course. The Super Sophs of quarterback John Reaves, halfback Tommy Durrance and Alvarez were like Christmas toys found under Pancoast’s tree.
He took those pieces, built an offense and opened it to the world on Sept. 20, 1969. Houston, ranked No. 1 in Playboy’s preseason poll, blew into Gainesville.
There was no pertinent film for Houston coaches to study. Pancoast figured they would expect the usual afternoon of trench warfare.
He called two routine handoffs to start the game. On third down deep in their own territory, there was no way the Gators would unleash an unproven sophomore QB, right?
Alvarez blew past the run-conscious cornerback and caught a 70-yard touchdown.
“The avalanche was on,” he said.
Super Sophs led Gators to 9-1-1 season
Reaves threw four more scores in the 59-34 romp. From there, the new-look Gators just kept burying teams.
“It was brilliant,” Alvarez said. “His offense was way ahead of its time.”
Receivers ran newfangled patterns, defenses were thrown out of whack trying to guess Run or Pass, and the quarterback was given license to think like a coach.
Fast forward 25 years, when Danny Wuerffel was asked whether Spurrier got mad if he changed the play at the line of scrimmage.
“He gets mad if I don’t change the play,” Wuerffel said.
Like his old backfield coach, Spurrier wanted his QBs to alter plays based on how the defense lined up. Zip ahead again to 1997, when No. 2 FSU was up 29-25 late in the game.
The play Spurrier sent in called for Jacquez Green to run a 12-yard curl route. Doug Johnson surveyed the defense, tapped his facemask to signal for Green to run a curl-and-go.
The 63-yard catch-and-run was probably the most epochal play at Florida Field since Alvarez caught that 70-yarder to ring in the magical autumn of ’69.
Florida went 9-1-1 as Reeves passed for 2,896 yards and 24 touchdowns, 12 of them to Alvarez. The revolution was on, then a funny thing happened on the way to the future.
Florida’s administration kicked Graves upstairs to the athletic director’s job. The poohbahs wanted Tennessee coach and UF alum Doug Dickey, whose offense was more attuned to the grind-it-out times and whose Volunteers team had just lost to Florida in the Gator Bowl.
The hiring of Tennessee’s coach was hush-hush. Pancoast later said he didn’t even know about it until he drove back into Gainesville from Jacksonville and read the sign outside the Ramada Inn:
“Welcome Home, Doug Dickey.”
Arrival of Doug Dickey sent Pancoast to Georgia
Pancoast knew his days as offensive coordinator were over. Vince Dooley had already offered him that job at Georgia, so off he went.
“We let Coach Graves go, and Coach Pancoast went to Georgia right after that,” Spurrier said. “We have not always been the smartest dudes here at Florida.”
UF didn’t totally revert to Cro-Magnon football, but the Super-Soph offense was never the same.
As for Pancoast, he spent one year at Georgia then became head coach at Memphis State and Vanderbilt. He retired in 1978 and became a successful businessman and philanthropist in Nashville.
He was gone from Gainesville, but his influence lived on. Just ask Spurrier or Wuerffel or Jacquez Green. Or the players who were there at the start.
The next season, Florida beat Georgia 24-17 as Reaves hit Alvarez for the winning score with 1:39 left. When time expired, those two made a beeline across the field to hug their old coach.
“We wanted to play a great game to honor coach Pancoast,” Alvarez said, “and what he’d done for us.”
He turned them loose and let them play the game. The rest, for one Shock 'Em season, was history.
David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley