Thursday November 20, 2014 Billy D praises Muschamp, the man
Updated: 1:13pm, November 21
Welcome to Harry Fodder!
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan is one of the most loyal friends and colleagues someone could ever have. As such, it came as no surprise the UF basketball coach had nothing but praise for outgoing Gators football coach Will Muschamp.
“I don’t know all the ins and outs of their team and what their challenges were or any of those other things,” Donovan said Thursday. “I do know this from a coaching standpoint: standing back and watching him handle [himself], I think the guy’s been an incredible man. He’s handled himself in an incredibly professional way in a very, very difficult circumstance.”
UF announced following Sunday, a day after a 23-20 overtime loss at South Carolina, that Muschamp -- 27-20 in four seasons and 17-15 against Southeastern Conference opponents -- would not return to coach the team in 2015.
Over the course of Muschamp’s time with the Gators, he and Donovan have often spoken, exchanged text messages and sometimes been guests at each other’s practices.
In fact, Muschamp (left) was invited by Donovan to address the UF basketball team over the summer. With the Gators saying goodbye to the winningest class in school history and coming off am SEC championship and Final Four season, Muschamp message to the 2014-15 players was that nothing was automatic just because they wore the Florida uniform.
He used his 4-8 team as an example.
The last couple years, when the subject turned to football, Donovan often spoke of how impressed he was that Muschamp took a 7-6 team from his first season -- one that he flatly called “soft” in a fiery news conference after a loss to Florida State -- and turned it into an 11-2 team that contended for a championship.
That told Donovan the guy could coach.
What also impressed Billy D about his football friend was that Muschamp always was not only true to his principles, but also true to himself as a person away from the football field.
“I get the bottom line is people want to see more games won on every level,” Donovan said, speaking as a coach about coaches. “But what we do is not who we are. To me, as a man, Will has been able to separate that and I think that’s been really, really impressive. ... I think who he was really showed up under some adverse pressure situations.”
Muschamp’s willingness to point a finger at himself -- after games and certainly at his news conference Monday -- was proof of that.
“He’ll be missed here ... as a person,” Donovan said.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sophomore guard Dillon Graham has left the Florida basketball team and will transfer to a yet-determined school.
After playing the final three minutes of Friday night’s 68-45 season-opening defeat of William & Mary, Graham met with Billy Donovan early Saturday before practice and informed the Gators coach of his decision.
It was clear, through preseason practices and the way the first game played out, that Graham did not figure in the team’s rotation -- even with suspended center Chris Walker and transfer forward Alex Murphy unavailable. The bulk of Graham's practice time was relegated to the scout team, he played just four minutes in the exhibition against Division II Barry on Nov. 6 and did not enter Friday night's game until 3:06 remained and the Gators leading by 26.
“I want to thank my teammates, coaches and everyone else at UF for a great experience during my time here,” Graham said in a statement. “Even though I am moving on to the next chapter in my life and my basketball career, I will always have positive memories from my years with the Gators.”
Graham intends to complete his first-semester academic work, then transfer to another program for the spring. Where he winds up -- Division I or Division II -- will determine how soon he’ll be eligible to play.
"I have a high level of respect for him," Donovan said Sunday in meeting with the media to discuss UF's home game Monday night against state foe Miami. "For the last few weeks, I could just see him a little bit unhappy. I don't think it had anything to do with the players or coaches or the University of Florida. I think it just got to the point, 'Is this really what I want to do?' I think he got to a place where his wasn't really into basketball."
The 6-foot-4, 185-pound standout out of Orlando First Academy, Graham played just 84 minutes in 25 career games at UF and averaged only 0.4 points over his three-plus seasons. Nearly all those minutes came during his 2012-13 freshman year when he checked into 23 games and went 5-for-19 from the floor, including 1-for-10 from the 3-point line.
Graham missed all but the first game of UF’s 2013-14 campaign and run to the Final Four with bone spurs in his hip that required season-ending surgery and was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA. He missed the only shot he attempted in Friday’s game.
Updated: 9:09am, November 6
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There was Florida tailback Kelvin Taylor rushing for 197 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in a 38-20 rout of the rival Georgia Bulldogs last weekend. On a night when his running mate, Matt Jones, piled on another 192 yards on 25 carries and two scores, the Gators’ unstoppable rushing attack told the story of the game.
But another thought popped into my head (as well as other heads in the press box and throughout the UF populace).
How did Taylor’s night compare to anything his father, former Gators All-American Fred Taylor, accomplished in a UF uniform against the Bulldogs? Or for that matter, in the very stadium where he starred as a first-round draft pick and Pro-Bowler for the Jacksonville Jaguars?
Answer: Very favorably, obviously.
"It means a whole lot just to be here,” the kid known as “KT” said after the game. “I remember, I used to be a little boy walking around this stadium. Right here, just playing with my toys and doing all types of stuff around this stadium. Now I'm playing. It's just unreal. I'm very blessed, very humble. It means a whole lot."
Good for him.
So I did some research this week.
Fred Taylor played four fabulous seasons for the Gators (1994-97), winning three Southeastern Conference titles, scoring a touchdown in UF’s national-championship game defeat of Florida State, and in 1997 amassed the fourth-greatest rushing season in Florida history with 1,292 yards.
In four games against the Bulldogs, Fred tallied 49 carries, 218 yards, two TDs and never went over 100 yards in a game. In fact, two of those games weren’t even played in Jacksonville, as the stadium then known as the Gator Bowl was undergoing renovation for the start of the expansion Jags during Fred's freshman and sophomore seasons. See below.
Year Site Statistics Outcome
1994 Gainesville 17 carries, 78 yards, 1 TD W 52-14
1995 Athens 7 carries, 16 yards W 52-17
1996 Jacksonville 7 carries, 39 yards, 1 TD W 47-7
1997 Jacksonville 18 carries, 85 yards, 1 TD L 37-17
In Jacksonville 25 carries, 124 yards 1 TD
Overall 49 carries, 218 yards, 2 TDs
Interestingly enough, it was two weeks after that loss in ’97 to the Dawgs -- the only defeat in the series during Coach Steve Spurrier’s 12 seasons at UF -- that the Gators completely revamped their offensive approach. Florida struggled to move the ball in a 20-7 tooth-ache victory at home against Vanderbilt. Spurrier, of course, loved to throw the ball, but he did not have a quarterback (be it Doug Johnson, Noah Brindise or Jesse Palmer) he had enough confidence in to lean on.
So he leaned on Fred Taylor.
Check out Taylor’s numbers in the final three games of that season:
* 24 carries, 170 yards, 3 TDs in a 48-21 win at South Carolina.
* 22 carries, 164 yards, 4 TDs against the nation’s top-ranked defense in a 32-29 upset of No. 1 Florida State.
* 43 carries, career-high 234 yards in a 20-6 defeat of No. 11 Penn State in Citrus Bowl.
So 568 yards in the last three games of his career.
There was a reason Taylor (pictured right) was drafted ninth overall by the Jags, with whom he played 11 of his 13 seasons (1998-2008) and went on to become one of 29 players in NFL history to surpass 10,000 career yards. Right now, he sits 15th all time with 11,695 yards.
Which brings me back to Kelvin.
So how did KT’s eruption at Jacksonville stack up against Dad’s greatest days at the same venue? Let the record show, Fred Taylor’s finest day as a pro came Nov. 19, 2000 when he went for 234 yards and scored four TDs in a 34-24 win at Pittsburgh.
But his finest NFL days in Jacksonville came up shy of the 197 his son cranked Saturday (see below).
Something tells me that’s just fine with Dad.
Yards Opponent Outcome Date
194 New Orleans W 20-19 Dec. 21, 2003
183 Detroit W 37-22 Dec. 6, 1998
181 Cleveland W 48-0 Dec. 3, 2000
163 Houston W 27-0 Dec. 7, 2003
152 Indianapolis W 28-23 Nov. 9, 2003
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Two drills into Thursday’s practice, Billy Donovan stopped the proceedings and ordered them restarted.
From the beginning.
Stretching, warm-ups and all.
In admonishing the way his players had begun the workout, Donovan used a couple words -- “conviction” and “commitment” -- which now must be considered the early favorites for buzz phrases during Florida’s 2014-15 season. He wanted more of both and wanted them immediately.
"If I don’t see some commitment to what we’re doing and some conviction in how we’re doing it, we’re going to be back here again later tonight,” Donovan yelled as strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene led the team through pre-practice Stretch No. 2. “And we may be back tonight, anway.”
And they were ... for another 90-minute practice.
Early in the afternoon, Donovan invoked the “conviction” and “commitment” references several times during a media briefing that focused on the Gators’ preseason progress to date, a brushstroke that included the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage Sunday.
Players were rotated between the blue first-teamers and orange seconds, so who won are lost was inconsequential. What concerned Donovan and his staff was the high score -- 89-81 after just 35 minutes -- and the overall defensive play.
“We’ve got pretty good chemistry and I think we’re unselfish as a team, but right now, we’re not convicted or committed to anything -- and that’s not a good recipe right now,” Donovan said. “They’re attitude has been good. They work, but we are not good at anything. The only thing I’d say we’re good at right now is we’re unselfish, but a lot of it is going to be their conviction and their commitment to what goes into winning. That’s going to be something that they don’t understand. Their idea of playing well is, ‘When I shoot, score and make shots.’ That’s probably about 5 percent of the game.”
So the Gators spent more than two hours on the other 95 percent Thursday in what was one of the better practices of their first two weeks, relative to strides in the defense and hustle categories.
Center Jon Horford had a particularly solid outing on the defensive end, something the Gators absolutely need from the fifth-year senior and transfer from Michigan. Guard Eli Carter (right, with ball), who sat out last season to let his surgically repair broken leg further heal after transferring from Rutgers, is going to be a factor both on and off the ball, especially once he regains his in-game conditioning.
Junior forward Alex Murphy, a transfer from Duke who arrived at UF last December, flashes his athleticism, but not with the kind of consistency Donovan and the staff are after. They want him to find his game, which neither his father's (early '80s Boston College standout Jay) or older brother's (former UF stretch power forward Erik). Murphy doesn't have to look for offense to be effective. If he just plays, offense will find him.
Freshman forward Devin Robinson (above, guarding Carter) still gets lost on defense, but he also knows he has a long way to go there and takes the coaching -- and criticism -- to heart. For a college rookie, that's half the battle.
After taking Tuesday and Wednesday off, the Gators worked a bunch of man-to-man defense (especially close-outs at the 3-point line and rotations), as well as defending in full-court man coverage. There was also an emphasis on just plain, playing hard.
"The first week was about installing and giving them the basics about what we do," Donovan said. "Now, it's about accountability and being where they're supposed to be and doing their jobs. The commitment and conviction of what our identity should be as a team, right now, just is not there."
The lack of it has shown up in not getting up the floor on the break or back on defense or crashing the glass for rebounds. Those flaws (and others) showed up on the tape from Sunday’s scrimmage.
Here are some other things that showed up in the scrimmage:
* Junior guard Michael Frazier, the lone starter back from last season’s Final Four and Southeastern Conference championship team, went 9-for-19 from the floor, including five of 12 from the arc, plus 11 of 14 from the free-throw line to lead all scorers with 34 points. Junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith, the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year, had 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four steals and four turnovers.
* Carter made seven of his 16 shots, and five of 12 from distance, to finish with 21 points. He also had four assists.
* Sophomore Kasey Hill (above left driving to basket) and freshman Chris Chiozza are the only true point guards on the roster and usually are matched against one another in live drills. Both put up nice play-making numbers; Hill with seven assists and one turnover, Chiozza with nine assists and one turnover. In fact, throw Carter into the equation and the Gators on-ball guards combined for 20 assists and just three turnovers.
* Robinson scored 17 points and was 4-for-8 from the 3-point line, but turned it over five times. Horford had 14 points and three rebounds, but made good on four of six from deep.
* In the paint, Chris Walker (left) had 12 points, nine rebounds and one really good dunk on a lob from Carter. Murphy had 10 points and eight rebounds. And while he won’t play this season per NCAA transfer rules, center John Egbunu, by way of South Florida, had 12 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks (and is going to be sensational come next season).
* Junior guard Dillon Graham did not participate in the scrimmage after taking an elbow to the side of the head during practice last week. The blow punctured Graham's ear drum, but he was cleared to return to practice Thursday. The Orlando product missed all last season recovering from hip surgery and has mega-catching up to do even to sniff the rotation come the regular season.
* Walk-on guard Zach Hodskins made his lone shot of the game, a 3-pointer, and scored four points. Donovan on Thursday praised Hodskins enthusiasm and love for the game, but hinted it could be very difficult for him to see the floor. “He’s got a great platform in terms of his persistence every single day to try and come out there and battle and compete to the best of his ability,” Donovan said. “Talent wise, I think he’s over his head. But I think he can bring some value to our team and help our team get better.”
* The Gators, who debuted at No. 7 in the Associated Press preseason poll announced Friday, have an exhibition game against Barry University set for Thursday night at the O'Connell Center. While the game will mark the live-action UF debut of several players, neither Murphy (who must sit out the first nine games of the fall semester) or Walker (three-game suspension) will play. Without those players in the front court, look for the Gators to go small in size but big on experience with the three-guard alignment Donovan likes -- Hill, Carter and Frazier -- with Finney-Smith and Horford up front. The first guy off the bench? Robinson at the small forward.
Updated: 8:50am, October 24
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida basketball team started practice a week ago, but getting the Gators in the best shape possible was a process that started almost the moment last season ended.
Actually, from the time each player set foot on campus.
We all know how Billy Donovan loves the process. Preston Greene lives the process.
Greene (pictured right) is UF’s strength and conditioning coordinator, which means he’s charged with putting individual players on training programs and diets that will ferry them to their peaks. Patric Young looked awfully good when he arrived on UF’s campus in 2010, but Greene chiseled that mad frame even more when he came from Clemson in time for Young’s sophomore year.
Remember what Greene did to Casey Prather’s body? How he added all that muscle without sacrificing any of Prather's breathtaking athleticism?
Think about that the next time you see junior Michael Frazier II in uniform when the Gators make their 2014-15 public debut Nov. 6 in an exhibition game against Barry University. Frazier is nearly the identical weight he was when he arrived in July 2012 -- he weighed 199 then, he's 200 now -- but he’s up 6 pounds in muscle and down 4.3 percent in body fat.
He looks like a strong safety ... but still shoots it like a 3-point assassin.
Here’s a look at how each UF basketball player was sized up when they first checked in compared to where they were for the first day of practice last Friday after an offseason working with Greene and assistant strength coach Sean Ferguson (pictured left, alongside Greene, standing on a tire during the car-pull portion of "Strongman Friday" workouts over the summer). The before-after photos are especially telling.
PLAYER (starting date) THEN NOW (lean mass change / body fat change)
Eli Carter (July 8, 2013) 214 200 (minus 5 pounds / minus-3.9 percent)
Chris Chiozza (July 7, 2014) 160 166 (plus 7.1 pounds / minus 1.3 percent)
Lexx Edwards (July 7, 2012) 238 222 (minus 5.7 pounds / minus 2.3 percent)
John Egbunu (July 7, 2014) 266 258 (minus-.8 pounds / minus 3.7 percent)
Michael Frazier II (July 1, 2012) 200 199 (plus 6 pounds / minus 4.3 percent)
Dillon Graham (July 1, 2012) 179 175 (plus 6.5 pounds / plus 6.5 pounds / minus 4.3 percent)
Zach Hodskins (July 7, 2014) 203 200 (minus .5 pounds / minus 1.2 percent)
Jon Horford (May 5, 2014) 238 242 (plus 11 bounds / minus 3 percent)
Kasey Hill (July 12, 2013) 181 175 (plus 2 pounds / minus 4.7 percent)
Jacob Kurtz (May 5, 2012) 179 189 (plus 10 pounds / minus 2.2 percent)
Alex Murphy (Dec. 5, 2013) 229 228 (plus 8 pounds / minus 3.8 percent)
Devin Robinson (July 7, 2012) 178 186 (plus 8.8 pounds / minus 1.2 percent)
Dorian Finney Smith (July 10, 2012) 200 215 (plus 14 pounds / minus 3.8 percent)
Chris Walker (Dec. 16, 2013) 203 217 (plus 17.5 pounds / minus 2.2 percent)
DeVon Walker (July 1, 2012) 189 204 (plus 17.6 pounds / minus 2.2 percent)
(Below: Kasey Hill then)
(Kasey Hill now)
(Below: Murphy then)
(Below: Finney-Smith then)
(Below: Chris Walker then, with the side view to show upper body thickness)
(Chris Walker now)
Updated: 11:24am, October 16
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Senior tight end Tevin Westbrook had the ball -- who knows, maybe even the game -- in his hands late Saturday night against LSU. It was a well-thrown pass from Jeff Driskel under duress. It was a touchdown.
And it fell to the Florida Field turf.
“I saw the ball coming. Driskel put it in a great spot,” Westbrook said earlier this week of his infamous drop against the Tigers, admitting he took the concentration part of the catch for granted because it was going to be such an easy play. “I just didn’t focus hard enough on the ball; had too much emotions in it. If I could go back, I’d just focus more on the ball and not too much on the emotions of the game.”
The play in question, of course, was the third-and-goal with 1:58 to play and UF trailing by three points. After two failed attempts to smash the ball in from the 2, Driskel play-faked and rolled to his right. With a Tiger defender bearing down, Driskel dumped a pass to Westbrook, wide open in the end zone. It hit him right in the arms then squirmed out.
The Gators settled for a game-tying field goal with 1:49 to go. They actually got the ball back, but Driskel’s interception led to the game-winning LSU field goal with three seconds left.
If only ...
“I wasn’t nervous,” said Westbrook, who has four catches for 38 yards and a TD this season. “It was just a roller coaster the whole game and so when it happened, I just wasn’t locked in on the ball. More just focused on scoring the touchdown, not really securing the ball before I had it.”
In a season mired by dropped passes (17 and counting), it was the biggest of them all. And, yes, Westbrook has seen the criticism (some of it brutal) on social media, but now it’s important to focus on what he and the Gators can control. Not what’s in the past.
Westbrook will move on.
“Everyone has tried to be supportive; teammates, coaches,” he said. “We’re a family and we try not to listen to anyone outside of football.”
[Photo by Phil Sandlin, Associated Press]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sophomore center Chris Walker has been suspended for three games due to a violation of team rules, Florida coach Billy Donovan announced during Wednesday's media gathering to preview the 2014-15 season.
The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Walker will miss the team's exhibition game against Barry University on Nov. 6, plus the season opener against William & Mary on Nov. 14 and a home date with Miami on Nov. 17.
"It'll be tough, but I'll get through it," Walker said.
The Gators are counting on Walker to play a big role in the post this season, given the loss of senior center Patric Young. A McDonald's All-American out of Bonifay, Fla., Walker signed with UF in 2012, but did not qualify academically to enter school as a freshman last fall. Instead, he rallied his transcript by taking on-line classes and gained enrollment for the second semester.
Though he joined UF on Dec. 14, Walker was not cleared to play by the NCAA until Feb. 4 against Missouri -- a 12-game suspension, as it turned out -- and he went on to average 1.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in less than five minutes per game.
Those numbers are going up significantly this year -- starting Nov. 21 against Louisiana-Monroe.
Gators coach Billy Donovan said Walker (and UF fans) need to manage expectations for his performance this season.
"I don't know what kind of impact he's going to make," Donovan said. "He's going to have to really be able to handle where he's got maybe his own personal expectation of where he thinks he should be. If he's not at that [high performance] level, how is he going to handle that? One of the most difficult things to deal with as a coach is when you have players with individual expectations that don't get met with how they're performing. He's got to have a realistic expectation. He's got a long way to go."
Meanwhile, freshman guard Brandone Francis will sit out the entire season due to academic reasons. The 6-5, 205-pound Francis starred at Jacksonville Arlington Country Day, but the Dominican Republic native did not qualify to participate in games this season, though it's possible he could hit the acadmic baselines to join the team for practice in the second semester.
Updated: 5:23pm, October 15
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- To be clear, Jeff Driskel remains the Florida starting quarterback, with true freshman Treon Harris expected to play a key role in this week’s game plan against Missouri.
That was the word Tuesday from offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who put a little more focus into Coach Will Muschamp’s announcement Monday that two quarterbacks would play when the Gators (3-2, 2-2) face the Tigers (4-2, 1-1) in Saturday night’s Southeastern Conference homecoming game at The Swamp.
“Jeff's going to start, but this week obviously is an important week to see how each guy prepares,” Roper said in his weekly media gathering. “Hopefully, we do get a hot hand and do well the whole game. I'd like to get a hot hand for sure."
Ideally, that hand would be attached to Driskel, but the fourth-year junior has completed just 34 of 76 passes (44.7 percent) for 335 yards, two touchdowns and seven interceptions over the previous three games. The last of those picks came with 24 seconds left in Saturday night’s 30-27 loss to LSU and set up a 50-yard field goal for the Tigers with three seconds left that proved the difference.
Roper does not expect that play to carry over in Driskel’s performance; or even his confidence.
“You’re not going to see any issue if there is one,” Roper said. “He’s going to manage himself well and have the right demeanor and communicate well. Obviously, that’s not an easy situation and a tough play, but he understands that you have to move on. You have to pick yourself up and you have to come back and you have to get ready to play again. You guys talk to him. What you see is what you get.”
The Gators are going to need Driskel to keep a level head, even as the team prepares to roll Harris, the former Miami Booker T. Washington standout who helped spark UF to a big road win at Tennessee two weekends ago, into the equation.
“You see him making a lot of plays in practice so you want to see how that transitions to the field. Will he have the same opportunities? Can he make the same plays in the game?” asked senior center Max Garcia of Harris. “I think that’s what it’s really about; just seeing him and what he can do and if he has a lot of potential and upside. I think that, as a team, we really want to see what he can do.”
They’re very different players.
Driskel is bigger and can be more physical factor in the running game. He's also in tune to everybody's job and has been very good at getting teammates in position and on the same page when live calls are being made at the line. His accurancy throwing the ball has not been good this season, but he made some throws against LSU, including a deep-ball beauty for 73 yards late in the game.
In the preseason, Harris was praised for his decisiveness -- especially for a rookie -- and he already has shown he can deliver the long ball, with a pair of 70-plus-yard TD strikes in the Eastern Michigan to open the season. Plus, there’s no denying he gave the offense a lift in the 10-9 win at Tennessee, driving the Gators to two fourth-quarter scores on his three drives.
That said, Roper admitted Harris did not look particularly sharp Monday during his first practice after missing all last week after being suspended due to accusations of a sexual assault the accuser eventually withdrew. He also is not completely in tune with the entire offense. Remember, Harris wasn't here in the spring, but rather arrived with his freshman class in July.
And he was only 2 of 4 for 17 yards passing against the Volunteers -- and had a likely sideline pick-6 dropped.
Some perspective is in order.
“He doesn't understand what we're doing quite as well, obviously, because of his time that he's been here,” Roper said. “The best way that I can say it is that he finds a way to make plays. Hopefully that continues. It's not always consistent, and you always want to be more consistent, but he seems to be a playmaker.”
Yes. Everyone heard Muschamp, after the Tennessee game, say Harris had the “it” factor for the position.
This week, whatever “it” is will come off the bench.
“And I wouldn't say it's a 50-50 split,” Roper said. “It's the sixth game of the year, so what ends up happening is you start getting a little bit worn out so our reps aren't the same number. We're having to go a fewer, less reps in a couple of team periods so it's not going to be 50-50. But what I'll have to do is jump him up and get him one or two of the [first-team] reps when we're doing it."
Updated: 11:23am, October 10
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Together they shared an amazing bond. What the 1969 Florida football team accomplished that season, with its star-studded rookies and talented upperclassmen, instantly became one of the great stories in Gators lore.
But it wasn’t until a few years later, at the wedding of offensive tackle David Peek in Ocala, Fla., that a different bond was forged. A lasting one that locked in on friendships and keeping memories alive.
“Everybody was there and we had a such a great time,” recalled Mac Steen, an offensive guard and senior on that ’69 squad. “We had so much fun we decided to get together every five years.”
Happy 45th anniversary, fellas.
This weekend, more than 50 members of UF’s 1969 team, whose 9-1-1 record and defeat of Tennessee in the Gator Bowl stood as the gold-standard of Florida seasons until Steve Spurrier returned to coach his alma mater, will gather once again for golfing, barbecuing, story-telling and football-watching.
A group that includes the iconic “Super Sophs” -- quarterback John Reaves, fullback Mike Rich, running back Tommy "Touchdown" Durrance and wide receiver Carlos Alvarez (all pictured above), among others -- will be recognized from their seats during Saturday night's Florida-LSU game. Any Gators fans unaware of the imprint the ’69 team put on the program, take note.
It was as spectacular as it was explosive.
“We didn’t really know what we had,” recalled Steen, now 66 and an orthodonist in DeLand. “You’re always cautiously optimistic, but I don’t think anyone could have foreseen a season like that. No one.”
That’s because 1968 was supposed to be the so-called “Year of the Gator.” Instead, the team went 6-3-1 with a 51-0 loss to Georgia. Heading into '69, one preseason publication cited UF in "bottom 20" teams in the nation.
Florida returned some good players, especially on the offensive line and across the defense, but the the skill-position spots on offense were being turned over to a bunch of guys who had never tasted varsity SEC football.
What's more, in the run-up to training camp, rumblings commenced that Coach Ray Graves would step down at the end of the season, prompting staff members to wonder about their futures. Offensive coordinator Ed Kensler stepped down a month before the start of camp to go into private business and replaced by receivers coach Fred Pancoast.
Pancoast's first order of business was trashing Kensler's I-formation system and installing a wide-open, pass-happy attack that few saw coming.
Including the Houston Cougars.
Houston, out of the Southwest Conference, was ranked No. 7 in the nation, but Playboy magazine crowned the Cougars as its preseason pick to win the national championship. A season opener at Florida barely registered a blip on the nation's relevance radar.
After being promoted to offensive coordinator, Pancoast paid a visit to the New York Jets training camp -- mere months after the Joe Namath-led shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III -- and was intrigued by the club’s downfield, vertical schemes. He brought them back to Gainesville and wasted no time testing the Gators’ version against Houston’s base two-deep zone.
UF ran its first two plays out of that old I-formation, then on third-and-2 from the 30, Pancoast called “69 Fade,” with Alvarez (above left) splitting that Houston deep-deep and running free 10 yards behind the Cougars secondary and hauling in a perfect strike from Reaves for a 70-yard touchdown.
It was the first of five Reaves TDs that day, as the Cougars were befuddled by UF's downfield aggression.
Final: Florida 59, Houston 34.
Six times that season, the Gators scored at least 31 points. They beat Florida State 21-6 in Week 3 and clobbered Miami 35-16 in the regular-season finale. The "Super Sophs" got most of the headlines -- "The glory guys, the ones that touched the ball, they were the ones to get the fancy nicknames," Steen said -- but that Florida team had a bunch of outstanding players on the offensive line, like captains Steen and Tom Abdelhour (pictured right), and defensive stars such as Steve Tannen and Jack Youngblood.
[Little-known fact: UF’s lone defeat that season was a 38-12 rout at Auburn, which in turn was crushed 38-7 in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl ... by Houston.]
That first game -- and the season and the memories it launched -- is what longtime Gators remember.
“That’s the game everybody talks about,” Steen said.
The guys that made it possible will be talking about and reliving it a lot this weekend. And again in 2019. And beyond.
[Photos by Florida Times-Union]
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- How’s this for juxtaposition?
Bradley Beal was done for the night. NBA benches are crowded during early October, so he and Washington Wizards point guard John Wall -- together, now being hailed as one of the NBA’s backcourts of the future -- were sitting on the baseline, legs stretched out and relaxing, as they watched teammates fighting for jobs mop up the fourth quarter of Wednesday night’s preseason game at Veterans Memorial Arena.
That was one Gator’s night.
At the 8:21 mark, Beal’s former University of Florida teammate, power forward Patric Young, hopped off the New Orleans Pelicans’ bench for the first time in the game and joined the fray of reserves. He grabbed four rebounds while banging and exchanging forearms and elbows with 6-foot-10, 278-pound Kevin Seraphin in Washington’s eventual 94-89 win.
As for this Gator, you could sense some frustration.
Welcome to The League.
At least he's there, right?
“I played two games here in my college career and did pretty good,” said Young, who totaled 25 points and 14 rebounds in wins over Rider in 2011 and Jacksonville U in ’13 at the Arena. “But I’m on another level now, back to square one. I’m a rookie now.”
Young, a four-year Florida stalwart and one of the most beloved players in Gators history, is 22 years old. His professional basketball future has yet to be determined.
Beal, who left UF after a spectacular 2011-12 freshman season, turned 21 in June and is entering his third NBA season. Here’s what a certain Wizard teammate said of the kid's future.
“Brad's ceiling is whatever he makes it,” said forward Paul Pierce, the 36-year-old future Hall-of-Famer who joined the Wizards via free agency this offseason. “Everyone knows about his skills, but what’s impressed me is the work ethic. He works hard and he does it every day. That’s why he has the chance to be a great player -- and by that I mean a leading scorer or even MVP of this league. He can be that good.”
Beal, the 6-foot-5, 207-pound shooting guard and No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 draft, averaged 15.7 points and shot nearly 40 percent from 30-point range his first two seasons. Last spring, he became just the second player in NBA history to score 25 points in three playoff games before his 21st birthday. The other guy?
“Not only does he have exceptional ability, but he understands how to play the game. He has a high basketball IQ,” Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld said. “When you come from a disciplined program like Florida, where Billy Donovan asks a lot of you, it prepares you for our [NBA] game. He knows what he’s doing, so when his players get here they know what they’re doing.”
Some are just ready to do it better.
The two Gators on different tracks exchanged pleasantries before the game and after the game, but that was all there was time for.
“Pat was always a competitor, a good teammate and had a great career at Florida,” said Beal, who scored 11 points in 25 minutes Wednesday. “I know how hard he worked when I was there, so I know he’ll work and do whatever is asked of him now. I’m glad he’s getting the opportunity and wish him the best.”
Young, the 2014 Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and just the 13th player in school history to amass at least 1,300 points and 800 rebounds, went unselected in the NBA draft in June, but signed as a free agent (with a rare two-year, guaranteed contract) with the Pelicans in July.
“I made a few mistakes [in the game], but I’m glad I got the opportunity,” said Young, who had family and friends sitting directly behind the New Orleans bench. “I’m still trying to figure this thing out. I know I can provide good defense and rebounding and energy, but I want to be a coachable guy and good teammate with a good attitude."
That took him a long, long way at UF.
We'll see where that takes Young now.
Updated: 11:00am, October 8
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In a week when a lot of Florida quarterback developments have been in the news, a former Gator who once played the position officially took his place in college football’s immortality.
Not that he wasn’t there already.
Danny Wuerffel, who won a Heisman Trophy on the way to guiding the Gators to their first national championship in 1996, was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame during ceremonies in Atlanta on Tuesday night.
“The memories I have from being there are so special,” Wuerffel said. “Those friends, those memories we all experienced, were unbelievable.”
Anybody know what he’s talking about?
Try a 45-6-1 record with four Southeastern Conference titles during his four seasons (1993-96), the bulk of which were with Wuerffel starting at quarterback. Along the way, he passed for 10,875 yards and a UF record 114 touchdowns, capping his career by becoming (then) just the second Gator to win the Heisman.
A month later, he piled on with a 52-20 blowout of rival Florida State in the Sugar Bowl national championship game.
Wuerffel, now 40 and heading up his Desire Street Ministries project based in New Orleans, became the sixth Florida player to enter the prestigious Hall, joining Dale Van Sickel, Steve Spurrier, Wilber Marshall, Jack Youngblood and Emmitt Smith.
''Getting enshrined not only in the Hall, but the fact that it's in this community, is one of those things that transcends the sport,'' Wuerffel said. ''People may hate Florida and not like Spurrier or me, but they're going to honor you for what you did and brought to college football. That's cool.''
Updated: 3:50pm, October 1
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For years, it didn’t register a blip on the Southeastern Conference’s sexy rivalry radar. Heck, Florida and Tennessee rarely played during the first six decades as charter members of the SEC.
Yes, here comes another history lesson, kids.
As for you old-timers? Read, revel and relive.
The first Tennessee-Florida meeting was a 24-0 win for the Vols at Tampa in 1916. Their 1932 date, a 32-13 win for Vols, was the first under the SEC flag and part of UT’s run of 10 straight victories that kicked off the series.
It wasn’t until 1954 that UF registered its first win over UT, a 14-0 defeat at Gainesville. In fact, the Gators and Volunteers butted heads just 15 times over the first 58 years, including a 13-season stretch (1956-68) when they didn’t play at all. And when they did finally meet, it was in the Gator Bowl after the UT coach, Doug Dickey, had resigned to become UF's coach mere days earlier.
Sound feisty? Not so fast, my friends.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the series truly rocketed not just to league-wide prominence but into college football’s national conscience.
Like so many things about Florida football, we can thank Steve Spurrier for that.
That ’90 season, of course, was Spurrier’s first after returning to his alma mater for which he won the 1966 Heisman Trophy. Spurrier, everyone knows, was a Tennessee boy who never considered playing for the Vols because he was a passing quarterback and UT ran the single wing in the 1960s.
But there were built-in Smoky Mountain subplots way before he first chucked a UF vistor.
For example, did you know that in 1982, Spurrier was Duke’s offensive coordinator when the Blue Devils went into Neyland Stadium and upset the Vols 25-24? In that game, UT punted the ball and downed it at the Duke 1 midway through the fourth quarter and the game ended with Blue Devils on the UT 1 after quarterback Ben Bennett -- against a defense led by Reggie White -- drove the ball 98 yards to run out the clock.
And did you know that Duke, with Spurrier as its head coach, went to Knoxville in 1988 and pulled off another ridiculous upset of his flagship home-state school, this one by a 31-26 score?
Then came ‘90.
The Gators, despite going on probation three weeks earlier and learning they’d be ineligible for the conference crown, were 5-0 (3-0 in the SEC) and ranked ninth in the nation when they went to Knoxville on Oct. 13 to face the Vols (3-0-2, 1-0-1). It was Spurrier back home. It was a battle of top-five teams. It was big-time SEC football. It was prime time.
It was a blowout.
Tennessee 45, Florida 3.
[That's the day's sports section front, right, when I was the UF beat writer for The Tampa Tribune, with some others, including Orlando Sentinel tear sheets, below]
The score was 7-3 at halftime, but Dale Carter instantly changed that to start the third quarter by returning the second-half kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, commencing an avalanche of 38 unanswered points.
It was the worst loss by a UF team since a 44-0 shutout against Herschel Walker and Georgia in 1982 and second-worst over the previous 20 years, dating to a 63-14 wipeout at Auburn in 1970.
“Not much to say,” Spurrier groused after his high-powered offense gained just 194 yards and turned the ball over seven times. “We thoroughly got whipped in every phase of the game -- offense, defense, kicking game, the whole bit.”
Added senior cornerback Richard Fain: “Embarrassing. But hey, it’s football. It happens.”
You know what happened from there?
UF swept its final three SEC games to finish with a league-best 6-1 record, while UT was upset 9-6 the following week at home by a mediocre Alabama team to finish 5-1-1 in the league. But the Vols, by virtue of Florida’s NCAA sanctions and bowl ban, got the conference title and berth in Sugar Bowl.
The following summer, at an exotic Nike coaches retreat, Spurrier reminded UT coach Johnny Majors during a cocktail party that the Gators were the best team in the SEC the year before. Majors, in turn, reminded Spurrier about that 45-3 whipping.
“We were just getting you overconfident for Alabama,” Spurrier shot back.
Those in attendance say Georgia coach Ray Goff had to intervene and play peacemaker. No, really.
And away we went.
UF won big in 1991 en route to the first SEC title in school history. In ’92, the first year the SEC went to its split divisions and championship game format, UT won big and had a two-game lead on the Gators in the race for the East title only to lose a trio of games down the stretch, with UF stealing the division crown.
Florida then won five straight in the series, led off by Danny Wuerffel's first career start and including four victories with Peyton Manning on the other side of the ball. The ’96 game pitted No. 2 UT vs. No. 3 Florida, with the Gators rushing to 35-0 second-quarter lead before holding on for a 35-29 win before the largest crowd in college football history.
“They said it was going to be loud up there,” Spurrier would later crow. “I have to admit it, it was ... for pre-game warmups.”
Can't make this stuff up.
The year after Manning left, the Vols defeated the Gators 20-17 in the first overtime game in UF history, a pulsating win that fueled Tennessee’s run to the ’98 national championship.
Alex Brown’s five sacks in ’99 and Jesse Palmer’s “Was-it-a-catch?” TD pass in 2000 furthered the Florida dominance, running the not streak to seven wins over eight years, but the Vols’ epic 34-32 season-ending upset at The Swamp in ’01 -- a game pushed back to December by the 9-11 attacks -- will be recalled as one of the most devastating defeats in school history; and not just because it denied UF a shot at the Rose Bowl national title game.
Spurrier resigned a month later.
Ron Zook went 1-2 against Tennessee, but Urban Meyer and Will Muschamp can claim a 9-0 mark since 2005, including seven straight double-digit wins. Where UF once lagged 7-15 in the series, the Gators now lead 24-19.
Let’s do it again.
Updated: 8:05pm, September 12
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Joe Tessitore climbed down from the SEC Nation set on a sweltering Friday afternoon and ducked into a shady but steamy tented area where a group of about 20 media members waited on UF's Plaza of the Americas.
“I know you all are gathered here to see me,” he said.
It’s a stock line, of course. It has to be. While Tessitore, the host of the SEC Network’s road show (pictured right, on the far left), was doing a short Q&A with print and broadcast folks, followed by another with analyst Marcus Spears, one of the other cast members worked his way around a crowd that lined the barricaded area and posed for 15 minutes worth of selfies.
It was the guy with the bronze stature in front of the footall stadium about a half-mile to the west.
“Being here at the University of Florida obviously gets very nostalgic, [with] all these great fans,” Tim Tebow said after working the conga line of adoring Gators (video of interview here). “If I get an opportunity to make their day by taking a picture or doing something nice for them, it’s worth it for me.”
But don’t get the idea this was just a Gators scene.
“It doesn’t matter where we go,” said Spears (pictured above, far right). “It’s the same.”
If Tim Tebow shows up -- whenever, wherever -- it’s “Tebow Time.”
As an analyst for SEC Nation, the new SEC Network’s version of ESPN’s popular GameDay show, the former University of Florida quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner and bona fide sports icon draws a crowd wherever he goes. It just so happens that SEC Nation’s third stop of the 2014 season brought the show to the school Tebow led to a pair of national championships.
A collection of students, professors and UF employees showed up to watch the taping and cheer for arguably the most beloved athlete in Gators history. One girl Tebow acknowledged with a wave from the stage even broke into tears.
And it wasn’t much different in the shows previous stops in Columbia, S.C., and Auburn, Ala.
“People are just connected to him in a different way,” Tessitore said. “It’s beyond sports. There’s an energy he gives off. He means a lot of things to a lot of people, with the way he conducts himself, the type of person he is, with everything from his spirituality to his message.”
Tessitore told the story of taking Tebow to a restaurant in New Haven, Conn., not far from his home. A nice Italian place, LuDals, near Yale and smack in the middle of the Ivy League. Not exactly a college football hotbed. His brother-and-law, the owner, even set them up with a private, secluded room in the back.
When they left the restaurant around 11 p.m., sure enough, a crowd was waiting outside the bar area.
And there was the time last May, when the crew went to Nashville for the Music City Sports Fest. Tessitore estimated a crowd of 5,000 showed up at their set to listen to them talk about college football -- four months before the season. Most wanted a piece of Tebow after that, too.
“And it’s not just girls in their 20s or 30s who are enamored by him,” Tessitore said. “It’s women in their 50s and 60s --and it’s guys in their 40s and 50s.”
Hey, it’s Tebow.
Spears starred at LSU, won a national title there, and was a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2005. He missed playing against Tebow by a couple seasons -- and Spears swears those UF national championships in ’06 and ’08 would not have happened had he still be in the SEC, but that's another story -- yet he’s making up for the lost time as far as getting to know the Gator.
“Tim’s career is second to none. He knew how to carry himself amid all the attention and be able to handle it with grace while still staying true to his faith and be the person he said he was,” said Spears, who knows a little something about high-profile athletes, having played with Terrell Owens and Tony Romo in Dallas. “But other than being a great football player, he’s a great guy.”
Still draws quite the crowd, too.
In fact, Spears can’t wait for SEC Nation to go to Baton Rouge, his hometown, and see the turnout for his homecoming.
“Yeah, they’ll all be out there for me,” he smiled. “I’m sticking with that.”
Updated: 7:00pm, September 11
GAINESVILLE, Fla.-- OK, so late Thursday afternoon, this tweet came up courtesy of our friends at @MBKRowdies.
Clever, but not quite.
Note: They actually had cameras and newspapers back then, but I digress.
Anyway, the tweet got me thinking.
About this time a year ago, I did my "To the time machine" thing where I go and park myself on the third floor of Library West and start digging back into the microfilm archives.
In this case, way back to the last time Kentucky beat Florida in football.
I was a few years out of college and covering general assignment stuff for The Tampa Tribune. I'd never even seen a Florida football game live. Many of you reading this weren’t even born.
Anyway, I wrote the below blog entry Sept. 27, 2013, on the eve of the Gators' renewal of their annual Southeastern Conference date with the Wildcats at Lexington. And since its crux still applies -- what was a 26-game winning streak became 27, thanks to a 24-7 win the following night -- I figured we’d run it again.
So, to the time machine we go. Again.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Where were you Nov. 15, 1986?
I was writing high school sports for The Tampa Tribune, still four years from my first go-around covering the University of Florida. One thing I know for certain: I was not watching the Gators football team that day because they weren’t on television, thanks to NCAA probation sanctions.
For Florida fans, perhaps that was for the best.
Kentucky 10, Florida 3.
It marked the last time in the series that dates to 1917 the Wildcats defeated the Gators. The streak of UF wins, which began with a 27-14 victory at Gainesville in 1987, stands at 26 straight. That’s tied for the longest run in Southeastern Conference history (Tennessee beat Kentucky every year from 1985-2010) and also tied for sixth-longest in NCAA history.
After that game, UF's edge in the series was just 20-17.
Now it's 46-17.
Such staggering mastery cries for one of my trips down Memory Lane.
If you don't believe me, ask The Lexington Herald-Leader, which ran the actual game story from that day on its website Friday. That's UK quarterback Bill Ransdell (above left) on the move against the Gators.
Like I often say, not all memorable games are memorable for good reasons, but they’re in the history books and going nowhere.
To the time machine we go.
FOR HISTORICAL CONTEXT (Headlines of Nov. 15, 1986)
* When President Reagan signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 into law the month before, he set into motion the most sweeping restructuring of the tax system in at least a generation. The signing spurred what had already been an intense race against the clock by taxpayers looking to take maximum advantage of the transition from the old system to the new system.
* The Islamic Jihad group said it would not release the remaining American hostages in Lebanon until its demands were met, dashing hopes for a quick release of the captives. A typewritten statement to the U.S. embassy in Beirut was accompanied by a black and white photograph of Terry Anderson, one of the group’s two remaining hostages.
* The transition of the Senate from Republican to Democratic control began the week before as legislators from each party gathered to pick their leaders for the 100th Congress that would convene in just over six weeks. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was set to take over as majority leader, while Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who had served as majority leader, would assume the minority role. Democrats would have a 55-45 Senate advantage following the mid-term elections when Republicans lost eight seats.
* The hit movies at the time were “Children of a Lesser God” (with William Hurt and Marlee Matlin, who would win an Academy Award for Best Actress), “The Color of Money (with Paul Newman, who would also win an Oscar for Best Actor, and an up-and-comer named Tom Cruise), plus “Peggy Sue Got Married (starring Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage).
* On the tube, “Designing Women,” “L.A. Law” and “Matlock” were in their debut seasons, while Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Kevin Nealon were newcomers to the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”
* The biggest hits on the radio were “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper, “Amanda” by Boston and “Human” by Human League.
The Gators had won four straight, including back-to-back defeats of rivals Auburn and Georgia, the former an 18-17 win at Florida Field that many a UF diehard still recall as one of the greatest wins -- certianly comebacks -- in school history.
Florida, after starting the season 1-4, was on a role.
A year after the NCAA’s postseason ban kept the 9-1-1 Gators home for the holidays, Florida (5-4, 2-3) went to Kentucky (4-4-1, 1-3) knowing it was the No. 1 choice for the upstart Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa.
All the Gators had to do was beat the Wildcats.
The game marked the first trip to Lexington since UF celebrated a 25-17 win there in 1984, a victory that clinched the first Southeastern Conference championship in school history. That title, of course, was eventually stripped seven months after the fact by league presidents, who cited the NCAA sanctions and order the title vacated.
The stakes in this game weren’t nearly as high, but Coach Galen Hall and his players, especially the seniors, wanted to exit the SEC season on a winning note and guarantee themselves the first postseason game since 1983.
For the Gators, it was a cold, wet and miserable day all the way around.
As if the 36-degree temperatures at kickoff and constant drizzle throughout weren’t bad enough, Florida did next to nothing on offense, while a backup UK running back had a breakout game in a thoroughly frustrating eyesore of a defeat at Commonwealth Stadium.
Reserve tailback Mark Higgs ran 27 times for 97 yards, including the game’s lone touchdown, and also caught six passes for 52 more yards. Higgs’ TD in the first quarter gave the Wildcats a lead they never relinquished.
A field goal from UF’s Jeff Dawson in the second period marked the only points for the Gators and were countered by a Joe Worley field goal in the fourth.
Florida had one last chance for a miracle drive -- and tie -- but wide receiver Ricky Nattiel fumbled on the back end of a 17-yard completion. Kentucky recovered to ice the game.
UF quarterback Kerwin Bell, who hit just one of his first nine passes in the opening half, finished seven of 24 for 145 yards and two interceptions.
The Gators, befuddled by Kentucky coach Jerry Claborne’s signature “Wide-Tackle 6” defense, finished with just 220 yards of total offense, held the ball just 18 minutes, 58 seconds and ran only 49 plays to UK’s 79. The Wildcats were playing without star running back Ivy Joe Hunter, out of Gainesville Buchholz, who a week earlier had rushed for 238 yards and four touchdowns in a win at Vanderbilt before a late-game injury.
Exit the Gators ... with the loss.
> “I have to say this is the worst loss I’ve ever been through. You have to play this game with a lot of emotion and we’ve had trouble in the past getting up for Kentucky. I didn’t think it would be a problem this year, but they just wanted it a little more than we did.” -- UF offensive lineman Scott Armstrong
> “It was wet and cold and the ball had a slick film on it. Two of the passes got away from me and I was never able to get my feet set on the slippery field. Give Kentucky credit. They played a great game and we just couldn’t get anything going.” -- Bell
> “You can’t ever be surprised in college football. Everyone has good players and sometimes those good players can be great players.” -- UF safety Jarvis Williams
> “Kentucky is just like Mississippi State. There is no way we should lose to them. Once again, we just beat ourselves.” -- Nattiel, referencing a 16-7 loss earlier in the season at Mississippi State.
> “Over the years, we’ve been so close to beating Florida. A lot of the Florida players talked a lot of trash. They told me I wouldn’t be able to do anything against them. I think I proved them wrong. ... Florida always thinks they are so big and strong and that they can bully us out there,. They sure didn’t do that today. This game made our season.” -- Higgs, clearly enjoying the moment.
> “Sometimes you have to win on your own. You’ve got to go out and rack it up. You have to shake off the weather and go out and win the game. ... I had no idea we wouldn’t play well. I have no idea why we didn’t.” -- Hall
> "Georgia is a tough, tough football team." -- Claiborne, who was reminded he played Florida. " 'Scuse me," he added.
In case you’re wondering what happened from there (and assuming you didn't stop reading about 20 paragraphs ago), the Gators went to Tallahassee the next week and stunned Florida State 17-13 to finish the season 6-5. The Gators, however, were not invited to the posteason. As for the Hall of Fame Bowl, Boston College defeated Georgia 27-24 in that one.
Updated: 3:42pm, September 10
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The nadir of it all, or so Vanessa Hayden thought, was her unwillingness even to show herself in public. The former University of Florida basketball star was grossly overweight and simply did not want anyone to see her.
“I’d been hiding for a couple years,” Hayden said.
But then came a few words from her 7-year-old daughter, Zyon, that shook Hayden to the core.
“You used to do things with me. Now you’re always tired and always working. We don’t have fun anymore.”
That’s when the door of reality slammed in the face of Hayden, who at 31 was now 6-foot-4 and in excess of 350 pounds. Yet about around the time that door seemed to be closing, another opened when a friend of hers from their WNBA days called and said the popular NBC reality show, “The Biggest Loser,” was looking for former athletes to compete in the 2014 season.
Hayden promptly made one of the biggest winning decisions of her life.
When “The Biggest Loser: Glory Days” premiers Thursday night at 8, that will be Hayden, the former All-America center, standing in the third row of the 2014 team photo (above) wearing number 366.
Yes, as in 366 pounds.
Hayden, now 32 and a child welfare and intake specialist in Orlando, will be seen competing and bonding with former athletes like NFL quarterback Scott Mitchell (383 pounds), tennis star Zina Garrison (263 pounds), three-time Olympic softball gold-medalist Lori Harrigan-Mack (301 pounds) and NFL offensive lineman Damien Woody (388 pounds).
The stories of all 24 contestants were cut from similar cloth. All were one-time among the peak of their peers.
Hayden, affectionately known as "Big V" during her UF days, averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds over her four-year career (2000-04) with the Gators, garnering Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and second-team All-America honors in her senior season. She had 50 career double-doubles, grabbed 20 rebounds in a game and blocked 10 shots in another on her way to becoming just the fifth UF player to the milestones of 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
The WNBA Minnesota Lynx made Hayden the seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft. She played in the league five seasons, and took some spins on the European professional circuit before leaving the game in 2009 and returning to her hometown of Orlando.
That’s when it began.
“After playing basketball, my weight gain was very rapid and quick,” said Hayden, pictured left in March at the SEC women's basketball tournament when she was honored as UF's annual respresentative among the SEC Legends. “In 2010, I had a knee injury and within two years I was 140 pounds overweight. That’s unheard of. As an athlete I was eating 3,000 calories a day and working out four or five hours a day. When I stopped playing, I kept those habits up and didn’t work out. I was in an office and at a desk all day.”
Which eventually led to that life-altering moment.
You’ll have to watch the show to see how Hayden fares -- no spoilers allowed here, folks -- but in a conversation last week she spoke of how much she loved being a part of the program and the camaraderie enjoyed with her fellow contestants.
Above all, Hayden embraced what it did for her self-esteem.
“Being on the show was definitely a release,” Hayden said. “This was my time to do something about my life. It was going to be on a national TV. I wasn’t going to hide anymore. I had to get myself together and it felt good.”
There were some moments that were more revealing than releasing; like the first time she had to put on a pair of tights.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ I didn’t ever want to see that again,” Hayden said. “I just was not healthy going onto that show.”
But the tone in her voice made it clear that how the show began wasn’t nearly as important as how it ended.
For that, Gators fans will have to wait. And watch.
Updated: 12:29pm, September 5
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The lines of objectivity in journalism are easily tripped over these days, given the multitude of media platforms.
So forgive Heather Mitts if she gets caught up in the pre-game moment Saturday during a rare return visit to Florida Field. A Gator chomp sent her way just may get return fire.
“Most likely, yes,” Mitts said Thursday. “Maybe not during the game. I may have to control myself for that. But once a Gator, always a Gator.”
And in all kinds of weather, which may again be the case Saturday when the Florida football team is scheduled to open its 2014 season against Eastern Michigan (1-0) at The Swamp. The game will be televised by the SEC Network, with Tom Hart calling play-by-play, Matt Stinchcomb providing color, and Mitts, a UF Athletic Hall-of-Famer and one of the most decorated American women soccer players in history, reporting from the sidelines.
Mitts, who helped lead the Gators to the 1998 NCAA championship, graduated from Florida in 2000 with a degree in advertising and then took off on a 12-year odyssey as a professional and international soccer standout until announcing retirement from the game she loved in March 2013. When she played, Mitts was a tenacious defender who helped the U.S. to gold medals in the 2004, ’08 and ’12 Olympic games while playing more than 100 international matches.
Along the way, she did stints at ESPN and Fox Sports as a studio soccer analyst, and was asked to work the 2005 college football season as a sideline reporter.
“I had never done college football before then,” said Mitts, who grew up in an Ohio family of soccer and basketball junkies. “It was one of those things where I didn’t feel I had any experience, but also felt like it was too good an opportunity to pass up. So I just kind of dove in ... and I really, really enjoyed doing football.”
Now, she’s doing it again.
Last weekend, Mitts made her SEC Network debut on the sidelines when Kentucky blasted Tennessee-Martin 59-14 at Lexington. Her Week 2 assignment will dispatch Mitts, now 36, back to the alma mater, where she has many fond memories of being in The Swamp and cheering on Coach Steve Spurrier and the Gators.
“Danny Wuerrfel was the quarterback,” Mitts said. “He was a god.”
And she was a UF soccer goddess.
As a freshman in 1996 on UF’s second team, the Cincinnati product instantly became one of the best defensive players in the SEC, starting all but one game she played during a rookie season that ended with a broken leg in the SEC Tournament. As a sophomore, Mitts was one of four Gators to start every game on her way to winning the coaches award as the team’s most inspirational player.
Then came the magical 1998 season.
Mitts started all 27 games and led the Gators in minutes played with 2,329. The final seconds of those minutes ticked away in a stirring 1-0 upset of the 14-time champion North Carolina in the NCAA title game at Greensboro, giving the Gators a national crown in just their fourth season of existence.
When she left UF a year later, Mitts did so as a two-time All-American and with the school record for career starts (94), minutes (7,547) and consecutive starts (74).
Mitts hasn’t gotten back to Gainesville much -- she's been married to former NFL quarterback A.J. Feeley since 2010 and together they have a 9-month-old son -- which will make this visit all the more special. Mitts still recalls the days when the soccer players would cross paths with Spurrier in the south end zone training facility. Like that time coming off their ’98 national title, an outcome that came a week after a football loss at Florida State and a Tennessee win in the SEC Championship Game.
“You soccer girls need to rub off a little on our football boys and show ‘em how it’s supposed to be done.”
He paid attention to all UF teams. This weekend, Mitts gets to relive some of those days, courtesy of ESPN.
“So, yeah, coming back to do a Gator game is going to be really exciting for me,” Mitts said. “I still bleed orange and blue. That’ll never change.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- So after calling a similar entry last week a “Get to Know the University of Idaho” blog, readers learned a whole more about UI, the college, rather than UI, the football team, thanks to 10 seconds of action Saturday night.
You’re welcome, unfortunately.
While the powers that be figure what if anything will come of the vanished date with the Vandals, the Florida football season (presumably) goes on.
Next up for the Gators is a Saturday afternoon showdown against Eastern Michigan (1-0), an opponent UF has faced just once in its 108-year history. The previous date came in 2004, in what turned out to be Coach Ron Zook’s final season. And guess what? The Eagles were supposed to be Florida’s second opponent of the year, but the threat of Hurricane Frances rolling across the state forced officials to postpone UF’s opener against Middle Tennessee State several days before the game and move it to the middle of the season.
“It’s a little unique,” EMU coach Chris Creighton told The Gainesville Sun of the upcoming weekend's scenario. “It’s the second game in a row for us not knowing what another team is going to do. It’s a little unnerving, to be sure.”
It’s the second straight week for the Gators, too.
And the first time their offensive and defensive units actually will get to hit somebody.
Like last week, we’ll just assume as much.
So, let’s talk Eagles.
We'll start by checking out their spirited entrance last week into Rynearson Stadium before a 31-28 win over Morgan State. It made some highlights shows, so it might as well make Harry Fodder.
EASTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY
Where: Ypsilanti, Mich. (about 30 miles west of Detroit and 10 miles east of the University of Michigan campus at Ann Arbor)
Enrollment: 23,419 (in 2013)
Colors: Green & White
Nickname: Eagles ... but from 1929 to 1991, EMU’s nickname was the Hurons. No, not because of the nearby Great Lake, but because of the American Indian tribe that thrived in the area for centuries. In 1991, however, an Eastern Michigan student filed a compliant with the office of Michigan Civil Rights claiming the name was insensitive to Native Americans. Within a year, the Hurons became the Eagles.
Conference: Mid-American (in the West Division with Ball State, Central Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Michigan).
Fun facts: In days past, EMU also was known as Michigan State Normal School, Michigan State Normal College and Eastern Michigan College. ... Forbes ranked EMU as the nation’s 623rd best public school last year. ... Eastern Michigan’s baseball team reached the championship game of the 1976 College World Series, but lost to Arizona. ... The Eagles upset Duke in the first round of the 1996 NCAA men’s basketball tournament under Coach Ben Braun and five years earlier reached the Sweet 16 for the only time in school history with wins over Mississippi State and Penn State.
FAMOUS EMU ATHLETES
* Charlie Batch (left) -- NFL quarterback who toyed as a starter for the Detroit Lions, but spent the bulk of his 15-year career backing up Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, where he won a pair of Super Bowls.
*Earl Boykins -- Only 5-foot-5, yet his career as an NBA journeyman (with 11 different clubs) wrapped its 14th season last spring. He remains the shortest player in NBA history to score 30 or more points in a game (32 as a member of the Denver Nuggets against the Detroit Piston on Nov. 11, 2004). Boykins was second in the nation in scoring his senior year at EMU at 26.8 points per game. His jersey No. 11 was retired in 2011.
* Terry Collins -- In his fourth season as manager of the New York Mets.
* Hasley Crawford -- Sprinter from Trinidad and gold-medalist in the men’s 100 meters at the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal.
* George Gervin (right)-- One of the greatest basketball players in history, “The Iceman” averaged 26.2 points points per game and played in nine NBA All-Star games in his career, most of it with the San Antonio Spurs. Great story: Going into the final day of the 1978 season, Gervin was in a heated battle with Denver’s David Thompson for the NBA scoring title. Thompson scored 73 points in an afternoon game to take the statistical lead. Gervin went out that night and poured in 63, including an NBA record 33 in the second quarter to overtake Thompson -- and he sat out the game's final 15 minutes. In case you didn't know, the man "could finger-roll."
* Stan Heath -- As head basketball coach at Kent State, he guided the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight in 2002 and parlayed that magical season into later jobs at Arkansas and South Florida.
* Hayes Jones -- American track star who won the gold medal in the 100-meter high hurdles at the 1964 Olympic Games at Tokyo.
* Bob Sutton -- Head coach at Army from 1991-99 and now defensive coordinator for the New York Jets.
* Kevin Walter -- Former NFL wide receiver who caught 356 passes and 25 touchdowns over 11 seasons. While playing for the Houston Texans had a 12-catch, 160-yard game against Jacksonville in 2009.
* Bob Welch -- Flame-throwing, 1990 American League Cy Young Award-winning right-hander who won three World Series, including one each in both leagues (1981 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and 1990 with Oakland A’s, when he won 27 games) and another as pitching coach of the Arizona Diamond backs in 2001. Welch, who died in June at age 57, was the star on the aforementioned ’76 EMU team that reached the CWS title game. Old-timers and baseball historians will remember the below one-for-the-ages showdown in the ’78 Series between Welch and Reggie Jackson. If you like that one, definitely check out Reggie's revenge -- and do I mean revenge -- four games later, below that.
OTHER NOTABLE ALUMNI
Dann Florek (right) -- Made his debut on “Law & Order” in 1990, but eventually landed a regular role on the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” spinoff as Capt. Don Cragen.
Greg Mathis -- Retired Michigan 36th District Court judge who found a following on the reality show “Judge Mathis.”
Ron Campbell -- CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which he helped build into the 2004 Stanley Cup champion.
Updated: 2:14pm, August 31
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Brooke Austin’s first week as a University of Florida freshman barely lasted long enough to find where the campus Starbucks are located.
“I went to two classes,” Austin said. “That’s it.”
Forgive her for bailing so soon, though. One of the newest members of the UF women’s tennis team, Austin had a fairly legit excuse for splitting town.
A date at the U.S. Open.
Austin will face Russian Evgeniya Levashova in Sunday afternoon's opening-round play of the U.S. Open Junior Girls Singles competition, thus becoming a rare Gators freshman to compete in the nation’s most prestigious tournament. Austin will be just the second player of Coach Roland Thornqvist’s 14 seasons leading the UF program to have a player play on the hallowed courts of Flushing Meadows, N.Y., joining Lauren Embree in that elite category.
Anyone who follows Florida tennis knows how that worked out. All Embree did was lead the Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships her sophomore and junior years.
Enter Austin, a 5-foot-3, power right-hander from Indianapolis rated the No. 2 prospect in her signing class. She’s no stranger to the Open, having first played there as a 13-year-old. She lost a three-set tiebreaker, cramping up along the way due to a combination of heat and nerves.
She’s 18 now (and eligible one last time for the juniors bracket), but that doesn’t mean the experience will be any less overwhelming. Or special.
“There’s definitely something about that place,” Austin said. “Nothing can describe being an American and playing at the U.S. Open. The crowd support is amazing. Everybody there tries to help you and cheer you on. There’s an electricity there that you can’t describe.”
Ask Thornqvist about Austin and he gets a little electrified, too.
In his time with the Gators, the prototypical Florida player has been athletic and skilled, excelled at moving, rolling and defending, and looking for points via volleys of 15, 16 and 17 shots.
That's not Austin, he said. Her aggressive tactics and ball-striking ability makes her different. And rare.
“Brooke wants to play points in under four strokes,” Thornqvist said. “She wants to make things happen on first and second shots, and on top of that she has an uncanny knack of finding a way to win.”
Thornqvist accompanied Austin to New York and expects to see her on the attack the very first match -- and for however long she sticks around against the finest juniors field in the world.
“She’s going there to try and win,” he said. “Frankly, she could lose in the first round; the competition is that good. But she could also be there the last day, too. If she plays well, there’s no junior player in the world she can’t beat.”
The "junior" who’s really a freshman.
“I really want to have a good tournament,” Austin said. “I really just want to go there and play my best, do what I can do. Everyone in the tournament obviously is good. I just want to play my best, fight my hardest and see what that gets me.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A couple weeks ago, members of the Florida football team used some time between preseason practice and meetings to gather in the south end zone tunnel as highlights of the 1996 national championship season played on a television.
Marcell Harris, a redshirt freshman safety (pictured right), was in the group of smiling Gators.
His father was on the screen.
“He wore [No.] 13, which is why I wear 26,” Harris said. “I’m trying to double him.”
Dad can see it happening.
“People ask me all the time what’s the biggest difference between the two of us,” said Mike Harris, a four-year letter-winner for the Gators during one of the most dominant eras in Southeastern Conference history. “Honestly, he was better than me coming out of high school than I was coming out of college.”
If that’s the case, then Coach Will Muschamp and his defensive staff should be pleased.
Mike Harris was a 6-foot-1, 192-pound converted linebacker from Gainesville Buchholtz when he arrived on campus in the fall of 1993. A year later -- 20 years ago, in fact -- Harris made his UF debut in the ’94 opener against New Mexico, a 70-21 blowout win.
Marcell Harris was two months old at the time.
Now, two decades later, he’ll play his first collegiate game Saturday night when the Gators open the 2014 season against Idaho at Florida Field.
“I don’t really remember seeing him play here,” said Marcell, whose mother took him to Gator games and pointed daddy out on the field. “There’s some pictures of us together back when he played, I think. And I do have some recollection of being in his dorm one time ... but that’s about it.”
Over his four years, Mike Harris (pictured left) started 14 of his 43 games -- including nine as a junior in UF’s 1996 national-championship season) and amassed 182 tackles and 12 pass break-ups. The lone interception of his career came in 1995 against Florida State, the day the Gators completed their historic first unbeaten regular season; his Senior Day finale was the epic 32-29 upset of top-ranked FSU to close out the ’97 season, arguably the most thrilling game ever at The Swamp.
All told, Mike Harris went 32-3 against SEC opponents.
Not a bad career.
“It’s funny how things happen,” said Mike, who has run his own tax and brokerage business for 16 years. “Things are a lot different. We didn’t study the game back then like they do now. I know he works hard at that. Football is still about the basics, but the game has evolved so much.”
When Harris played, he rotated in the defensive backfield with the likes of Lawrence Wright, Teako Brown, Shea Showers, Demetric Jackson and Michael Gilmore. The Gators weren’t just two deep at safety, but three.
Sort of like now.
Sophomore Keanu Neal is the headline single-high safety. After redshirting in 2013, the 6-1, 208-pound Harris is listed as third backup safety (behind true freshman Duke Dawson and redshirt freshman Nick Washington) and the first backup to junior Brian Poole when the Gators go to their dime coverage.
When the Gators go to a Cover Two scheme, senior Jabari Gorman will be back there. Marcell, though, figures to get a play here and there, not to mention some cracks on special teams.
Hey, that’s how his dad started. He was second in special-teams tackles as a red-shirt freshman with 25. A year later, he was fourth on the defense in tackles with 78
“[Safety's] an important position,” said Harris, who chose UF from a lengthy list of suiters that included FSU, Miami, Texas, Auburn and LSU. “You have to get guys lined up, call things out and stay focused.”
His father could have told him that much, but when the two talk football it’s usually not X's and O's. Compete. Play hard. That sort of thing.
But now, with the reality of 20 years having passed since his first true romp in The Swamp, Mike may have one more piece of advice for Marcell.
“I’d tell him to have fun,” Mike said. “It goes by fast, so fast. You blink your eye and next thing you know you’re a senior.”
A few more blinks, and you’re watching your kid wear the orange and blue.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan has sent his share of the players to the NBA.
Now he’s sending staff members.
Mark Daigneault (left), who has served as Donovan’s assistant to the head coach the last four seasons, and Oliver Winterbone (below left), the basketball program’s video coordinator during that time, are leaving next month for positions with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Daigneault was named head coach Friday of the franchise’s OKC-based Development League squad, while Winterbone was hired to a post in the team’s front office.
This is their last week with the program.
During their time with the Gators, Daigneault and Winterbone played key behind-the-scenes roles in the winningest four seasons in UF history, as the team went 120-30, won three Southeastern Conference championships and advanced to four Elite Eights, plus one Final Four.
“Both of those guys are just great chemistry guys,” Donovan said. “Very bright, very knowledge, totally unselfish and always working for the greater good of the staff and the program. Anytime you lose really, really good people, that’s tough, but it’s a great opportunity for both of them and a chance to be a part of a really good organization.”
For Daigneault, the opportunity to become a head coach at the age of 28 -- and with a franchise as respected as the Thunder -- was too enticing to pass up.
A full-time assistant at Holy Cross at 23, Daigneault took a graduate assistant’s post at UF in 2010 and was promoted to assistant to the head coach heading into the 2012-13 season. His duties were multi-fold, with an emphasis on player development off the court.
“I’m going to an organization that values the strengths I bring to the table,” Daigneault said. “You’re only as good as your opportunities and I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities here to make this position what I wanted and get out of it what I wanted, but I never would have been able to do that I not been empowered by Coach Donovan, the staff and these players.”
The Thunder’s D-League squad, the Tulsa 66ers, is relocating to OKC and will operate out of the club’s headquarters, which allow Daigneault to be involved with the team -- as in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, etc. -- on a regular basis.
The career track for Winterbone, 31, always has been with an eye toward the NBA. His innovative approach in his video presentations and application of advance metrics made a huge impact on the program and how the coaches broke down and analyzed results.
Now he’ll be breaking down personnel and analyzing statistics for Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti, regarding as one of the cutting-edge executives not just in the NBA but in pro sports.
“One of the beauties of working for Coach Donovan is that he gives you a lot of freedom to kind of do your own thing and be innovative and it’s a freedom that allowed me to dive into areas I’m really excited about,” Winterbone said. “This organization here [at UF] is as professional as it gets at the college level. And to have worked for a future Hall of Fame coach like him, and seeing how he manages his people and his players, that’s knowledge that I will carry with me.”
Donovan is in the process of searching for replacements for the two.
"The one thing you want to be careful of is trying to replicate and wanting people just like Mark and Oliver," Donovan said. "You want to bring in guys to both of those postions that bring value, but through their own unique strengths and talents. That’s what we’ll try to do."