Tuesday November 22, 2011The Long and Crazy Road Back to Gainesville
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Contributing Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Once upon a time, I was knee-deep in University of Florida sports. How deep? Well, I’ve told this tale a bunch, but it seems like an appropriate time to tell it again.
The year was 1994 and my wife and I were at the movies. A few hours earlier, I’d sat through a Gators football scrimmage that was anything but impressive. Coach Steve Spurrier didn’t like what he saw and was candid in his criticism afterward (as he was known to be). But he also didn’t like a couple questions I asked, though he didn’t get around to letting me know. Until later.
The phone call came while we were out. The babysitter, who happened to be dating a starting offensive lineman, answered. The conversation went something like this:
Hi there! I’m lookin’ for Harry Chris-Chris Harry.
Um, well, Chris isn’t here right now.
OK then, I guess this must be Mrs. Harry.
Um, no, it’s not ... Is this Coach Spurrier?
Yeah ... who’s this?
Well, my name is Christine. I’m the baby-sitter. I recognized your voice. I’m Jeff Mitchell’s girlfriend.
Jeff Mitchell’s girlfriend? ... Jeff Mitchell jumped offsides today!
Man, those were the days.
The most interesting and rewarding times of my professional career were the 10 years I spent covering the Gators; and that’s coming from a guy who spent the last decade covering the National Football League. As the UF beat writer for both the Tampa Tribune and Orlando Sentinel from 1990-2000, not only was I witness to a seismic shakeup of the balance of power in college athletics, I got to chronicle it for posterity. And dealing with Spurrier, one of the most fascinating coaches -- not to mention innovative and successful -- ever to walk a sideline, made things all the more, shall we say, colorful.
Then came Billy Donovan and his 9.1 Richter-like impact on college basketball.
Well, I’m knee-deep in orange and blue all over again.
For perspective’s sake, consider that I was born in the nation’s capital and grew up in Arlington, Va. My college football experience as a youth was watching whatever big game was on Saturday and the Notre Dame highlights shows (“... brought to you by Borax ...”) after church and before the Redskins came on. My teams were D.C. pro teams. Hold the jokes. Believe it or not, they used to be good.
When it came time to go to college in 1978, I went to the University of South Florida, another venue void of football. The biggest game on campus each fall was the Sig Eps vs. SAEs (and I was a GDI).
In fact, it wasn’t until my second year at the Tribune, when I was asked to work Thanksgiving weekend so a colleague could visit with his family, that I attended my first live college football game. I was 25 years old. And if you freeze the ESPN Classic highlight at the right time you can see a guy in a gray Members Only jacket (sleeves rolled up, of course) standing near the goal line of the Orange Bowl when Gerard Phelan caught Doug Flutie’s pass.
“Hmmmm,” I thought. “Guess college games are pretty good.”
In the fall of ’89, while working as backup on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat, I was told the Tribune wanted to send me to Gainesville to cover UF in the spring. About the only thing I knew about the Gators was that they’d never won anything. “The Year of the Gator,” my late boss and Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen used to write, “is next year, again.” Another legendary scribe, Texas columnist Dan Jenkins, put it this way in the ‘80s: “Florida fans have the arrogance of Notre Dame ... and the tradition of Wake Forest.”
And so it was, when I first moved to Gainesville in 1990, there were no Southeastern Conference championship banners in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, both the football and hoops programs were mired in NCAA investigations, and a serial killer was about to go on a grisly campus rampage.
Now, as I return 21 years later, Gainesville has been voted the No. 1 most livable city in America, the football team has eight SEC titles, men’s basketball has just one less national championship (2) than football (3) and Florida, under the guidance of Jeremy Foley, has become a fixture in the annual Sears Cup standings that rank the best overall athletics programs in the country.
As a writer for GatorZone.com, I hope to maintain the level of excellence my new colleague, Scott Carter, established from the moment he became the voice of the wildly popular UF website. With a nationally ranked basketball team and future Hall-of-Fame coach as my primary beat, there will be no shortage of interesting and compelling stories, but I’m also looking forward to telling the tales of UF athletes and coaches from all sports, and along the way taking readers inside the Gators through the unmatched access GatorZone allows.
It’s just crazy how this all has come full circle for me.
Rewind to March 19, 1996. I got a tip that day that UF basketball coach Lon Kruger was in Illinois and on the verge of bolting the Gators, whose season ended earlier in the month at the SEC Tournament, to become coach for the Illini. I scrambled to write the story for the Tribune that day before hopping a flight to Minneapolis that night to cover the NCAA Midwest regional.
While in Minnesota, I worked the phones furiously, trying to stay in front of the Kruger story (yes, he took the job) and trying to pinpoint his likely Gators successor. As it turned out, Kentucky was the No. 1 seed in the regional and I made some nice contacts while there. Even had a very nice one-on-one conversation with Rick Pitino as that great Wildcats team was crushing opponents on the way to the regional title and eventual national championship.
The very next afternoon, a Sunday, I was back in Gainesville and got a phone call from a very well-connected Cat with some advice.
“If I was a Florida writer, I’d be calling Billy Donovan right about now.”
Turned out Foley had Donovan, the 30-year-old Marshall coach and Pitino protégé, sequestered in a Holiday Inn in Huntington, W.Va. There were no cell phones back then and no one was returning messages left at the front desk. I persevered, though, and the next day the Tribune had the story that Donovan was the guy.
That was more than 15 years, 363 wins, 14 McDonald’s All-Americans and lots of net-cutting ceremonies ago.
On Saturday, Donovan walked off the practice court, shook my hand, and with the backdrop of NCAA Final Four logos hanging from the wall of the palatial Taj MaHoops that opened a year after I left, welcomed me back to town.
“I missed a lot of good stuff,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “but you were there at the beginning.”
True. Fact is, in 10 years covering the Gators, I saw so much. Danny Wuerffel and Mike Miller; “Free Shoes U” and “Hit to the Echo;” Nicole Haislett and Brad Wilkerson; 31-31 and 52-20; Mary Wise and Lisa Raymond; Teddy Dupay vs. Mateen Cleaves and Jacquez Green vs. Samari Rolle. Incredible memories, all of them.
There’s one, though, that sticks in my mind more than any other.
The date was Sept. 11, 1993. Into the cool Lexington night, radio play-by-play man Mick Hubert screamed from the Commonwealth Stadium press box: “DOERING’S GOT A TOUCHDOWN! DOERING’S GOT A TOUCHDOWN! THE GATORS HAVE TAKEN THE LEAD! OH MY!”
Remember where you were that night?
Of Florida’s 125 football games from ’90-00, that was the only one I missed. I was at Shands Hospital for the birth of my daughter Molly.
Last month, she applied to UF.
Like I said, full circle.
Somewhere, Jeff Mitchell and Christine (now married, by the way) are smiling, too.