The 1996 Florida Gators football team won their first National Championship. They were the first college football team to win a national championship in the state of Florida.
The 2008 Florida Gators is a sports article about the 2008 football season. It discusses the team’s success and their championship victory over Ohio State.
It’s been almost 25 years since the Head Ball Coach stood on the field at a boisterous Louisiana Superdome, surrounded by a sea of jubilant Florida players, coaches, and cheerleaders, and uttered one of his favorite sayings.
Steve Spurrier told ABC sideline reporter Lynn Swann, “God has shined on the Gators.”
Spurrier, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was known for thanking God after a huge Florida victory. This was more than a huge victory, however. It was a victory that gave the Gators their first national title. Even better, it came in the Sugar Bowl, when the Seminoles clobbered (one of Spurrier’s favorite phrases meaning a thrashing) the Gators 52-20 a month after the Seminoles had edged the Gators 24-21 in the regular-season finale.
In conjunction with Saturday’s game versus Tennessee in Gainesville, Florida will commemorate the 25th anniversary of their 1996 national championship squad (7 p.m., ESPN and ESPN App).
We look back on that memorable season through the eyes of coaches, players, administrators, and others close to that 1996 Florida team, which was part of an incredible run under Spurrier that saw the Gators win four consecutive SEC championships from 1993 to 1996 (nobody has won four in a row since), as well as 25 straight games against SEC opponents — by an average margin of 28.6 points per game. Only the Alabama teams of Bear Bryant from 1976 through 1980 have won more SEC games in a row (27).
Ike Hilliard, a former Florida wide receiver who now coaches for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL, put it up well.
“At the end of the day, for those three or four years, we controlled the SEC.”
In 1995, the foundation of domination was laid.
Despite the fact that the 1996 team won the national title, the 1995 squad achieved something that none of the previous three Gators national championship teams had done: complete the regular season undefeated and win the SEC championship game.
Spurrier told ESPN, “I don’t want to boast too much about the 1996 squad because the ’95 team was every bit as terrific.” “Nebraska clobbered us in 1995, but they would have clobbered just about anybody.”
After their 25-year reunion was postponed a year ago due to COVID-19, the 1995 Florida SEC championship team will also be celebrated on Saturday.
“I suppose I’m a bit jealous because I believe that ’95 team gets underappreciated,” said Chris Doering, who ended his Florida career with 31 touchdown catches (a record currently held by Alabama’s DeVonta Smith) and now works as an SEC Network commentator. “We dominated the table from start to finish that year, but in the Fiesta Bowl, we were up against one of the greatest teams in college football history, Nebraska.”
In fact, Florida’s 62-24 thrashing at the hands of Nebraska to end the 1995 season was a significant factor in the Gators’ eventual national championship triumph in 1996.
“We realized that winning the national title that season would be the only way to get over the humiliation of losing to Nebraska,” Hilliard recalled.
“We don’t intend to do a lot of punting,” said the group.
Any player or coach who has worked with Spurrier has a favorite Head Ball Coach memory. Bob Stoops, who was in his first season as Florida’s defensive coordinator that year before going on to a Hall of Fame head-coaching career at Oklahoma, recalls two plays from that season.
Stoops inquired about Spurrier’s thoughts on the Gators’ lack of a clear response heading into the season.
Spurrier, whose Gators averaged a school-record 46.6 points per game and scored more than 40 points in 10 of their 13 games, chirped, “Ahh, Bobby, we don’t intend on doing a lot of punting this season.”
Even though Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun offense stole the show, offensive players felt Stoops’ defensive edge was the missing element.
Hilliard said, “Coach Stoops transformed our life.” “We stopped playing so much zone on defense, and he let players be athletes on the defensive side of the ball, and it was so competitive from Day One.”
Spurrier then let the coaches and players free after Thursday’s practice during the off week coming up to the battle with No. 2 Tennessee. He and Stoops, together with their families, spent the long weekend at Spurrier’s beach home.
“We’re out in the surf, and [Spurrier] asks, ‘Bobby, do you think those Tennessee guys are out there splashing about in the waves right now?’” According to Stoops.
That’s the thing that sticks with Spurrier even after all these years.
“I don’t remember much else during that period, including my schoolwork,” said James Bates, a senior linebacker and captain of the 1996 Florida team.
In 1996, Danny Wuerffel finished his Florida career with a national championship and the Heisman Trophy. Sports on USA TODAY
A sluggish start leads to a rapid shift.
Who threw the first touchdown pass that season is Spurrier’s favorite trivia question about the 1996 squad.
Here’s a hint: Danny Wuerffel didn’t throw 39 touchdown passes. Instead, it was backup quarterback Brian Schottenheimer, who is currently the Jacksonville Jaguars’ passing game coordinator.
Florida started the 1996 season with a stalemate offensively on their opening two drives against Southwestern Louisiana.
“The first team went out there twice and had to punt,” Spurrier said, despite the fact that the Gators only had to punt 38 times in 13 games all season. “‘What the heck is wrong with you guys?’ I said. ‘Please take a seat on the bench.’”
So Schottenheimer and the second-team offensive line were inserted as quarterback, but Spurrier cheated a little and kept his two All-American wideouts, Hilliard and Reidel Anthony, in the game.
Spurrier stated, “Yeah, Schotty threw a hitch throw to Ike and they were blitzing.” “Ike swerved around five defenders on his way to a 50-yard score.”
“OK, Danny, you and the rest of the men are in now,” I said.
Rocky Top is rockin’.
In the 1990s, Tennessee had several very good teams, but Florida and Spurrier dominated the Vols. Spurrier relished in rubbing it in with his famous insults, making things much worse for Tennessee and its supporters.
(The rivalry was so fierce that when Spurrier paid a home visit to Bates, who grew up near Knoxville, Bates’ mother made it clear where her allegiances lay: “Coach comes in and says, ‘We’re happy to have James be a Gator,’” Bates recalled, “but I’m not, and if it were up to me, you wouldn’t be sitting in this house right now.”
The Vols were ready for retaliation by Week 3 of the 1996 season. They hosted the No. 4 Gators, who were ranked second in the nation. Florida had a 35-0 lead in the first 21 minutes of the game, turning Neyland Stadium like a mortuary, and Peyton Manning was intercepted four times — before leading a second-half comeback that was too little too late in a 35-29 Gators victory.
Under Spurrier, who went to high school in Johnson City, Tennessee, and was 8-4 versus the Vols while at Florida, Florida’s opening possession of the game set the tone and in many ways defined the rivalry.
Spurrier decided to go for it on fourth-and-11 from the Tennessee 35-yard line. The Vols melted in the rain after Wuerffel struck Anthony on a post pattern for a score.
“Coach simply didn’t care,” Hilliard said. “We threw a bomb to Reidel for a touchdown since it was so noisy that you couldn’t hear. Isn’t that absurd? But he’s the one.”
Spurrier’s phony playbook
Spurrier was already attempting to play mind games with the Vols the night before the victory against them.
Spurrier put a fake play sheet on the floor of the theater’s restroom while the squad was in adjacent Alcoa watching a movie. It featured the game’s first ten plays, all of which were fake, with the first being a reversal.
One of the assistant coaches discovered it and returned it to Spurrier, who ordered him to take it back since he placed it there on purpose. One of Florida’s security officials returned the sheet to Spurrier a few minutes later.
“No, no, return it to its proper place. I’m the one who abandoned it “The officer was informed by Spurrier.
A “faxgate” controversy had erupted a few years before, when former Tennessee assistant coach Jack Sells was caught sending schematics and notes from Tennessee’s playbook to then-Florida defensive coordinator Ron Zook by a Kinko’s employee near UT’s campus.
“I was waiting on the sideline for one of those Tennessee guys across the field to scream, ‘Reverse! Reverse!’” says the player. Spurrier remarked. “However, I don’t believe they ever received it.”
Spurrier also recalls exactly what play was on the fake sheet: Zero Reverse Left.
Spurrier said, “But we raced off tackle and faked the reversal.” “Well, it didn’t travel very far, but…”
Part I: Gators vs. Seminoles
The victory against Tennessee propelled Florida to the top of the AP poll for almost two months, with the Gators winning seven consecutive SEC games, including six by at least 27 points.
Then there was the Nov. 30 matchup against No. 2 Florida State.
In their 24-21 victory, the Seminoles sacked Wuerffel six times and forced three interceptions. Spurrier is still enraged about what he deems a succession of late hits.
Spurrier stated, “I believe they struck Danny 34 times after he threw the ball, and the referees only called two or three roughing the passer penalties.”
Wuerffel chimed in with his opinion.
“Several of the blows were unquestionably late. Some of them were called, while others were not “Wuerffel explained. “I recall one of them having the ref turn and look the other way since it was so late. But things were different back then. If you look at some of those hits today, you can see why players were dismissed.”
Hilliard, like Spurrier, was enraged, but mainly at himself. He was guilty for two of Florida’s three turnovers, and he didn’t even start the SEC championship game against Alabama.
“Anything for a second shot at those people,” Hilliard said. “The fact that we lost the game still irritates me.”
Hilliard and his colleagues would shortly be given a second chance.
After losing to the Seminoles during the regular season, Steve Spurrier and the Gators avenged themselves in the Sugar Bowl, winning 52-20 to capture the national championship. Dave Martin/AP Photo
The championship door is opened by a little bit of luck.
The Gators’ national championship aspirations seemed to be over after their defeat against the Seminoles, as they dropped from No. 1 to No. 4 in the country.
Florida offensive lineman Zach Piller recalled, “I remember sitting on that bus in Tallahassee and felt like everything had slipped away.”
In the SEC championship game, Florida defeated Alabama 45-30, while unranked Texas defeated No. 3 Nebraska 37-27 in the Big 12 Championship game.
Wuerffel and Spurrier were traveling up the elevator at the team hotel when the doors opened to a cacophony of shouting and screaming.
“What’s going on?” says the narrator. As some of the Florida players danced about, Spurrier shouted.
Spurrier was irritated by his players’ antics building up to the SEC championship game.
“Then they all informed us Texas had just defeated Nebraska, and Coach Spurrier and I were both leaping up and down,” Wuerffel recalled.
With another SEC championship under their belts, the Gators were given a second chance at the Seminoles in New Orleans, as well as a chance at the national title when No. 2 Arizona State fell 20-17 to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl the day before.
During the Arizona State-Ohio State game, Pat Dooley, a veteran writer for The Gainesville Sun, was hosting a radio program from the Hilton in New Orleans. Fans from Florida were flocking around, he claimed, demanding to know what was going on.
“After a while, we stopped performing the program and simply began doing Rose Bowl play-by-play,” Dooley recalled.
With Florida State undefeated and rated No. 1, the contest the next night was virtually likely to be for the national title.
Working the refs, Bourbon Street, and preparing for an epic rematch
Spurrier was determined to keep his star quarterback safe heading into the Sugar Bowl.
Spurrier’s longtime director of football operations, Jamie Speronis, claimed it was more than a touch frosty between Spurrier and FSU coach Bobby Bowden during the coaches meeting with the referees a couple of nights before the Sugar Bowl.
“Let’s just say it was intriguing,” Speronis remarked, “not a lot of niceties.”
Spurrier had a video produced for the referees that showed all of the late-game hits he thought were illegal. Bowden, who passed away earlier this year, defended his players, saying they were just responding to the “echo of the whistle.”
Prior to the Sugar Bowl, Bates recalls a conversation between Spurrier and the players about swearing. Spurrier gathered the players around him after practice, knowing things were about to become hot.
“‘If they strike you late, hit ’em back,’ he said. If they curse you, cuss them back.’ “Bates cautioned, “There is one exception.”
Spurrier was adamant about not using the F-word.
“It’s OK to use the words hell, dammit, or s—- on occasion, but you guys overuse the F-word. Please don’t use the F-word “Bates remembered something.
Spurrier didn’t even spare the spotless Wuerffel, demonstrating that no one was safe.
“Coach Spurrier looks at Danny and asks, ‘Now, Danny, what are you going to do if they hit you late?’ I don’t believe Danny would even say ‘doohickey.’ ‘Could you kindly ask them not to do it again?’” With a chuckle, Bates remarked.
Meanwhile, on Bourbon Street, one of those tasked with guarding Wuerffel up front was having a bit too much fun.
Piller’s bold declarations were splattered all over the New Orleans Times-Picayune the following day, and he went on to have an eight-year NFL career with the Tennessee Titans.
“I simply remember sitting there eating my pancakes at breakfast and everyone on the squad was gazing at me and looking at the newspaper,” Piller recalled. “I suppose the night before I went a bit wild.”
As in seizing the microphone at the Cats Meow karaoke bar and declaring, in Piller’s words, “what the Gators were going to do to the Seminoles in their rematch.”
“Let’s just say there were a few FSU supporters and maybe a few FSU players in the crowd. They weren’t pleased, and it was all documented in the newspaper “Piller’s tone was still sheepish after all these years.
“It’s a good thing we kicked their ass because Coach Spurrier would have had my ass.”
Spurrier won a Heisman Trophy as a player and a national championship as a coach during his time at Florida. Sports on USA TODAY
Stop and make a pop
One of the major changes Florida made in the rematch with Florida State was to place Wuerffel in the shotgun, something Spurrier disliked. Wuerffel retaliated with three touchdown throws and one touchdown run.
“We knew it was ours if we protected Danny in that second game,” Piller, the Gators’ left tackle, said. “We knew they had some NFL-caliber pass rushers, but it’s hard not to take it personally when someone takes filthy, cheap swings at your quarterback. It was just a question of us stepping up, which we did.”
Hilliard, who was anxious to make up for his errors in the first meeting with Florida State, accomplished just that. In a rout of Florida State, he established three Sugar Bowl records and ended the night with three touchdown receptions.
The hallmark play from that 52-20 blowout, though, will always remain his 31-yard TD catch in the second quarter: Stop and Pop.
Hilliard ran a slant pattern and sprang up to catch Wuerffel’s throw at the 16, where he planted his left foot and came to a halt just long enough for Florida State cornerback James Colzie and following linebacker Hank Grant to brush each other. After that, Hilliard turned right and waltzed in for a score.
“I was aware of Colzie’s whereabouts. That’s why I held it to my breast plate “Hilliard said. “I had no idea how far away he would be. However, as I was descending, I saw a flare of color from inside. And when they collided, I thought to myself, ‘Oh s—-, I’ve got something.’”
When asked whether he had run across Colzie since juking him in the Superdome, Hilliard said, “I haven’t done so. I’m not sure he’d want to see me.”
Spurrier’s disguise and a colossal bash
There was no question who would be named No. 1 after the Gators thrashed the Seminoles so convincingly.
Spurrier was greeted by experienced Florida sports information director Norm Carlson as he went across the field, who remarked, “Congratulations, Steve. We’ve won the national championship.”
Spurrier spun around and smiled as he returned his gaze “How did you figure it out? Have they cast their ballots yet?”
Spurrier, on the other hand, knew.
“At the time, the media guys and coaches were still voting for the winner, so I tried not to act like we were the champions in case they voted for Ohio State or someone else,” Spurrier said.
Regardless, the celebration was in full swing in New Orleans, with the Head Football Coach right in the thick of it.
As the team’s celebration in the hotel ballroom came to a close, Spurrier announced that the next destination would be Bourbon Street.
“‘Coach, there’s no way,’ we replied. There’s a zoo out there. ‘You’ll be swarmed,’ says the narrator “According to Speronis.
Spurrier, on the other hand, had a strategy. He’d go as a phantom. So he dashed up to his hotel room, putting on a Florida hat instead of his usual visor.
Speronis said, “That was intended to be his camouflage.”
They set out, led by the Spurrier-assigned highway patrolman and other team security staff. “It’s Spurrier,” someone shouted out about 10 yards down Bourbon Street, according to Speronis.
Beads began to fly from the balconies above Bourbon Street, perhaps along with a few adult drinks, as a throng of jubilant Florida supporters began to crowd in. Security personnel were eventually able to create a route for Spurrier to leave, according to Speronis, but not before the Head Ball Coach said his goodbyes:
“All right, guys, have fun.”
This weekend in the Swamp, the fun will return.
Looking back on 1996, Bates remarked, “There was never a boring moment.” “It’s been a wonderful season and a magical journey.”
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