Tennessee and Florida football deeply entwined

Marvin Westwestwords

Early in his time in Gainesville, Florida coach Billy Napier schooled his Gators on the rivalry with Tennessee.

It was background information on the significance of the game, the timing, early in the Southeastern Conference race, often of national relevance.

“Just educating everyone on the history and the magnitude of the game,” Napier said.

Josh Heupel may have conducted a similar session for the Vols. Hope so.

Tennessee and Florida have had a tight football linkage for 70-something years. I think entwined is the word. Long before that, they were just acquaintances.

The two schools haven’t played all that much but the rivalry was been generally enthusiastic, sometimes hostile, often meaningful and always interesting.

There are ties that bind.

Former Tennessee tackle Bob Woodruff was Florida coach and athletics director from 1950 through 1959.

Former Tennessee center and captain Ray Graves was Florida coach from 1960 to 1969. He was AD from 1960 through 1979.

Former Florida quarterback Doug Dickey (under Woodruff) was Tennessee coach from 1964 through 1969. He was not a particularly happy camper upon his return to Florida but seemed to enjoy being Tennessee AD from 1985 to 2002.

The 1969 Gator Bowl was the most twisted part of this entanglement. It is remembered less for Curt Watson’s 121 yards rushing and more for talk of a forthcoming coaching change. Tennessee fans were convinced Dickey was emotionally connected to both teams that day in Jacksonville, coaching the Vols for the last time and assessing the Gators he was about to inherit.

December rumors had swirled. The situation intensified just before the game when Dickey admitted he had been offered the job. I called him before breakfast on Dec. 27, 1969, and asked that very question. He said yes.

In fact, Florida officials had been talking with Dickey for months. The NCAA conducted an investigation to determine whether there were ethical violations. Of course, no wrongdoing was discovered. This was typical SEC. All was fair in love, war and football.

The 1970 schedule was rude, maybe cruel. Dickey had to bring his first Florida team to Neyland Stadium. The Vols romped, 38-7, behind Bobby Scott’s 385 passing yards. The Gators contributed four turnovers, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns.

There was another spirited Tennessee-Florida connection. Steve Spurrier grew up in Johnson City. He was an all-everything prep star. Bowden Wyatt tried to recruit him for the Volunteers. Steve was a quarterback. He saw there was no position for him in the aging single wing. He was too slow to be a tailback.

What’s more, Steve’s father, a minister, was troubled by Wyatt’s lifestyle. Bowden took an occasional nip of strong drink.

Young Spurrier became a Gator. He won the Heisman Trophy. He eventually returned as Florida coach.

He brought his first Gator squad to Neyland Stadium in 1990. That game began as a defensive struggle. Tennessee was up 7-3 at intermission. The Vols’ Dale Carter returned the second-half kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown.

The Gators fumbled their next possession. They turned the ball over six times in the second half. It is a matter of record that Spurrier threw down his visor and stomped on it.

The opportunistic Vols had a jolly, good time, 45-3, largest margin of victory in series history. It was happy homecoming at Tennessee.

Steve talks a lot about a lot of things but has never said much about that adventure.

Spurrier’s overall record against the Vols as coach at Duke, Florida and South Carolina was 14-10. His heckling made it seem worse. Steve really was a skillful annoyance.

From the beginning in 1916, Florida has won 31 of the 52 games.

There is no comparison in the recruiting rivalry. Linebacker Steve Kiner made the move from Tampa to Tennessee to the College Hall of Fame. One hundred thirty-three Volunteer lettermen, past and present, are from Florida. Joe Milton III and offensive tackles John Campbell and Gerald Mincey are current headliners.

From-there-to-here includes some big names: running back Travis Henry, quarterback Tony Robinson, wide receiver Alvin Harper and defensive back Albert Dorsey.

You might recall Herky Payne, Jim Haslam, Ray Nettles, Fuad Reveiz, Tommy Bronson, Bill Anderson and Tom Fisher. There are many, many more.

Competition continues. Four-star tight end Jonathan Echols at IMG Academy in Bradenton is committed to Tennessee.

If anybody asks, tell ‘em we need all the help we can get. Tennessee-Florida is serious business.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


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