Publish date:


Florida ran through Tennessee at the Gators' scary and steamy home, a.k.a. the Swamp

Down there in backbiting country, amid the mud-choked rivers and crawling vines, the Florida Gators are untouched by reason. What good is reason, anyway, in 100° heat? The Gators prefer the feverish gesticulating of Steve Spurrier, who orders up touchdowns with a wave of his hand and incites victories with a toss of his visor.

The Gators are sweaty, disheveled and explosive, just like the 48-year-old Spurrier, their fabled Heisman Trophy winner turned coach. They are also unbeaten (3-0) and the leaders of the Southeastern Conference's eastern division after a 41-34 victory over Tennessee. The Volunteers, ranked fifth in the nation (to the Gators' ninth) going into the game, slowly sank in Florida Field, a brackish place that Spurrier christened the Swamp. Last Saturday the Swamp was Hooded with noise and debris from 85,247 spectators, the second-largest crowd ever to see a game there. Florida has not lost at home since Spurrier returned to preside over his alma mater's football fortunes in 1990. The victory over Tennessee made him 20-0 in the Swamp. And with their strongest divisional foe now behind them, the Gators have established themselves as the team most likely to challenge defending national champion Alabama for the SEC title.

The mayhem that takes place on Saturdays in Gainesville bears little relation to the autumn rituals of college football in much of the rest of the country. Gator fans strip to the waist and swill and swagger over Spurrier's Fun 'N' Gun offense, in which anything, good or bad, is liable to happen. For example:

Playing on the road only two weeks ago, the Gators were nearly upset by lowly Kentucky. Florida committed seven turnovers and was called for 14 penalties before it was rescued by redshirt freshman Danny Wuerffel's 28-yard scoring pass to Chris Doering with three seconds remaining. Spurrier then spent all of last week working on a dramatic reversal. He chewed for days on a quarterback controversy, finally benching Terry Dean for Wuerffel, who had relieved Dean in the third quarter of the Kentucky game. Spurrier conducted a series of hectic practices, including punishing sprints for members of "the stupid penalty club." He ranted and hollered. "He coached us up," Wuerffel said.

The result was that the Gators, who have 18 returning starters but are still a young team, came of age. Against the Vols, Wuerffel kept his head and threw for 231 yards and touchdowns of eight, 17 and 30 yards, hitting a host of receivers who ran circles around the defenders. The Gators made only one turnover, a harmless interception. As for penalties, they still had 14 of them, for 115 yards, including one charged to Spurrier for unsportsmanlike conduct. Livid over a holding call, he flung his visor like a Frisbee.

The game was rarely close. The Gators jumped out to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and lengthened their stride every time the Volunteers threatened to come back. Florida scored at least one touchdown in each quarter. "We could've won by more," said Spurrier, with a touch of the braggart.

Only the relentless heaves of Tennessee junior quarterback Heath Shuler kept the game remotely competitive. The mailman's son from the Smoky Mountains threw for 355 yards and five touchdowns, including bombs of 70, 55 and 41 yards. Shuler's efforts closed the score to 21-14 at halftime. But the Vols' hopes dimmed on the opening play of the second half, when Tennessee's Nilo Silvan fumbled on the kickoff return and Florida's Kedra Malone fell on the ball at the Vols' 30. On first and 10, Wuerffel lofted an elegant pass to Harrison Houston, who was streaking into the end zone, to give the Gators a 14-point lead once again.

Tennessee's inability to mount an effective comeback was due in part to the avalanche of sound that fell on the Vols every time they tried to snap the ball. Shuler could not call an audible. "They couldn't hear," Spurrier said with glee. "You could see them all squirming around and looking at each other."

The ability to function before hostile crowds is one thing that separates merely good teams from unbeaten ones. Few recent teams have been as talented as Tennessee—13 Vols have been first-round NFL picks since 1984. Yet Tennessee hasn't won the really big games, especially on the road. The Vols have not been missing by much, with nine-win seasons each of the last three years and an 11-win season the year before that, but they are certainly missing something—witness their 0-7 mark of late against Alabama.

"A couple of points here and there keep us from being [an unbeaten] team," said Vol receiver Cory Fleming last week. "It's something we're lacking to get over the hill."

In a big game, Spurrier is an opponent to be dreaded. He is 6-0 against the Gators' most-hated SEC rivals, Georgia and Auburn. He has displayed a Midas touch with the Florida offense—as he did with the attacks of the USFL Tampa Bay Bandits, whom he coached from 1983 to '85, and Duke, which he coached from 1987 to '89 and took to its first bowl since 1960. According to former Blue Devil quarterback Ben Bennett, Spurrier was so restlessly inventive that he once drew up a play in his breakfast oatmeal on a Friday morning before a game.

Actually, Spurrier is a man to be dreaded in any game. He is a scratch golfer who insists on playing from the back tees, needles his opponents and refuses to yield the shortest gimme putt. In games of Ping-Pong in his own home, he does not let up even against his wife, Jerri. His competitive fire belies the fact that he is a preacher's son from Johnson City, Tenn.

That Florida Field has become one of the most deadly environments for visiting teams is largely attributable to Spurrier's competitiveness. He purposely cultivates a certain amount of hysteria among the fans, and off the field he has not hesitated to use his godly status as a tool. He insists that whole rooms of grown men sing that game-day favorite, We Are the Boys of Old Florida, at the conclusion of Gator Club meetings. He unretired his old number, 11, so that he could award it to a player he felt deserved it. And a couple of years ago, when former Gator defensive back Jarvis Williams, now with the Miami Dolphins, said publicly that he didn't care about Florida's football fortunes, Spurrier was outraged. He had Williams's picture removed from the wall of honor where photos of all Gator All-Americas hang, and he kept it down for a year.

"There are a lot of Gators more rabid than I am," says Spurrier. Indeed, one reason he decided to bench Dean in favor of Wuerffel was that Spurrier couldn't trust the Swamp fans not to boo Dean following the near disaster against Kentucky. Spurrier thought that Dean's confidence had been badly shaken by the four interceptions he had thrown against the Wildcats and that being reviled by his home fans might ruin him altogether.

That is how the Gator fans treat their own. Here is how they treat others: The last time the Vols traveled to Florida Field, in 1991, when they lost 35-14, some Gator fans cussed the wife of coach Phillip Fulmer (then an assistant) and attempted to fondle her. Shuler, then a red-shirt, was assigned to screen other players on the bench from debris being hurled from the stands. Florida students reportedly leaned over railings and tried to spit in the Vols' water supply. One fan urinated in his beer cup and then threw it at a woman wearing Tennessee colors.

After the game, Spurrier issued an apology. The Gators' conduct led the SEC to set a policy last year that forced the student section at all schools to be moved to at least 25 rows above the field.

The Gator fans' excesses may result from a lack of things to celebrate. The truth is that until recently, Florida had a long, undistinguished history in the SEC. The Gators joined the conference in 1933 but didn't finish first in the league until 1984—and then couldn't claim the title because they had been found guilty of NCAA rules violations. The Gators' growling has a ring of neediness.

Perhaps Spurrier's drive to win is his way of compensating for losses during his long-ago college career or for the frustration of sitting on the bench behind John Brodie for the better part of his nine years with the San Francisco 49ers. Or perhaps he is simply a born coach who reflexively looks for ways to win. In the 1966 Sugar Bowl the Gators were trailing Missouri 20-0 when Spurrier performed what may have been his first bit of coaching. He began to improvise, engineering a dramatic second-half comeback by drawing plays for his teammates in the dirt. The comeback, however, fell short, 20-18.

Spurrier is still drawing plays. "I burn to win," he says. "Maybe because the memory of those losses is so great. I just try to give our players some plays that will win."



Gator tailback Errict Rhett rambled past the Vols for 147 yards.



Wuerffel (above) solidified his status as a starter by throwing for 231 yards, including a 30-yard scoring strike to Houston (opposite).



[See caption above.]