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The evolution of the Tennessee-Florida rivalry

Photo: Wilipedia

Tennessee fans who came of age in the 1990s know all about the Tennessee-Florida rivalry. They remember the downpour at Neyland Stadium in 1992, Florida’s 48 unanswered points in 1995, Steve Spurrier’s one-liners and how pandemonium reigned in 1998.

Forget Tennessee-Alabama. For Generation X’ers, the Third Saturday in September became more important than the Third Saturday in October. And, for many, it still is. That’s darn near gridiron heresy for old-timers who think football was invented by guys like Robert Neyland or Bear Bryant (or even Johnny Majors or Gene Stallings). But it is what it is, as another Alabama coach — the current one — likes to say. And if you poll Tennessee fans today on the Vols’ biggest football rivalry, you won’t find much distance between Florida and Alabama.

So how did this happen? Mostly, it happened because of Steve Spurrier. The Ol’ Ball Coach owned Tennessee in the ’90s. He not only beat the Vols on the field, but he never missed an opportunity to rub salt in the wound, which made UT fans revile him all the more. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it: if Spurrier had never gone back to his alma mater to coach, Tennessee-Florida would have never become the heated rivalry that it became. But there’s also no denying that the rivalry’s roots predate Spurrier.

The truth is that Tennessee and Florida have never much liked one another. You can trace the programs’ feuds all the way back to a game played 89 years ago on a muddy field in Knoxville.

On Dec. 8, 1928, Tennessee and Florida met at Shields-Watkins Field for the regular season finale. Both teams were dominant that season. The Vols were unbeaten at 8-0-1, and had won every game until the previous week, when a game with Kentucky ended in a scoreless tie. Florida was also undefeated, and led the nation in scoring.

The Gators, which had never beaten Tennessee to that point, felt they had an opportunity to finally avenge some of those early losses. But they came up on the short end of a 13-12 decision in Knoxville, after twice failing to convert on two-point tries after touchdowns.

The surface of Shields-Watkins Field was muddy that afternoon, and Florida charged that Tennessee had watered the field down the night before, intentionally muddying the playing surface to to slow down the Gators’ “Phantom Four” backfield that included quarterback Clyde Crabtree, fullback Rainey Cawthon and halfbacks Carl Brumbaugh and Royce Goodbread.

Tennessee and Florida didn’t much like one another in 1928, and they didn’t much like one another 26 years later, when the Gators finally beat the Vols. They hadn’t played often in the early years, but the Vols had won all 10 games they played. Neyland never lost to Florida.

The rivalry truly began to take shape in the late 1960s. In 1969, Florida defeated Tennessee in the Gator Bowl. It was only the Gators’ second win ever against the Vols. But after that 14-13 win, Florida did something that hurt even more: the Gators hired Doug Dickey away from Tennessee.

The Dickey saga had several twists and turns. He had coached at Tennessee for six years. The Vols had taken a chance on Dickey when they hired him away from Arkansas, where he was an assistant, and gave him his first head coaching job. It paid off when Dickey turned a losing program into a perennial SEC title contender, winning two conference championships.

One of those SEC titles came in 1969. But by the time the Gator Bowl arrived, rumors had already begun to swirl that Florida was going to hire Dickey away from Tennessee to replace Ray Graves, who was retiring. Dickey had grown up in Gainesville; his dad was employed by the University of Florida. He had played quarterback for the Gators. And after Florida defeated the Vols in the Gator Bowl, Dickey did indeed leave for Gainesville.

Tennessee’s athletics director at the time was Bob Woodruff, who had coached Dickey at Florida. Woodruff would continue as Tennessee’s athletics director until 1985. His replacement? Doug Dickey.

Dickey never replicated his Tennessee success in Gainesville. He never won an SEC championship, and was fired after a 4-7 season in 1978. But he did something while he was there that would eventually spawn a true rivalry with Tennessee: he gave former Gator quarterback Steve Spurrier his first coaching job.

Fast-forward to 1990, and the rivalry began in earnest. That’s the year Spurrier returned to his alma mater as head coach, and it marked the first year that the Vols and Gators began playing annually.

Spurrier had played high school ball for Science Hill High School in Tennessee in the 1960s, but he didn’t want to play college ball at Tennessee because the Vols — soon to be coached by, wouldn’t you know it? Doug Dickey — still ran the single wing at the time. Single wing quarterbacks are runners, not necessarily passers, and Spurrier was a prolific passer.

So Spurrier went to Florida instead, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966.

When Dickey gave Spurrier his break into the coaching profession as the Gators’ quarterbacks coach, it was in the fateful 1978 season. The Gators won just four games and a coaching change was in the works. As is often the case, the assistants didn’t survive the transition. But Spurrier was in coaching to stay, and landed at Georgia Tech the next season. One year after that, he jumped to Duke — and it was at Duke that he would receive his first head coaching job after a stint in the pros with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits.

In his second season at Duke, Spurrier brought the Blue Devils to Neyland Stadium and stunned Tennessee in its home opener, 31-26, in front of 93,000 fans. It was part of a surprising 5-0 start for Duke and a surprising 0-6 start for Tennessee. And it was a foreshadowing of what was to come.

After one more season at Duke, Spurrier returned to his alma mater. Florida had fired Spurrier as an assistant coach just 12 years earlier, but he had just won a conference championship at Duke, of all places. When the Blue Devils won the ACC in 1989, it was their first conference crown since 1962. They haven’t won it again since Spurrier left.

Spurrier didn’t have to wait long to meet the Vols again. Tennessee and Florida were scheduled for a home-and-home conference series in 1990 and 1991. That 1990 game was played in Knoxville, and featured two teams ranked in the Top 10 nationally. It was expected to be a close game, and it was for a while. Tennessee led just 7-3 at halftime. But Dale Carter returned the second half kickoff 91 yards for a score, Florida fumbled away the ensuing possession to allow the Vols to score again, and the rout was on. The Gators had six turnovers in the second half, and Tennessee won 45-3.

The Gators avenged that loss in Gainesville the following season, but the 1992 rematch in Knoxville was another Vols blowout. Heath Shuler and Tennessee destroyed Florida in a driving rain that flooded the artificial turf at Neyland Stadium. With the SEC dividing into two divisions that year, and the Vols and Gators sharing the SEC East, it appeared that UT — which had defeated Spurrier two out of three tries — were going to stand in Spurrier’s way of conference supremacy.

But just a few weeks after that Florida game, which had been coached by Phillip Fulmer in Majors’ absence as he recovered from open heart surgery, Tennessee started a three-game losing streak that resulted in Majors’ firing and cost Tennessee its lead in the East. Florida backed into the SEC Championship Game, and that would prove to be a familiar setting.

Over the next four years, Florida represented the East in the conference championship game each season. Fulmer, who was named as Majors’ replacement, was unable to get the Florida monkey — or the Spurrier monkey — off his back.

After an outstanding Florida team defeated a rebuilding Tennessee team in a shutout at Neyland Stadium in 1994, Tennessee was supposed to break through in 1995. After Tennessee jumped to a 31-14 lead, the Gators stunned the Vols with 48 straight points and won the game, 69-31. The next year’s rematch at Neyland Stadium was billed as the “game of the century.” But Florida stormed to a 35-0 lead, picking up where it had left off in The Swamp the previous year. Tennessee managed to make things interesting late, but never had a serious shot at winning the game.

Following that 1996 season, Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning opted to spurn the NFL in order to return to Knoxville for his senior season. His reasoning? Simple. He wanted to win the SEC. Spurrier drew the ire of Tennessee fans by suggesting that Manning had returned to the Vols because he wanted to become the first three-time winner of the Citrus Bowl MVP. The second-place team from the SEC East usually went to the Citrus Bowl in those days, and Tennessee had wound up there in both 1995 and 1996, after losing to Florida. Spurrier remarked that you “can’t spell Citrus without UT.”

If Manning’s goal was to beat Florida just once, he failed. The Gators beat the Vols 33-20 in 1997. But, ironically, Florida was upset by LSU and Georgia. Manning got the last laugh on Spurrier, because he won the SEC championship, after all. And Spurrier and his Gators were relegated to the Citrus Bowl.

That seemed to bring about a bit of a change in the Vols’ fortunes against the Gators. The following year, Tennessee launched a national championship campaign by defeating Florida in overtime at Neyland Stadium. It was Florida’s first win over the Gators as a head coach, with his No. 6 Tennessee team upsetting No. 2 Florida in overtime, when Collins Cooper missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.

Two years later, Tennessee appeared on the verge of its second win over Florida in three years, after a record-setting five field goals by Alex Walls. But Jesse Palmer led the Gators back in the waning minutes, tossing a touchdown to Jabar Gaffney in the final seconds. The pass was quickly slapped out of Gaffney’s hands by cornerback Willie Miles. And, in the era of instant replay, the touchdown would have almost certainly been overturned. But there was no instant replay in college football in 2000, and Florida walked away with the win despite protests from Tennessee fans.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks delayed the Tennessee-Florida meeting the following season, No. 5 Tennessee stunned No. 2 Florida as a 17.5 underdog, winning the regular season finale in Gainesville, 34-32. It was the Vols’ first win in The Swamp since the Nixon administration, giving Tennessee the SEC East and an inside track to the national championship game (both would be lost the following week when Tennessee was upset by LSU in the SEC Championship Game). It was Spurrier’s final game against Tennessee as Florida’s head coach. He would leave for the NFL’s Washington Redskins immediately after the season was over.

Tennessee won just three out of 10 games against Florida in the 1990s, but the tide seemed to be turning. Tennessee had split the final four games of the Spurrier era, and Florida chose to replace Spurrier with Ron Zook, who was a colossal failure as a head coach. Zook won his first game against Tennessee, in 2002, but then lost two games in 2003 and 2004 before being fired and replaced with Urban Meyer.

The 2003 game in Gainesville featured an end-of-half hail mary from Casey Clausen to James Banks, sparking the Vols to their second consecutive win in The Swamp. The 2004 game saw James Wilhoit nail a 50-yard field goal — avenging a missed extra point from minutes earlier that could have forced overtime — to lift the Vols to a 30-28 win.

That 2004 game was quite controversial. Florida had been flagged 15 yards for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 55 seconds left in the game. That in itself was a controversial call. But the referee failed to restart the clock after the penalty, which gave Tennessee — which was out of timeouts — extra time to advance the ball to Florida’s 33-yard-line for Wilhoit’s game-winning kick. Many said it was fate’s way of answering Florida’s controversial win four years earlier.

After a tough start to the ’90s, Tennessee had won four out of seven games against the Gators. Fortunes had turned. The rivalry was at its peak.

But following the 2004 season, things changed. Florida fired Zook and hired Meyer, who would never lose to Tennessee. In 2005, Meyer’s first year on the job in Gainesville, Tennessee suffered its first losing season since 1988 — the year Spurrier’s Duke Blue Devils had stunned the Vols in Knoxville. Fulmer managed to hang on for a few more years, winning the SEC East in 2007 despite giving up 59 points to Florida. But another losing season in 2008 cost Fulmer his job, as Tennessee lost to Florida for the fourth consecutive year. The Gators would go on to win 11 straight in the series before the Vols finally broke through with a second half comeback win in 2016.

The series’ lopsided result over the past 13 years may have dimmed the luster of the rivalry a bit, but Tennessee-Florida and the Third Saturday in September is still one of the SEC’s premier games. Vols fans still don’t like Florida; Gator fans still don’t like Tennessee. And when No. 23 Tennessee and No. 24 Florida square off Saturday afternoon in Gainesville (3:30 p.m., CBS), all will be right in the college football world.

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