Tonight we get to watch The Ohio State Buckeyes frog-stomp the Florida Gators in Arizona. I’ll be watching the game with my Dad and certainly won’t be live-blogging it, so today’s warm-up post is the long-awaited story of the third-best football tradition in the state of Florida, the Florida Gators.
Obviously, judging which school has the “best” tradition is quite subjective, but there are several consensus factors that we can look at. Fortunately, Florida State, Florida, and Miami all give us a lot to work with.
Florida State began playing football in 1947, just under sixty years ago. The University of Miami has been playing football for eighty years, starting in 1926. The Gators have the oldest program of all, celebrating its 100th year of play. For sheer longevity, the Gators take this category.
The Florida Gators have just a single national championship to their name, in 1996, the 90th year of their program. By contrast, the Seminoles won their first National Championship in 1993, after a mere 46 years of play, repeating the feat in 1999. They have played in the title game a total of five times in the last fifteen years. Miami has won five national championships, starting in 1983 (the fifty-seventh year of their program) and repeating in 1987, 1989, 1991, and 2001. What took the Gators so long to take home their first trophy? I guess they had to have the other two schools show them how it’s done… four times.
In the last few decades, the University of Miami has had several excellent coaches: Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, and Butch Davis. Each of them were giants, and each of them stood on the shoulders of the coach before. If any of them were still at Miami, we might today speak of them in the same way we speak of Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno – but they gave way to Larry Coker, whose reign is over and his successor not yet selected.
Florida has also enjoyed a number of coaches in the last several years – Charlie Pell, Galen Hall, Steve Spurrier, Ron Zook, and Urban Meyer. Pell and Hall were usually winners, but both triggered NCAA violations that crippled the program for years. Spurrier brought repeated success to the Gators, and their first national championship, but he never once won the big game in Doak Campbell Stadium – the closest he came was blowing a 31-3 lead to end up in the tie known to all Seminoles as “The Choke in Doak.” Spurrier went on to a lackluster stint with the Redskins, leaving his team to Ron Zook, who was run out by alumni in just a few years. Florida’s current coach, Urban Meyer, has had two solid years, but he’s never been a head coach in one place for longer than two years. It’s way too early to judge his legacy with the Gators.
Contrast those tumultuous programs with the coaching situation at Florida State: Bobby Bowden, the winningest coach in Division-I college football, having passed Joe Paterno, has been the Seminoles’ coach for the last thirty years. Bowden trails Paterno by one for the record in bowl game wins (22 – 21). Coach Bowden hasn’t seen a losing season in thirty years, and holds a record for his streak of fourteen years years with at least ten wins and a top five AP finish. He built the Seminole football program from nothing into one that saw unprecedented success throughout the 1990’s and today is revered as one of the best, if not the best, coach in college football today. Florida State wins the coach-off in a blowout.
Gators fans like to yap about how powerful and fearsome the Southeastern Conference is. (Apparently, none of them have been watching this year’s bowl games.) To be sure, the SEC can be a challenging conference if you’re a Vandy or a Mississippi State, and fearsome to play against if you’re Notre Dame, you don’t see top-tier teams cowering at the likes of Georgia, Tennessee, or South Carolina. It’s a respectable conference, but that respect was earned mostly by teams other than the Gators.
Both Florida State and Miami play in the ACC – a conference known in the 1980’s as a basketball conference, featuring Duke and UNC. That all changed in 1991 when Florida State joined up and began an nine-year run of conference championships, adding three more in the following five years, winning its two national championships along the way. Florida State’s presence has transformed the conference, which has since absorbed Big East refugees Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami. Every ACC team has gotten better (with the exception of Duke) due to Florida State’s impact on the conference – an impact that neither Florida nor Miami can claim.
(Curiously, both the ACC and the SEC spun off the old Southern Conference.)
Both Miami and Florida have had substantial NCAA sanctions depriving them of post-season play, with Florida losing its 1984 SEC championship title in 1984 due to NCAA violations and another probation in 1990. Miami… well, need I go on? Florida State has never been placed on NCAA probation and I’m not aware of any NCAA sanctions against the program at all.
Mascots and Mythology
Let’s start with the best: Florida State’s Seminole name comes from the only Native American tribe never to surrender to the U.S. Before every game, a rider commemorating Seminole leader Osceola rides onto the field, brandishing a burning spear, and drives it in the ground, recalling Osceloa’s rejection of a U.S. offer of peace by driving his knife through the proffered treaty into the table underneath. Although Osceola died in a U.S. prison, his tribe fought on until the U.S. just gave up trying to subjugate them. Today, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is known as the “Unconquered” tribe.
The others? Pitiful. Miami has named itself after a loathed extreme weather phenomenon, and counts its mascot the ibis, a small white bird native to Florida but hardly known for its ferocity or any other trait one would associate with a good football team.
Florida has managed to unify its nickname and its mascot in one native animal, also widely loathed: the alligator. Abbreviated to “Gator,” possibly because the full word proved difficult for Florida students to spell, Florida’s mascot dwells in captivity or algae-rich lakes or ponds. It eats anything small enough to swallow, sometimes resorting to carrion if it can’t find anything else within lunging range. The closest thing to a legend about the alligator is the old urban legend of pet alligators, flushed down toilets by New Yorkers, living under Manhattan. Like so much about gators, the legend was just hype.
Colors & Uniforms
When it comes to colors, two of these teams feature a shade of orange normally reserved for road cones and hunting vests. This orange would make Ray Charles recoil, and he’s dead. Both the Gators’ and the Hurricanes’ uniforms feature this offensive hue prominently. Florida matches it with Fisher-Price Snap-On Blue, and one almost expects to see Weebles roll out on the field for special teams play. The Gators wold be dead last in the uniform department, except for their competition: Miami.
Miami takes the “worst of show” award by taking Nasty-Ass Orange and pairing it with a dark green whose only natural occurrence is slime mold buried deep in the off-campus refrigerators of its seventh-year seniors. Wrap that all up with an-under-the-shoulders and around-the-back stripe like a rescue harness, and you’ve easily got the ugliest uniforms this side of the Oregon Ducks.
The Seminoles, on the other hand, have a classic and appealing color combination of garnet and gold, with accents reflecting the team’s Seminole tribe. Compared to the other two teams, Florida State’s uniforms are a masterpiece.
The Final Score
There’s an old saying: It ain’t bragging if you can do it. On the other hand, if you have the “arrogance of Notre Dame and the tradition of Wake Forest” maybe it’s time to do a little reflection. The best possible argument for the University of Florida tradition is that they’ve simply been around the longest. But just showing up doesn’t make for a football tradition, or we’d be singing the praises of Harvard and Yale in the BCS this year. Results matter, impact matters, and image matters. Your story matters. Against either Miami or Florida State, the Gators fall short in every aspect but old age. And that’s why they’ve got the third-best football tradition in the state of Florida.