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Rise of the Sunshine State

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Editor's Note: Geoffrey Norman is working on a book about college football in the state of Florida. Each week during the 2001 season, he will send a letter to Page 2, in which he will try to make sense of the personalities, events and peculiar culture that make up Sunshine State football.

Dear Page 2:

The college football headline, coming out of Labor Day Weekend, was that Miami had moved past Florida to take over the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll. Miami accomplished this by beating once-mighty Penn State -- decisively, convincingly and thoroughly -- on the road.

Jermy Shockey
Jeremy Shockey and the Hurricanes quickly quieted a raucous crowd at Penn State on Saturday night.
The Hurricanes went into the game as the emotional underdogs, with Penn State being led onto the field by a former player -- Adam Taliaferro -- who was severely injured last season and had been horribly close to never walking again. Also, Penn State was coached by a man -- Joe Paterno -- who was looking to tie Bear Bryant for the most wins (323) by any coach in the history of Division I-A football.

And finally, if Taliaferro and Paterno were not enough to get the synapses firing and the adrenaline washing through the big bodies of Penn State's players, the team brought back some men from the 1987 Fiesta Bowl squad that had denied a favored Miami team a national championship.

This, you understand, was just for a little extra inspiration.

Didn't work, though. Miami won going away 33-7.

Not that Florida got run over. Playing Marshall at home, the Gators cruised to a 49-14 victory. But Florida is supposed to win in Ben Hill Griffin stadium, a k a "The Swamp." Certainly, they are supposed to beat a Marshall there, especially one that has had 12 players declared ineligible the week before the game. Florida might have held on to its No. 1 ranking by scoring 70 and shutting Marshall out, which didn't happen, though Florida has certainly been known to run it up and do so gleefully. So Florida dropped back to No. 2 in the AP but remained on top in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll.

Ken Dorsey
Ken Dorsey and the 'Canes passed the rival Gators to take over the top spot in the AP poll.
Meanwhile, Florida State beat conference rival Duke 55-13. FSU beats Duke in football about as routinely as Duke beats FSU in basketball. Against Duke (and a lot of other opponents) the FSU football team generally puts up the kind of numbers its basketball team would be delighted with. So FSU's performance -- even though the team was led by a freshman quarterback who had no college game experience at all -- didn't resonate much with the polls. FSU came out of the weekend ranked sixth in the AP and fifth in the ESPN poll.

FSU dependably wins 10 games a year and winds up in the Top Five, so being ranked only No. 6 is alien territory -- something out of deep, almost primitive memory, like 89-cent gasoline.

Life is hard when you're on top, and all three of these teams are intimate with that territory. If football were a pyramid, then Florida would be its apex.

Before 1983, no Florida school had ever won a national championship. Then Miami -- "Suntan U" -- held when Nebraska went for two in the Orange Bowl after a late touchdown. That 31-30 victory by Howard Schnellenberger's team was a sort of Cinderella story. Teams from Florida weren't supposed to be able to compete with the big boys from Nebraska, Pennsylvania, California, Georgia and those other states where people took football seriously. Florida was about hedonism and teams that were content with 6-4 seasons.

Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden has 315 career victories, including 242 at FSU.
That was the first of four national championships ('83, '87, '89, '91) won by Miami. FSU took one in '93 and another in '99. Florida won a national championship in 1996 by beating the only team it had lost to in the regular season -- FSU -- in the Sugar Bowl 52-20.

For almost two decades, then, ever since that Schnellenberger team at Miami, there has been at least one Florida school in the national championship picture virtually every season. The axis of the football universe shifted sometime in the '80s, and the state of Florida became its gravitational center. When Oklahoma beat FSU for the championship in last year's Orange Bowl (the third straight year, by the way, that FSU had played for the title), it was an upset, even though the No. 1 Sooners were the only unbeaten team in the country.

There was a time when Oklahoma wouldn't have been an underdog to any team from Florida -- and certainly not FSU.

Still, there was a football culture in Florida back in the days before those national championships. They played the game from Key West to Cantonment and were serious about it the way people all over the South were serious about football. Navy pilots used to say that you could navigate a cross-country hop from Pensacola to Jacksonville on Friday night by the lights of the high school football stadiums. Prep ball was big, especially in the little Panhandle towns, because there wasn't anything around to challenge it. The county fair, maybe, one weekend a year. And church. Otherwise, the big thing in life was the local high school team.

Larry Coker
Miami coach Larry Coker is following in the footsteps of guys like Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and Butch Davis.
A good high school game, back then, would pull 10,000 people or more, and the game made legends out of some coaches, like Tallahassee Leon's Gene Cox, who was Florida's answer to the mythic Wright Bazemore, just across the state line in Valdosta, Georgia.

But the college game in Florida seemed, for some reason, to lag. Florida would occasionally beat someone -- its fans were content if that turned out to be Georgia -- and in 1966 produced a Heisman Trophy winner named Steve Spurrier.

Miami won some games it shouldn't have won, but also lost some it shouldn't have lost.

Though Florida State became a football school after World War II, when men were admitted, by the mid-'70s FSU was going entire seasons without a win, and the program was so deeply in debt it was in danger of folding. A new coach was brought in to turn things around.

Bobby Bowden is still around. Paterno might get to Bryant's record first, but Bowden will be right behind him and will probably pass him, maybe later this season. Especially if Paterno's teams keep playing the way they did Saturday.

A couple of Bowden's early teams made a statement. When he was trying to put FSU on the map, Bowden would -- paradoxically -- go anywhere and play anyone. FSU became the Kings of the Road, and they beat people like Michigan and Nebraska in their own stadiums.

Steve Spurrier
Steve Spurrier won the Heisman at Florida and returned to revive the program.
But it was that Schnellenberger team at Miami that let the world know emphatically that Florida football had arrived. Jimmy Johnson followed Schnellenberger and came close in 1986 but lost to Penn State in the Orange Bowl, when Vinny Testaverde first showed the world how hard it was for him to look off his primary receiver. Johnson and Miami came back to win the title the next season, and after Johnson went to Dallas to win Super Bowls, Dennis Erickson took over and won two more national championships, before he slipped out of town and left the program in the glue with the NCAA.

Florida, meanwhile, had been playing catch-up and doing it none to cleanly. This cost two coaches -- Charlie Pell and Galen Hall -- their jobs and brought the hot breath of the NCAA down on Florida. The school flirted with the "death penalty," and was under some heavy sanctions when a savior arrived.

That would be Spurrier. Before the advent of Spurrier, Florida had never won the SEC, never mind a national championship. Under Spurrier, the SEC got to be a routine deal for a while. And Florida actually found itself playing for the national championship in 1995. Spurrier, an offensive genius, went cute against Nebraska and got his butt handed to him in the Fiesta Bowl 62-24. Still, Florida had put the wilderness behind and could, at last, see the promised land. The next year, Spurrier's team won a rematch over FSU and took its first national title.

Rex Grossman
Gators quarterback Rex Grossman is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
FSU almost won it in '98, then did it in '99 with a 12-0 season. The quarterback of that team, Chris Weinke, won the Heisman the next year. It was FSU's second Heisman -- Charlie Ward had won it in 1993, when FSU took its first national championship. Miami quarterbacks Testaverde and Gino Toretta won Heismans in 1986 and 1992. Florida's Danny Weurffel won it in 1996.

Thus did the once-lowly state of Florida rule over college football for the last couple of decades of the 20th century. Now, one week into the 2001 season, the three Florida schools are ranked No. 1, No. 2, and No. 6. An FSU coach will surely pass Bear Bryant this year. Rex Grossman, the Florida quarterback, and Ken Dorsey of Miami are legitimate Heisman candidates. FSU and Miami will play during the regular season. So will FSU and Florida.

Florida and Miami faced off in a bowl game last year and might do it again this season. Could very well do it again in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl, this time for the national championship.

But it is a long time from now until then and there are a lot of football games to be played. Time enough to explore the culture of football in Florida and learn, perhaps, how this state came to be the colossus of college football.

Geoffrey Norman

What's hot, what's not for college football '01

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