Remembering the best moments and stories from the Florida Gators' 1996 football title

Danny Wuerffel gets benched by Steve Spurrier (0:59)

1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel recalls when coach Steve Spurrier pulled him from a game vs. Kentucky after throwing an interception. (0:59)

It's been nearly 25 years since the Head Ball Coach, surrounded by a sea of triumphant Florida players, coaches and cheerleaders, stood on the turf at a raucous Louisiana Superdome and repeated one of his favorite sayings.

"Swanny, God has smiled on the Gators," Steve Spurrier told ABC sideline reporter Lynn Swann.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Spurrier routinely offered divine thanks after a big Florida win. But this was more than just a big win. It was a win that brought the Gators their first national championship. And even more satisfying, it came over bitter rival Florida State in a 52-20 clobbering (one of Spurrier's favorite words for a beatdown) in the Sugar Bowl a month after the Seminoles had edged the Gators 24-21 in the regular-season finale.

Florida will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its 1996 national championship team this weekend in conjunction with Saturday's game against Tennessee in Gainesville (7 p.m., ESPN and ESPN App).

Through the eyes of coaches, players, administrators and others close to that 1996 Florida team, we look back at that memorable season, part of an amazing run under Spurrier that saw the Gators win four straight SEC championships, from 1993 to 1996 (nobody has won four in a row since), and 25 straight games against SEC opponents -- by an average margin of 28.6 points per game. Only Bear Bryant's Alabama teams from 1976 to 1980 have won more consecutive SEC games (27).

Ike Hilliard, a star wide receiver on those Florida teams who is now coaching in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers, summed it up best.

"At the end of the day, we ruled the SEC for those three or four years."

Foundation of dominance in 1995

Even though the 1996 team won the national championship, the 1995 version accomplished something none of the three Gators' national championship teams did: finish unbeaten in the regular season and win the SEC championship game.

"I don't want to brag too much on that 1996 team because the '95 team was every bit as good," Spurrier told ESPN. "We just got clobbered by Nebraska in '95, but they would have clobbered just about anybody."

That 1995 Florida SEC championship team also will be honored Saturday after its 25-year reunion was postponed a year ago because of COVID-19.

"I guess I'm a little envious because I think that '95 team gets overlooked," said Chris Doering, who finished his Florida career as the SEC's all-time touchdown receptions leader with 31 (since broken by Alabama's DeVonta Smith) and is now an SEC Network analyst. "We ran the table from start to finish that year, but then ran into one of the best teams in the history of college football, Nebraska, in the Fiesta Bowl."

And, in truth, Florida's 62-24 shellacking at the hands of Nebraska to cap the 1995 season played a major role in the Gators coming back and winning the national title in 1996.

"We knew that a national championship that season was the only thing that would take away that feeling of getting embarrassed by Nebraska," Hilliard said.

"We don't plan on doing a lot of punting"

Anybody who has played for or coached with Spurrier has a favorite Head Ball Coach moment. Two from that 1996 season immediately come to mind for Bob Stoops, who was in his first season as Florida's defensive coordinator that year prior to going on to a Hall of Fame head-coaching career at Oklahoma.

The Gators didn't have a firm answer at punter entering the season, and Stoops asked Spurrier what he thought about that.

"Ahh, Bobby, we don't plan on doing a lot of punting this season," chirped Spurrier, whose Gators averaged a school-record 46.6 points per game and scored more than 40 points in 10 of their 13 games.

And while Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun offense was the show, even the offensive players said the edge Stoops brought to the defense was the missing piece.

"Coach Stoops changed our lives," Hilliard said. "It was so competitive from Day One because we stopped playing so much zone on defense, and he let athletes be athletes on the defensive side of the ball."

And then that September, during the off week leading up to the showdown with No. 2 Tennessee, Spurrier turned the coaches and players loose after Thursday's practice. He and Stoops and their families went to Spurrier's beach house for the long weekend.

"We're out there in the surf and [Spurrier] looks over at me and says, 'Bobby, you think those Tennessee boys are out there splashing around in the waves right now?'" Stoops said.

When it comes to Spurrier, that's the stuff that resonates all these years later.

"I don't remember anything else during that time, including my schooling, but I remember all of his quotes," said James Bates, a senior linebacker and captain on the 1996 Florida squad.

A slow start leads to a quick change

Spurrier's favorite trivia question regarding the 1996 team is who threw the first touchdown pass that season.

Here's a hint: It wasn't Danny Wuerffel, who threw 39 touchdown passes. Rather, it was backup quarterback Brian Schottenheimer, who is now the passing game coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Florida opened the 1996 season against Southwestern Louisiana and was listless offensively on its first two possessions.

"The first team went out there twice and had to punt," lamented Spurrier, noting that the Gators only had to punt 38 times all season in 13 games. "I said, 'What the hell is wrong with you guys? Go rest on the bench.'"

So in went Schottenheimer at quarterback along with the second-team offensive line, although Spurrier fudged a little bit and kept his two All-American wideouts, Hilliard and Reidel Anthony, in the game.

"Yeah, Schotty threw a hitch pass to Ike and they were blitzing," Spurrier said. "Ike dodged about five guys and went 50 yards for a touchdown.

"I said, 'OK, Danny, you and the rest of the guys are back in now.'"

Rockin' on Rocky Top

Tennessee had some incredibly talented teams in the 1990s, but Florida and Spurrier owned the Vols. Making it even worse for Tennessee and their fans was that Spurrier reveled in rubbing it in with his legendary barbs.

(The rivalry was so fierce that when Spurrier had a home visit with Bates, who grew up near Knoxville, Bates' mom left no doubt where her loyalties were. "Coach comes in and says, 'We're happy to have James be a Gator,'" Bates recounted. But he said his mom quickly zinged back, "Well, I'm not, and if it were up to me, you wouldn't be sitting in this house right now.")

By Week 3 of the 1996 season, the Vols were ready for payback. Ranked No. 2 in the country, they hosted the No. 4 Gators. Florida raced out to a 35-0 lead in the game's first 21 minutes, turning Neyland Stadium into a morgue, and Peyton Manning was intercepted four times -- before leading a second-half rally that was too little too late in a 35-29 Gators triumph.

Florida's first possession of the game set the tone and in a lot of ways epitomized that rivalry under Spurrier, who went to high school in Johnson City, Tennessee, and was 8-4 against the Vols while at Florida.

It was fourth-and-11 from the Tennessee 35-yard line and Spurrier elected to go for it. Wuerffel hit Anthony on a post pattern for a touchdown, and the Vols all but melted in the rain.

"Coach just didn't give a damn," Hilliard said. "It was so loud that you couldn't hear, and we throw a bomb for a touchdown to Reidel. Isn't that crazy? But that's him."

Spurrier's fake play sheet

The night before the win over Tennessee, Spurrier was already doing his best to play mind games with the Vols.

While the team was in nearby Alcoa seeing a movie, Spurrier placed a dummy play sheet on the floor of the bathroom at the theater. It included the first 10 plays of the game, all bogus, with the first play being a reverse.

One of the assistant coaches found it and brought it back to Spurrier, who quickly told him to take it back, that he put it in there on purpose. A few minutes later, one of Florida's security officers again brought the sheet back to Spurrier.

"No, no, go put it back in there. I'm the one who left it," Spurrier told the officer.

A few years earlier, a "faxgate" scandal had erupted when former Tennessee assistant coach Jack Sells was caught by a Kinko's employee near UT's campus faxing diagrams and notes from Tennessee's playbook to then-Florida defensive coordinator Ron Zook.

"I was over there on the sideline waiting to hear one of those Tennessee boys across the field yelling, 'Reverse! Reverse!'" Spurrier said. "But I don't think they ever got it."

And, yes, Spurrier remembers precisely what play was on the dummy sheet: Zero Reverse Left.

"But we ran off tackle and faked the reverse," Spurrier said. "It didn't go very far, but anyway ..."

Gators vs. Seminoles, Part I

The win over Tennessee vaulted Florida into the AP poll's No. 1 spot, which the Gators would hold for nearly two months, winning seven straight SEC games, including six by at least 27 points.

Then came the Nov. 30 showdown with No. 2 Florida State.

The Seminoles beat up Wuerffel in their 24-21 win, sacking the future Heisman Trophy winner six times and forcing three interceptions. To this day, Spurrier still fumes about what he considers a series of late hits.

"I think they hit Danny 34 times after he'd thrown the ball, and the officials only called two or three roughing the passer penalties," Spurrier said.

Wuerffel offered his take.

"Certainly, a few of those hits were late. Some of them got called, and some of them didn't," Wuerffel said. "I remember on one of them the ref turned and looked the other way it was so late. But back then, it was different. You look at some of those hits now, and guys would have been ejected."

Like Spurrier, Hilliard also was seething, but mostly at himself. He was responsible for two of the Gators' three turnovers, and he didn't even start the next game against Alabama in the SEC championship game.

"Just anything to get another chance at those guys," Hilliard said. "It still pisses me the f--- off that we lost that game."

Hilliard and his teammates would soon get another opportunity.

A little bit of luck opens the championship door

The loss to the Seminoles seemingly ended the Gators' national title hopes, as they fell from No. 1 in the country to No. 4.

"I remember sitting on that bus in Tallahassee and feeling like everything had slipped away," Florida offensive tackle Zach Piller said.

But Florida rebounded to beat Alabama 45-30 in the SEC championship game, while unranked Texas upset No. 3 Nebraska 37-27 in the Big 12 title game.

Wuerffel and Spurrier were riding up the elevator together in the team hotel and heard a bunch of yelling and screaming as the doors opened.

"What's going on?" Spurrier yelled as some of the Florida players were dancing around.

Spurrier was irked that players were clowning around leading up to the SEC championship game.

"And then they all told us that Texas had just beaten Nebraska, and me and Coach Spurrier were jumping up and down too," Wuerffel said.

With another SEC title in hand, the Gators got a second shot at the Seminoles in New Orleans, and as it turned out, a shot at the national title after No. 2 Arizona State lost 20-17 to Ohio State a day earlier in the Rose Bowl.

Pat Dooley, a longtime columnist for The Gainesville Sun, was doing a radio show from the Hilton in New Orleans during the Arizona State-Ohio State game. He said Florida fans were swarming everywhere wanting to know updates.

"After a while, we quit doing the show and just started doing play-by-play of the Rose Bowl," Dooley said.

So with Florida State unbeaten and ranked No. 1, Florida knew the game that next night would almost certainly be for the national championship.

Working the refs, Bourbon Street and the buildup to an epic rematch

Heading into the Sugar Bowl, Spurrier was determined to protect his star quarterback.

At the coaches meeting with the officials a couple of nights before the Sugar Bowl, Spurrier's longtime director of football operations, Jamie Speronis, said it was more than just a little bit icy between Spurrier and FSU coach Bobby Bowden.

"Let's just say it was interesting, not a lot of pleasantries," Speronis said.

Spurrier had a tape made for the officials showing all the hits he felt were late in the first game. Bowden, who died earlier this year, defended his players and said they were simply playing to the "echo of the whistle."

Bates remembers an exchange between Spurrier and the players regarding profanity prior to the Sugar Bowl. Knowing things were sure to get heated, Spurrier gathered the players around him after practice.

"He told us, 'If they hit you late, hit 'em back. If they cuss you, cuss back at them,'" said Bates, adding that there was one caveat.

Spurrier didn't want to hear the F-word.

"An occasional hell, damn or s--- is OK, but you guys use the F-word too much. Don't use that F-word," Bates recalled.

And proving nobody was off-limits, Spurrier didn't even spare the squeaky clean Wuerffel.

"I don't even think Danny would say 'doohickey,' and Coach Spurrier looks at him and says, 'Now, Danny, what are you going to do if they hit you late? Ask them to please not do that again?'" Bates said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, one of those charged with protecting Wuerffel up front was having a little too much fun on Bourbon Street.

Piller, who would go on to an eight-year NFL career with the Tennessee Titans, found his bold proclamations splashed all over the New Orleans Times-Picayune the next day.

"I just remember sitting there eating my pancakes at breakfast and everybody on the team is looking at the newspaper and staring at me," Piller said. "I guess I got a little too crazy the night before."

As in grabbing the microphone at the Cats Meow karaoke lounge and, in Piller's words, getting a little reckless in proclaiming what the Gators were going to do to the Seminoles in their rematch.

"Let's just say there were a bunch of FSU fans in there and maybe a few FSU players too. They weren't real happy, and it all ended up in the paper," said Piller, his tone still sheepish all these years later.

"I'm just glad we kicked their ass or Coach Spurrier would have had my ass."

Stop and Pop

One of the key adjustments Florida made in the rematch with FSU was putting Wuerffel in the shotgun, something Spurrier didn't necessarily like to do. Wuerffel responded with three touchdown passes and one rushing score.

"We knew if we protected Danny in that second game that it was ours," said Piller, the Gators' left tackle. "We knew they had some unbelievably talented guys rushing the passer, NFL guys, but you take it personally when somebody takes dirty, cheap shots at your quarterback. It was a matter of us manning up, and we did."

Hilliard, who was eager to atone for his misplays in the first Florida State tilt, did that and then some. He set three Sugar Bowl records in the runaway win over Florida State and finished the night with three touchdown catches.

But it was his 31-yard TD reception in the second quarter that will forever be the signature play from that 52-20 rout: Stop and Pop.

Hilliard ran a slant pattern and leaped up to haul in Wuerffel's pass at the 16, where he planted his left foot and somehow came to a stop, just long enough that Florida State cornerback James Colzie and trailing linebacker Hank Grant grazed each other. Hilliard then veered right and waltzed in for a touchdown.

"I knew where Colzie was. That's the reason why I cradled it on my chest plate," Hilliard said. "I didn't know exactly how far he would be. But as I was coming down, I could see the flash of color from inside. And when they ran into each other, I was like, 'Oh s---, I've got something.'"

Asked if he has crossed paths with Colzie since juking him that night in the Superdome, Hilliard said, "I have not. I don't know if he'd want to see me."

Spurrier's disguise and an epic party

Once the Gators beat the Seminoles so soundly, there was little doubt who would be crowned No. 1.

As Spurrier walked across the field, he was met by veteran Florida sports information director Norm Carlson, who said, "Steve, congratulations. We're national champs."

Spurrier whirled around and glanced back with a big smile, "How do you know? They haven't voted yet, have they?"

But down deep, Spurrier knew.

"Back then, the media boys and coaches were still voting for the champion, so I tried not to run around like we were the champs in case they voted Ohio State or somebody else," Spurrier said.

Even so, the party was on in the Big Easy, with the Head Ball Coach right in the middle of it.

As things were winding down at the team's reception at the hotel ballroom, Spurrier said that the next stop was Bourbon Street.

"We said, 'Coach, there's no way. It's a madhouse out there. You will get mobbed,'" Speronis said.

But Spurrier had a plan. He would go in disguise. So he hustled up to his hotel room and returned wearing a Florida cap -- and not his customary visor.

"That was supposed to be his disguise," Speronis said.

And off they went, led by the highway patrolman assigned to Spurrier and other team security personnel. Speronis figures they got about 10 yards onto Bourbon Street before somebody yelled out, "It's Spurrier."

Beads started flying from the balconies up above Bourbon Street, maybe even a few adult beverages too, and a mass of ecstatic Florida fans started to close in. Speronis said security officials were finally able to clear a pathway for Spurrier to escape, but not before the Head Ball Coach bid adieu:

"OK, boys, have a good time."

The good times will resume this weekend at the Swamp.

"Never a dull moment," Bates said, when looking back on 1996. "Just a magical ride and a magical season."