They are different.
Cocky. Crude. Crass. Confident. Cool. How you label 'em probably depends on your own upbringing, but don't kid yourself -- Florida football players, like New Orleans jazzmen, Hollywood agents and D.C. politicians, clearly have their own style. This ain't the football Regis jokes about on Monday mornings. This is The Big Three: Seminoles, Hurricanes, Gators. They all play a brand of football that's a blend of the old badass Raiders and the Showtime Lakers. And if they rub you the wrong way, too bad.
It all started in the mid-'80s, when Jimmy Johnson brazenly presided over the Miami Hurricanes dynasty. His players wore T-shirts that summed up the team's persona: "It's a Cane thing. You wouldn't understand." After a few butt-whuppings from JJ's Gang, FSU and Florida caught on. Call it hide-the-women-and-children football.
Fast-forward 15 years. As certainly as hip-hop flipped the music world upside down, football Florida-style has changed the way the game is played. Opposing coaches have coined the term "Florida attitude." And though it's never mentioned on their Sunday night TV shows, it's something they all privately covet. "Like they say, nice guys finish last," says one Big Ten coach whose team is laced with Florida-bred players. "Football is a game of attitude, and these kids know all about playing on the edge. Sometimes they tend to go over it, but that's a risk we need to take."
Largely owing to local talent, FSU and Miami could split this season's national titles. But recruiting the talent is one thing. Coaching it is another. That's why Miami coach Butch Davis took copious notes on the way his former boss, Johnson, used his psychology degree. It's also why Florida's Steve Spurrier, no wallflower himself, sometimes sounds like the Southern preacher his old man was. But when it comes to the Big Three of Florida football, FSU's Bobby Bowden is king.
Eighteen-year-old Seminoles freshman Travis Johnson has a unique perspective on Sunshine State style. Last season's most sought-after defensive line recruit, Johnson grew up in Sherman Oaks, Calif., 2,300 miles from Tallahassee. A devotee of in-yer-face football, the loquacious Johnson says he picked Florida State because he felt like he was born a Seminole. "My coaches would never let me get too hyped when I played," says the 6'5", 272-pounder. "And I always wanted to explode. When I'm on the field, I'm gonna tell everybody how I'm tearing somebody up. And you gotta have that confidence. You gotta get excited, act the fool. It's contagious. That's why I came down here."
It's as if a certain strut -- football the way Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin and Warren Sapp play it -- is being taught at every high school program in Florida. "I can definitely pick out who the Florida boys are in the Pac-10 just by the way they carry themselves," says UCLA All-America WR and gridiron diva Freddie Mitchell, a product of Lakeland, Fla., and a cousin of former Hurricanes great Ray Lewis. "Florida players have got bigger heart. We're hungry, and there's a certain swagger in our step." They dance, they style, they yap -- and they win. But how they keep winning, that's the tricky part.
The truth? It's about race. And it's about religion. But above all, it's about belief. The 71-year-old Alabama-bred Bowden, grandfather of 21, football father of 100, relates to his kids better than any coach in America. Critics say he's a figurehead, that all he does is delegate. They point to last year's Sugar Bowl win, when he did a sideline interview while the Seminoles ran on a flea-flicker. Players see it differently. "Saturday is the time to let it all out," says Johnson. "That's your time. Prime time. And Coach Bowden brings out the attitude. He understands what is cocky and what is confidence. Coach Bowden gets us."
When Johnson says "us," he mostly means young male African-Americans. Johnson is quick to point out that FSU's two-deep defense is 100% black. "You know there are no agendas," says cornerback Bryant McFadden. "Guys don't have to worry about that here. The best players play, and he treats everyone equally, just like they're his own sons." With recruits who have sometimes turned the Noles into the most flamboyant family this side of the Jacksons, Bowden has created an environment that is best described as evangelical. "We've got a very Southern Baptist feel around here," says Johnson, "and that makes it much easier to be yourself."
That's the plan. In the summer, Bowden sends each player's parents a letter asking permission to bring their son to a predominantly white church the first Sunday of his two-a-days, and to a predominantly black church the following Sunday. "I want our kids to see they're welcome in both, and that there's really no difference in people," says Bowden. "This way they feel like they're part of both black and white. And in 25 years, I think I've had only two parents not allow their kids to be a part of it.
"The important thing is that I want them to believe in something," says Bowden. "Now, I know some atheists and agnostics are gonna criticize me for it, but I really don't give a dang. I know what's best for my boys."
At one point or another during the season, just about every one of Bowden's 100 players makes his way to the weekly Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings the coach presides over. "They're not mandatory," he says. "But they're encouraged. If a kid has his priorities in the right place, he's going to perform better. He's going to have more confidence. He's not going to be afraid to fail, because he's going to have higher self-esteem. He's going to feel better about himself."
If Bowden shepherds his players, then Spurrier preaches hellfire and brimstone. The Spurrier Way has driven off at least eight quarterbacks in the coach's 11-year reign in Gainesville. But it's also enabled the Gators to win six SEC titles and one national championship. Only a 9-4 finish in 1999 has kept Spurrier from running right along at Bowden's mind-boggling pace. But the biggest difference between FSU and UF is the star system. FSU has had Prime Time and Shade Tree and P-Dub and Weink-Dog and Snoop. But at Florida, the biggest star is and always will be the Visored One.
Embracing the personas and allowing them to drive each other and flourish is the secret behind the Seminoles' mind-blowing run of 13 consecutive seasons in the AP poll's final Top 4. "You make sure guys are disciplined," says FSU defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins, a former All-America noseguard with the Noles. "But you allow them to be themselves and have fun. We're not here to block talent."
"I believe we all have pent-up anger inside us," Bowden says. "I tell 'em football is an excuse to lash out. Now, I want 'em to obey the rules during the week, but when Saturday comes, man, turn it loose. And sometimes I get a big kick out of the dances they do."
Inevitably, those dancing Seminoles have stomped on some toes. On the field, they averaged an ACC-worst 10.3 penalties per game this season. It's the ninth consecutive year the Noles have led the conference in penalties. Off the field, there's been a bit of ugliness almost annually, ranging from the Foot Locker scandal to Peter Warrick's much-publicized Dillard's shopping spree.
To glimpse how precarious this balancing act can become, head downstate to Coral Gables, where Miami's program has had to overcome a particularly checkered past. After JJ left UM for the NFL following the 1988 season, Dennis Erickson and his staff flew in from the Pacific Northwest to take over the program. Erickson won two national titles in his first three years, relying mainly on the players Johnson recruited, but he struggled mightily coping with the Canes who were raising Cain. "Those guys came down here with their big, thick, puffy winter coats, and they really never fit in," says one of Erickson's former players. "They had no clue what Miami football is all about." The team split along racial lines, and by the time Erickson bolted for the Seattle Seahawks, the program was totally out of control.
Enter Butch Davis, an assistant coach on Johnson's Hurricane teams, who faced a host of NCAA sanctions that stripped UM of scholarships and virtually any chance to remain in the Top 25, much less the national title picture. The NCAA also had come out with an "excessive celebration" video, soon to become known as the Miami Tape.
The program hit rock bottom in 1997, when Miami went 5-6. Former Hurricane players, many of whom lined the sidelines during games, said UM had stopped playing with emotion, gone soft. But Davis didn't budge on his stance that Miami would come back with class. Now, just three years later, Davis has the Hurricanes in position to seize at least a share of the national title. And the swagger is back.
All the way back. Critics point to Hurricanes WR Santana Moss' 85-yard punt return against Boston College in the regular-season finale. Moss ripped off his helmet (an NCAA no-no), woofed to the Orange Bowl crowd, then watched as yellow flags rained down in the end zone. Thanks to the ensuing penalties (15 yards of which were Moss' doing), Miami converted what had to be the first-ever 50-yard extra point. Davis remained calm. The Canes rolled.
Two days later, when Davis and his team reviewed the tape of UM's 52-6 demolition of BC, the loudest roar came when Moss' TD sprint played out on the screen. Just at the moment when Moss unbuckled his chin strap, Davis broke through the noise with a plaintive request: "Hey, guys, please -- please! -- keep your helmets on."
Listen up. That's good advice for anyone who tangles with the Big Three.This article appears in the Next Issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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