GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Steve Spurrier won six SEC championships at Florida. He won a national championship, became a legend and changed the trajectory of Gators football.
But it’s one of his non-championship teams — officially, at least — that may conjure the most pride for him.
Twenty-six years later, Spurrier is still advocating for due respect for his first Florida team that went 6-1 in SEC play in 1990 to finish with the best record in the conference, only to be ruled ineligible for the conference title due to a prior NCAA violation.
“They were probably the most mistreated, unfairly punished team in SEC history,” Spurrier said this week. “No player, no coach, nobody had any violations on the team. Four years earlier something happened that was never proven, and for that they can’t be called champions. Come on now.”
No, a quarter century has not healed that wound for the Head Ball Coach.
That’s why he’s especially excited to honor that 1990 Florida team, along with the 1991 team that did officially win the program’s first SEC title, between the first and second quarters of the Gators’ home finale Saturday against South Carolina.
When he realized that the 1991 team had never been brought back to be honored during a game, and with it being 25 years since that team won the SEC, he decided it was time to bring both of his first teams back to The Swamp.
“I told them, we had a team meeting, I told him ‘I guarantee I’ll recognize you as the first team to win it forever,’ and this is my opportunity here 26 years later to tell all the Gators that ’90 team won it first. They just didn’t get recognized,” Spurrier said Wednesday. “But they made it easier for the ’91 team to win it and made it easier for the ’93-94-95-96-2000 (teams) and away we go. They started championship SEC ball here at Florida.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain said he was going to have his 2016 team visit with some of those former Gators on Friday before heading to the team hotel. McElwain has been a vocal proponent of embracing the program’s past, starting with helping to bring Spurrier back as an ambassador and consultant over the summer.
“I’m looking forward to that because they’re really the ones who started this thing,” McElwain said.
One reason Spurrier is such an engaging story teller — one of many — is his vivid recall of stats, numbers and details from his dominant run through the 1990s.
In reflecting back on that 1990 team this week, he made sure to remind everyone that the Gators’ six SEC wins that year came by an average margin of 24 points per game (well, 24.5).
Officially, though, Tennessee was crowned SEC champs with a 5-1-1 conference record, including a pretty thorough 45-3 win over the Gators.
Spurrier recounted how upset his players were to learn of the NCAA sanctions stemming from matters that preceded them.
“They were ineligible to be called SEC champs because four years prior (there was) an alleged violation of (a) child support payment for a player that (former coach) Galen Hall did not pay. We pleaded guilty, our university did, and that was one violation that caused us to be ineligible for a bowl game, which made us ineligible to be called SEC champs. We got that in the middle of the season,” he said.
According to news articles from that time, the violation was for an alleged payment of $360 for football player Jarvis Williams’ child support debt several years earlier. The NCAA stated at the time that the resulting postseason ban was levied because the infraction occurred while the program was on a two-year probation.
Spurrier said his 1990 team was “devastated” by the ruling.
“They wanted to be the first in school history to win the SEC and then all of a sudden we got a sanction and ‘You guys can’t even be called champs even if you do win it,'” he said. “So they got together and said, ‘Let’s go win the dadgum thing anyway. Let’s win it and make it easier for next year’s team to win it,’ which is exactly what happened. It helped getting a little chip on the shoulder, as they say, to try to win as many of these dadgum things as we could for the next 10-11 years or what have you.”
As he noted, Spurrier’s Florida teams won the SEC title the next year and then reeled off four straight from 1993-96 while also capturing the national championship in 1996.
A number of the former players from the 1990-91 teams will be on hand to be recognized Saturday, including quarterback and two-time SEC player of the year Shane Matthews.
Matthews passed for 2,952 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions (plus 4 rushing touchdowns) during that 1990 season while Errict Rhett combined for 1,043 rushing/receiving yards and 5 touchdowns, Willie McClendon combined for 897 yards and 8 scores, Kirk Kirkpatrick caught 55 passes for 770 yards and 7 touchdowns and Ernie Mills hauled in 41 receptions for 770 yards and 10 scores.
The offense averaged 35.2 points per game while the defense allowed just 15.6 per game, as linebacker Jerry Odom racked up 85 tackles, Will White tallied 7 interceptions and Tim Paulk had 4 picks.
“It was a loaded team,” Spurrier said. “I was telling Coach McElwain, I came down here to a loaded (roster). The defense was third in the nation the year before and returned eight starters. … It was a loaded team, and Shane Matthews, we found him. He was sitting on the (tackle) dummies out there one day and I said, ‘Come on, let’s play some quarterback.’ No, he really developed and of course he was the player of the year in 90-91.”
Spurrier had just arrived back at his alma mater after a successful coaching stint at Duke leading into that 1990 season, and he set expectations high from the start — or tried to, at least.
“When I told people our goal was to win the SEC that first year, they sort of laughed, they sort of giggled. ‘Who’s this coach from Duke University going to come into the mighty SEC and win his first year? Come on now,'” he said. “But the players were here. That was the goal. We expected to win it and they went out and did it.”
No matter what the official record book says.