It was an important moment in college football history when Steve Spurrier chose the Florida Gators’ passing offense over Tennessee’s Wing-T attack. The quarterback from Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn., went on on to be a thorn in the Vols side for nearly three decades.
Spurrier came to Neyland Stadium in 1988 with Duke and, beat the Vols 31-26. That was just the beginning. It got worse when Spurrier left Duke to coach the Florida Gators in 1990. No one worried because the Gators were thought of as a second-rate SEC program, with just 13 conference wins in the previous four seasons before Spurrier arrived.
That changed quickly. Spurrier, who retired from South Carolina this week, won nine games in his first season at Florida. He averaged more than 10 wins during his 12 seasons in Gainesville.
Yet, there was another SEC East power on the rise. Tennessee, under head coach Phillip Fulmer, averaged 10 wins from his first full season, 1993, to Spurrier’s last, 2001. Spurrier seemed to enjoy the rivalry a little more than Fulmer, rarely letting an opportunity to poke fun at his SEC East rival.
“Steve is a great guy when you’re one-on-one or play golf with him,” Fulmer said Tuesday on Sirius XM Radio “You put a microphone in front of him and he can become a jerk in a hurry.”
Fulmer never took part in trading barbs. He would just quietly plan for the next Florida matchup. It’s doubtful Fulmer thought Spurrier was funny at the time. Now, he seems to at least accept it.
“He was hilarious,” Fulmer said. “I mean honest to a fault to be truthful. You know darn well he’s a very good coach. I don’t know how much he liked recruiting but he surrounded himself with people who did recruit.”
The two coaches were perceived much differently. Fulmer was the tireless recruiter. Spurrier was the game-day tactician who seemed to outwit Fulmer far too often.
“It was always extra special,” Fulmer said of playing Spurrier. “When the divisional play started, you had to beat Florida. That was it.”
From 1990 to 2001, Tennessee and Florida met in a game that was always expected to factor into the conference title race, eventually deciding which team would represent the SEC East in the SEC Championship game, which began in 1992. During the time Spurrier was at Florida, the Gators and Vols were always ranked in the top 15 of the AP poll when they met. They were in the top 10 nine times. They were ranked in the top five on five separate occasions during that time span. During the 1990s, the Vols and the Gators combined to win eight conference titles and two national championships.
Fulmer said he believed several Tennessee teams could have made a college football playoff under the current format. However, losing to Florida would most likely take them out of the race.
“That’s how good that division at that time was,” Fulmer said. “Of course the (SEC) West is kind of that way now.”
Spurrier wasn’t just good at Florida. He won an ACC championship at Duke and turned South Carolina into a contender after an unsuccessful stint with the Washington Redskins.
“What a job he did … at all the places he’s been,” Fulmer said. “At Duke he probably caught the conference at the right time because there weren’t very good teams then. But in the Southeastern Conference, with him that was tough with him being in the same darn division. What he did at South Carolina is amazing because it’s never been done before. You have to give him his due. He did a great job for them.”
The Tennessee-Florida series was mostly one sided with Spurrier at the helm. He was 8-4 against the Vols at Florida. However, the game never lacked for drama. There were fantastic plays from a bevy of future NFL stars, contested calls and, of course, some verbal barbs from Spurrier.
Here are some of the most memorable moments:
- 1993 – After serving as interim coach in 1992, Fulmer must have felt good about his chances heading into his first season as full-time head coach. He beat Florida as an interim 31-14. The Gators got revenge the following season, beating Fulmer’s Vols 41-34 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which Spurrier coined “The Swamp.” It was Fulmer’s first loss and a sign of things to come. He’d lose five straight to Spurrier’s Gators.
- 1995 – Tennessee looked determined to beat Florida when it sprinted out to a 30-14 lead. That didn’t last long. Florida went on to score 48 of the next 55 points and beat the Vols 62-37. “I felt we could score every time we got it,” Spurrier said. “And we came awfully close.”
- 1996 – Despite the way the previous game ended, hopes were high for the Vols the following season. Junior quarterback Peyton Manning was a bona fide star and the game was in Neyland Stadium. That didn’t help. Florida sprinted out to a 35-0 lead in the first 21 minutes. Florida got lax and Tennessee rallied, but the game was never in doubt. Florida won 35-29. The Gators went on to win the national title and quarterback Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy. Spurrier was riding high and so were his jokes. The following offseason, he said, “You can’t spell Citrus without U-T.” and “I know why Peyton came back for his senior year. He wanted to be a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl.”
- 1998 – Manning was gone after losing to the Gators in 1997 and finishing 0-4 against his nemesis. There was no reason to believe the Vols could beat Florida after he was gone. Yet they did. The Vols capitalized on timely turnovers and enough offensive production to beat the Gators in overtime, 20-17. Charging fans tore down the goalposts, carried them around campus and dug up chunks of the field. Tennessee went on to win an SEC championship and the first national title in the Bowl Championship Series-era.
- 2000 – The game is simply remembered as “The Catch,” whether it was or not. In the waning moments of the game, Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer threw a pass to receiver Jabar Gaffney, who appeared to secure the ball a split-second in the end zone before it was batted away. Official convened and ruled the play a touchdown. Florida won 27-23.
- 2001 – Fans had long wanted the Tennessee-Florida game moved later in the season since a loss all but eliminated one team from an SEC East title. Tragedy made the move a necessity. The events of 9/11 moved the game from September to December, the week before the SEC Championship game. Whichever team won would have a chance to play for the national championship if they could secure the SEC title. Despite being a 17 1/2-point underdog, the Vols held on to win 34-32. However, Tennessee lost to LSU in the SEC championship and lost the chance to play Miami in the Rose Bowl for a title shot. Spurrier, reportedly frustrated by high expectations, resigned following that season.