Collegiate football began in Florida in 1899.
Floridians loved baseball. Football, however, evoked a primal need in Floridians’ lives, fostering a passion and intensity unequaled in any enterprise short of war or religious revivals. Baseball had borne populist antecedents, the game spread by workers, farmers, and brainstorming teams across the South. Football, however, traces its roots to students enrolled at prestigious universities in the Northeast during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Nationally and regionally, football advanced in spite of critics (inside and outside the academy) who branded the game barbaric. By the turn of the century, southern colleges competed against one another, taking advantage of regional rivalries. Collegiate football began in Florida in 1899, when players organized a team at Florida Agricultural College in Lake City. The school’s president, T.H. Taliaferro, doubled as football coach. Florida’s first intercollegiate game was played 22 November 1901, as squads from Florida Agricultural College and Stetson squared off. A crowd of two thousand cheered wildly. The following year, East Florida Seminary at Gainesville faced West Florida Seminary at Tallahassee, a rivalry to reemerge a half century later, under different names.
Football spread across the Mason-Dixon line as former players and graduates of southern colleges became editors, teachers, and coaches. Few cities and towns lacked a football team. Southerners may have appropriated the rebel yell, but northern schools dominated intersectional play until the 1920s. When the University of Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl—called the most significant game in southern football history—the game transcended sport and resonated sectional pride. The South may have been poor, but it now brandished football as a symbol of sectional, regional, and state pride. Football appealed to values Floridians and southerners cherished: a reverence afforded military heroes and tradition, the veneration of spectacle, and the thrill of violence. Football also provided poor Floridians a college scholarship, an avenue of upward mobility. Football’s emphasis upon discipline, sportsmanship, and teamwork appealed to southern leaders, who contended that players made better citizens, workers, and soldiers. Winning coaches became icons. Southern schools were woefully underfunded, but General Neyland, Bobby Dodd, and Wally Butts made southerners forget reality, at least on fall Saturday afternoons.
Like Longfellow’s Evangeline, Floridians learned the value of patience. Compared to football rivals Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia, Florida had enjoyed few sunlit seasons. In 1950, the University of Florida was entering a new era of expectations, as well as new demands. The Gators had been simply horrible in the decade of the Forties, achieving only one winning season; in 1946, the team was outscored 264-104 and finished 0-9. The deplorable state of Gator football flared as a campaign issue in 1948. Candidate Fuller Warren promised a winning team, at least one capable of beating Georgia. “We’ll bring the Rose Bowl to the Orange Bowl,” quipped the former collegiate pugilist. The governor endorsed a piece of pure Floridiana: a bill setting aside a special University of Florida night at Florida racetracks. The evening’s gambling profits went to the University for football scholarships. In 1950, the University enlarged Florida Field, adding 13,000 seats. Florida Field now bulged with crowds approaching 40,000. Florida State University, emerging from the cocoon of Florida State College for Women, had organized a fledgling football team, and in January 1950, won its first bowl game, a seminal triumph over Wofford College in Tampa’s Cigar Bowl. The Seminoles went undefeated in 1950, a season climaxed by a victory over the University of Tampa, in the so-called “Little College” football championship. Unvanquished, the players rejected bids from the Cigar, Pythian, Refrigerator, and Tangerine Bowls, preferring “to earn money during the vacation to pay tuition.” The University of Miami was the state’s best team in 1950, finishing 9-0-1 and earning a trip to the Orange Bowl. In 1954, the Hurricanes achieved their first Top-10 season.
But if 1950's football captivated Floridians, its intensity was felt not only at college campuses, but in the backwoods and big cities. Attendance at high school games frequently outdrew collegiate games. So popular was football in Dade County that three schools, Miami, Jackson, and Edison High, called the Orange Bowl home. For a quarter century, 1925-50, the Miami High Stingarees carved out a legendary reputation, defeating every Dade County challenger. Miami High so dominated rivals that its teams won the state title four times in the 1950s. In 1965, a game between Miami High and Coral Gables drew 48,631 fans. Football intensified natural rivalries between towns and within cities: High Springs and Alachua, Marianna and DeFuniak Springs, Monticello and Madison, Haines City and Auburndale, the Jay High Royals and the Altha High Wildcats. J. Earle Bowden, longtime observer of west Florida manners and morals, described the meaning of football to the region: “Giggly girls giggle. Mammas choke back joyful tears. Papa stands strong and proud. It’s Friday night and high school football... . Hear the big drum roll; tom-tom beat for a noisy crowd bathed in hot lights on chilly Florida nights.” Memories of Thanksgiving in Florida mingled smells of turkey with the thump of football. In Tampa, Plant High and Hillsborough High typically played in front of Phillips Field crowds of 15,000. Jacksonville, too, nurtured a rich football tradition at Robert E. Lee High. The 1950 Thanksgiving game between Miami High and Miami Edison drew a crowd of 36,000.
In 1950, and for almost two decades beyond, racial segregation united and divided Floridians. The University of Miami, Florida State University, and University of Miami recruited all-white teams. Historically, Florida colleges scheduled southern opponents, refusing to play teams with black players. In the late 1940s, the University of Miami had canceled games against integrated UCLA and Penn State teams, but crossed that racial Rubicon in 1950 when a Hurricane squad played the University of Iowa.
Few white Floridians realized that one Florida football team won a national championship team in 1950. The Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) football team, coached by Alonzo “Jake” Gaither, brought home the National Negro Collegiate Football Championship, reaping the honor again in 1954, 1957, 1959, and 1961. Between 1945 and 1969, the legendary Gaither won 203 games while losing only 34. If white Floridians did not appreciate FAMU’s accomplishments, black Floridians worshipped Gaither and his remarkable teams. “I expect my boys to be agile, hostile, and mobile,” quipped the coach. African Americans followed the FAMU Rattlers and Bethune-Cookmen Wildcats, reading about the teams in black newspapers or “News of the Negro Community,” a supplement in white papers. Gaither used the Orange Blossom Classic, held in Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando, and Miami, as a way of popularizing the game. Early in his career, Gaither discovered that Florida produced a paucity of gifted, black high-school athletes. Many Florida counties had not even built high schools for black students; other schools struggled. Gaither’s early FAMU teams featured many Ohio and Pennsylvania recruits. But by the 1950s, Gaither’s former players were coaching in Florida and the South, sending their best talent to Tallahassee: Until the 1970s, southern black colleges and northern schools enjoyed a virtual monopoly recruiting African-American athletes.
The gridiron exploits of Larry Rentz, John Reaves, and Larry Smith (white football players) had been the stuff of legends. The media (or at least the white media) largely ignored Willie Galmore’s achievements at St. Augustine Excelsior, or Jacksonville Gilbert’s Bob Hayes and his 99-yard run against Miami Booker T. Washington, or the legend of David “Deacon” Jones at Eatonville. Until Hayes starred in the 1964 Olympics, few Floridians realized “Bullet Bob” had played at FAMU.
Florida’s pigskin hegemony in the 1980s and ‘90s was made possible because of events in the 1960s and ‘70s. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the predominant colors identifying Florida football were not blue and orange, garnet and gold, or orange and green, but white and black. Race dictated the composition of Florida’s football teams, as it colored other areas of conduct. In 1967, the University of Miami admitted its first African American to an athletic scholarship, the same year Dillard High played Fort Lauderdale High, the first time a black school played a white school in football. Ironically, integration deprived FAMU of legendary African-American players who achieved stardom at Florida’s predominantly white colleges: Ottis Anderson, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Jerome Brown, Reidel Anthony, Fred Taylor, Sammie Smith, Ray Lewis, Eddie Brown, Michael Irvin, Andre Wadsworth, Daunte Culpepper, and Peter Warrick.
A member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the University of Florida slowly and reluctantly recruited black athletes. The SEC, in fact, became the last major athletic conference to desegregate its athletic teams. Not until 1962 did the University of Florida admit black students to its undergraduate ranks; not until 1969 did the school sign an African American to a football scholarship, one year before the University of Alabama followed the ranks. Writes Wayne Flynt, “Coach Bryant’s stopwatch had expanded his social conscience.” Quickly, all-white southern teams recruited black Floridians. Florida State University signed its first black football players at the same time, and African Americans actually made up a majority of the FSU basketball team by 1969.
The demographic explosion that thrust Florida into the nation’s top population ranks also included record enrollments at the state’s public schools. The sheer number of potential athletes grew proportionately. Florida’s climate aided its athletic programs. When Howard Schnellenberger took over the University of Miami’s foundering program, he announced he would recruit Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties—his self-declared “State of Miami.” Indeed, Dade County alone supplies almost a third of Florida’s collegiate football talent, surpassing in numbers the state of South Carolina. Athletes can run, throw, and hit year-round, an advantage not enjoyed in less temperate climates. Athletics offered African Americans and poor whites a way out of poverty. Belle Glade High School exemplifies this determination. In 1999, no other school in America had produced so many professional football players as Belle Glade High, located in one of the nation’s most impoverished locales.
Florida football fever fed upon natural geographic and urban factors. The Universities of Miami and Florida inaugurated play in 1938, an annual event until Gainesville officials discontinued the game in the 1990s. The Florida-Florida State bloodsport originated in 1958, but sentiment for the game began in the late 1940s when coeducation arrived at Tallahassee. Overtures to schedule a game met deaf ears in Gainesville, but politicians sensed the political capital of such an irresistible issue. In 1955, a Brooksville legislator introduced a bill “urging” the two schools to play one another and eventually Governor Collins used his persuasive powers to bring university presidents and athletic directors to agree upon the merits of competition. The first Florida - FSU football game occurred 22 November 1958, and the unbridled rivalry has only intensified. Each November, hundreds of thousands of alumni and millions of residents care deeply about the fortunes of Gator and Seminole football, resurrecting atavistic memories of Lane Fenner, Jimmy Dunn, and the Great Tie. “It’s not a football game,” writes Diane Roberts, an unabashed Seminole, “It’s a clan feud, a class struggle, internecine war..... The Seminole-Gator game is actual fighting, not just in the stands and bars... but for a sense of self-worth.”
For all of the hoopla and melodrama, the state of college football in Florida, 1950-1980, ranged from the mediocre to the occasional good team. To be sure, some fabulous players performed during this era: Rick Casares, George Mira, Steve Spurrier, Ted Hendricks, Chuck Foreman, Nat Moore, Fred Biletnikoff, and Jack Youngblood. Individual accolades notwithstanding, a feeling of underachievement pervaded the state. In 1980, the University of Miami seriously considered pulling the plug on its football program. The University of Florida had never won a coveted SEC Championship. Florida State University had assembled several talented teams, but faced an uphill battle against “the boys from old Florida.” Lacking a conference identity, FSU had difficulty bringing name teams to Tallahassee, and if premier schools scheduled the Seminoles, they played in a Doak Campbell Stadium that intimidated few foes.
Florida’s football fortunes changed with the hiring of several extraordinary coaches. The arrival of Bobby Bowden, Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, and Steve Spurrier elevated and galvanized Florida football to the rarified air of national championships. Arguably, no state has dominated college football as Florida, 1980-2000: seven national championships by three different teams. Bowden and Spurrier have inherited the legacy of Paul “Bear” Bryant as the South’s—and perhaps America’s—greatest coach and icon. “If you live in Florida,” writes an observer, “you cannot say either name without its affecting the corners of your mouth, shaping it into either smile or sneer. Spurrier is the guy who named the Swamp. Bowden is the guy who brought the fire to light the spear.” The iconic legacy can be calculated with precision: renovated stadiums holding 80,000 fans, annual million-dollar contracts, and tens of millions of dollars rolling into athletic departments, courtesy of proud alumni and merchandising rights. College football may be a glorious sport, but it is also big business, part and parcel of a Florida entertainment industry. ....
Dr. Gary Mormino is co-director of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Material excerpted from his essay: Sand-Lots, Fields of Dreams, and Pleasure Domes: Florida Sport World