COACH: STEVE SPURRIER
ALL-AMERICAS: REIDEL ANTHONY, WR; IKE HILLIARD, WR; JEFF MITCHELL, C; DANNY WUERFFEL, QB (HEISMAN TROPHY WINNER).
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS: 2 (1996, 2006)
IN THE SMALL hours of last Friday, Jan. 3, 1997, Florida coach Steve Spurrier rushed toward a fourth-floor suite of a New Orleans hotel with his family in tow and college football at his feet. A surreal 52-20 Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State that was chilling in its ease and convincing enough to earn Florida its first national title lay two hours behind him. Spurrier let the joy wash over him as he punched the air with staccato bursts. "We wanted this one very, very badly," he said. "Golly, it's a thrill for Gators everywhere."
This had been the consummate match of man and contest, as if Spurrier had been born 51 years ago just so he could stand in the Superdome and coach this game. Over the last seven years Florida's opponents have drawn strength from Spurrier's stubborn adherence to two beliefs: 1) He will not change his blocking scheme, and 2) he will not consistently run the shotgun. But in the Sugar Bowl he did both. As teams have concluded that the only way to slow the Gators is to bring heavy heat on the quarterback, he has slowly accepted the shotgun as a means of giving Danny Wuerffel an earlier setup in the pocket.
Given an extra beat, Wuerffel played another in a four-year series of tough, brilliant games. He completed 18 of 34 passes for 306 yards, including three for touchdowns to wideout Ike Hilliard, and he was sacked only five times. Wuerffel's eight-yard post to Hilliard with 5:43 left in the third quarter gave Florida a 31-20 lead, and his uncharacteristic 16-yard scramble stretched the lead to 38-20 with 13 seconds left in the period. His performance earned the undying praise of his coach. "I like Danny for every reason you can think of," Spurrier said. "Accurate passer, makes plays, leads the team, he's got it all."
The entire night was one long, improbable gift to one of the last power programs in the country without a national title. In the end Florida players danced on the Superdome rug for 45 minutes, drinking in the title with the many fans who stayed.
Spurrier leaned against a counter in his suite. His son Scotty, 9, walked to his father and wrapped both arms wearily around Steve's left thigh while nuzzling against his hip. "I love you, Dad," he said softly.
Don't they all, Gators everywhere.
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, January 13, 1997