The University of Florida is a handsome and distinguished enclave of higher education. The rolling Gainesville campus, with its abundance of oaks, is situated in what would approximate, if you picture the Florida peninsula as an upright human, the solar plexus of the state. In many respects that's what the school is—the guts of Florida. It's an honored institution with a first-rate curriculum, impressive facilities and active, formidable alumni who dominate the state's business and political interests. Yes, and it has one thing more: a very large ulcer caused by a massive, ongoing frustration over its beloved football team.
Bear Bryant used to say that the University of Florida should be the ideal place to coach because, with all its other advantages, the state turns out legions of skilled high school players, the bulk of whom yearn to be Gators. But he didn't want to coach there. He called it a matter of "class." John McKay has said much the same thing, as has Frank Broyles. Historically, Florida coaches, good and bad, have ranked with the most beleaguered in college football. The last one to leave the job of his own free will was Charlie Bachman—in 1932. For his wartime efforts, which for the most part were hapless, Tom Lieb got thrown in a lake by the students.
The football monkey on Florida's back is that it has never won a championship of any kind, despite a frequent abundance of talent. Gator fans, assured that Somebody up there doesn't like them, and reacting accordingly, are characterized by rivals as being the most obnoxious in the Southeastern Conference. They can be counted on to wear the silliest hats, plaster their cars with the crudest bumper stickers and spill their drinks in crowded places; and they are the first to throw debris—cans, ice, fruit—at the opponents' bench when the tide turns against the Gators. Florida loyalists live on "next year" and on the expectation that the next new coach will bring them their first conference title. Their cheers are then routinely superseded by boos as their Gators lose yet another big game.
Last Saturday night in Tampa, Florida lost another big one, this time to defending national champion Miami, which scored two touchdowns in the final seven seconds to win 32-20 and extend the longest winning streak in major college football to 13. A breathtakingly beautiful game, it featured a gutsy Florida rally that put the underdog Gators ahead 20-19 with 41 seconds to play and a retaliatory thunderbolt—a 72-yard Hurricane drive that took all of 29 seconds and was punctuated by still another winning touchdown pass by Bernie Kosar. The Hurricanes then scored on the game's final play, when cornerback Tolbert Bain returned Gator quarterback Kevin Bell's desperation pass 59 yards for a TD. What's more, the Hurricanes, under their new, carefully coiffed coach, Jimmy Johnson, are playing even better defense than they did last year.
Kosar appears so close to perfection that it's scary, and his pass catchers seem able to reach anything within the continental limits. The Hurricanes showed some fatigue in the fourth quarter, which wasn't surprising considering they had only five days to regroup following a convincing but nerve-and body-wracking 20-18 upset of Auburn. Still, Miami appears not to have missed a breath since defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes have now won four of their last five games in the final minute of play, and in the three most recent ones Kosar has passed for at least 300 yards.
In Tampa, however, and in most of the state north of Dade County, the Hurricanes' fast start wasn't the most compelling story of the week. That distinction belonged to Florida, with yet another beleaguered coach on the hairy edge of forced unemployment. This episode was far more unseemly and painful than the previous ones. This time, the coach had seemed destined to bring the Gators out of the swamp—he had, in fact, given them the best four-year record in their history (32-15-1) and led them to their first-ever final Top 10 ranking (No. 8 in SI) last season—but, alas, he turned out to be a cheat. By his own anguished admission.
When Charlie Pell departed Clemson to become Florida's coach in December 1978, sports editor Tom McEwen of The Tampa Tribune told him to "be prepared" because the Florida job "is like no other." McEwen said that Pell told him it "couldn't be so." A year or so ago, Pell changed his mind. "Tommy," he said, "you were right. It is different." By then, a whole lot of bumpers in the state carried GIVE 'EM HELL, PELL stickers, only Pell was now getting more than he was giving. A blurred pattern of rules bending steadily took shape. It finally came into focus six days before the Miami game when Pell announced his resignation effective at the end of the '84 season.
As it turns out, the pattern was actually clear from the start. In Pell's first season in Gainesville, the Gators were docked four days of spring-practice time after an NCAA investigator, in town on another matter, happened by the practice field and discovered several of Pell's assistants "directing" off-season workouts. That year, the Gators went 0-10-1. In retrospect, Gainesville attorney Jim Quincey, the university's chief counsel, who eventually worked with the NCAA in pinpointing the infractions, says the team's disastrous beginning probably made Pell and his staff "panic." Because Pell has never been particularly well liked by rival coaches, it was predictable that he would be watched closely and that the case against him would grow.
At NCAA headquarters in Mission, Kans., complaints began to dribble in: phone calls, notes, newspaper clippings. But contrary to what many Gator fans believe, says Quincey, the NCAA wasn't engaged in a "vendetta" against Pell. Indeed, Pell had escaped censure when Clemson was punished after he left for some 70 infractions, several of which occurred during his two-year tenure. The harried, shorthanded NCAA investigative staff (only 35 in the field, 25 of whom are part-time) doesn't have time for vendettas. The process that leads to action is more or less a matter of "feeling the file" and acting whenever it gets thick enough, so the battle lines hardened. Pell consistently denied any wrongdoing.
In November 1982, a Gator recruit named Pat Moons told The Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel that a Florida coach had offered to help get his sister into school on a package deal. The next month the NCAA initiated a "preliminary inquiry" into the Florida program. A "preliminary" is tantamount to being put on notice to look under your bed, because the NCAA has found reason to believe somebody is there and up to no good. But it was the St. Petersburg Times that peered beneath the box springs. In a series of investigative articles that spanned the next 17 months, the Times' William Nottingham, Robert Hooker, Dave Scheiber and Steven Nohlgren uncovered a number of violations that hardly endeared them to Florida fans, not to mention several journalists in the state who are stuck on the Gators.