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The Team that Changed it All

Gator Nation celebrates the 30th anniversary of the 1990 football team’s history-making season

It was the first year in what would be a Hall of Fame career as Florida’s head football coach when a few players bragged to Steve Spurrier (BSPE ’81) about the festivities of the night.

“Tonight is the night we shave all the heads of the freshmen,” said one senior.

Spurrier bristled. “They’re just as important as anybody on this team. We’re a team,” he said.

“Aww coach, it’s a tradition.”

“You know what else is a tradition around here? Getting your tail kicked by Georgia every year. We’re going to change a lot of things,” was Spurrier’s answer.

It was part of a culture change in 1990, and eventually we would see a new culture on the field as well. Gone was Emmitt Smith (BSR ’96) right, Emmitt left, Emmitt up the middle, punt as an offensive philosophy.

The Fun ‘N’ Gun was about to take over college football. And it all started with the most important season in the history of Gator football, the one that changed everything.

New World Order

Spurrier arrived on New Year’s 1989 and in his first press conference he announced the Gators would return to blue jerseys and go back to a grass field.

But it was on the practice field and in meetings where he really changed Florida football.

“He brought this confidence, this mindset that he was a winner and we could be, too,” said tight end Kirk Kirkpatrick, who led the 1990 team in receiving. “He told us, with the talent we had, how could we go 7-5? How could we always lose to Georgia when we had better players?

“He got us to be a more intelligent team. I don’t think we were a very smart team the first years I was at Florida.”

Before Spurrier, Florida was known as a sleeping giant. Spurrier was the stick that woke the bear. Before 1990, Florida had some success in football but the motto was “Wait ‘Til Next Year.” Shoot, Emmitt’s teams were 20-14 during his three years at Florida. Jack Youngblood (BSBA ’72) played on a team that lost 63-14 … on Homecoming. And those are UF’s only two NFL Hall of Famers.

I could go on. The years known as the Golden Era included a stretch of 13 straight losses. One of the best Gator seasons in 1969 included quarterback John Reaves (BSBA ’73) throwing nine interceptions in a game, a record that will likely never be broken.

Ray Graves changed offensive and defensive coordinators before the Georgia game and lost 51-0. The only two SEC titles in school history were wiped from the books by massive NCAA infractions.

You get the picture.

But in 1990, Spurrier took the first steps to a New World Order. Florida would become a football power. Finally.

“That season changed Florida football,” said former defensive tackle Brad Culpepper (BA ’91, JD ’01, MESS ’01), who played nine seasons in the NFL. “And it changed the entire SEC.”

Yes We Can

Spurrier came home to Florida from Duke and knew he was inheriting a talented team.

“The main thing was convincing the players we were good enough to win the SEC,” he said. “There are no more excuses. We have the talent. All that other BS had surrounded Florida football for years. Let’s go do it.”

The players were almost immediately energized because they knew that Florida had a great defense and just needed a pulse on offense to be a great team.

Instead, Spurrier used a defibrillator to jump-start a dormant offense.

“The energy was ridiculous,” said Errict Rhett (BSR ’95), who had more than 1,000 all-purpose yards as a freshman. “You knew he was going to light the scoreboard up. It didn’t matter who was back there, he would make you great.”

Rhett inherited the role of alpha dog when Smith left early for the NFL.

“I was happy that he left,” Rhett said. “I knew we still had enough talent to win. Coach Spurrier didn’t even bring up my name at the press conference, but I knew I would fit in.

“The biggest thing he did, though, was he made us feel like a team. The atmosphere changed. We always had this outer arrogance. But now we had this inner arrogance.”

That team learned how to win behind a quarterback who was once as low as fifth on the depth charts. But Shane Matthews (BSBA ’92) worked his way up, had a great Spring Game and opened the season as the starter.

“The biggest thing was his initial team meeting,” Matthews said of Spurrier. “And he says, ‘I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. Everybody is the same and we’re going to win championships here, and to do that, we have to beat Georgia.’ ”

That would come later, but in the second game of the season, the pendulum finally swung in the right direction for Florida football. The Gators beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 17-13.

“I believe it was the most important game in the history of Florida football,” Matthews said. “Florida could never beat quality opponents on the road. It set the foundation for the rest of the year and showed we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

One of the biggest plays of that game was a 70-yard pass from the 1-yard line from Matthews to Ernie Mills.

“We hadn’t blocked them all day and he calls for a seven-step drop and a bomb to Ernie,” Matthews said. “He just knew when to call plays and we all believed in him. His swagger rubbed off on everybody.”

Sins of the Father

A week later the NCAA dropped a bomb on Florida, banning the Gators from postseason play and the chance to play for the SEC title because of an allegation that had to do with the previous head coach Galen Hall, one that was never proven.

“This is America,” Spurrier said at the time. “You’re supposed to pay for one crime and finish that. You’re not supposed to pay for the same crime again.”

In a meeting with the school’s administration, Spurrier told President John Lombardi he thought his team had a chance to win the SEC and it would be worth an appeal.

But it was shot down by dean of students Bob Lanzillotti, who thought UF should just take the penalty because it had never won an SEC title.

Spurrier told his players that if they could go win the SEC, even though there would be no trophy, he would make sure that team always received the credit it deserved.

“You’ll be able to go to our graves knowing you were the first and I’ll make sure everyone knows it,” he said.

So they did. A stumble at Tennessee was the only thing that got in the way. Florida beat Auburn and Georgia in back-to-back Saturdays by a combined 86-14. Then the Gators went to Kentucky where they always struggled in the cold and won 47-15.

The final record was 9-2, 6-1 in SEC play, which was the league’s best record. But because the SEC had a deal with the Sugar Bowl to send its champion to the game, Florida could not be considered champions.

Champions Nonetheless

After the 1996 team won the national title, UF decided to put a display up on the south wall to honor that team as well as all of the SEC championship teams (1991, ’93, ’94, ’95 and ’96 at the time).

Spurrier insisted the 1990 team be up there as well with the words, “First in the SEC.” That meant that the probation-riddled teams of 1984 and ’85 had to go up as well, just to be fair to those players.

Once Spurrier left for the NFL, all three of the teams not recognized by the SEC came down off the wall.

But the truth is that the 1990 team should go back up there. Nobody on that team cheated. Nobody took payments. No coaches were implicated.

The 1984 and ’85 teams also had innocent bystanders, but there was cheating going on: 107 violations were in the NCAA report.

“I don’t want to get those ’84 and ’85 teams mad at me, but it would be fun to have it up there,” Spurrier said. “But no matter what, those guys will know they were the first.”

And the team that got it all started.

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9 From 1990: Where Are They Now?

We caught up with nine of the 1990 Gator football team’s stars. See what they are up to these days. (click on a photo to see a larger version)

Shane Matthews (BSBA ’92) played 14 seasons among six NFL teams before returning to live in Newberry. He hosts the “Inside the Huddle” radio show on WRUF AM 850 with former UF head coach Steve Spurrier (BSPE ’81) and WRUF commentator Steve Russell (BSJ ’70). The trio, who typically break down UF and other college football game outcomes, hope to have more fall football games to discuss in September. Hear past episodes at wruf.com/inside-the-huddle.

Ernie Mills (BSESS ’90) played in nine NFL seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys. Then, after a few NFL coaching internships, he served as wide receivers coach at Jacksonville University and Florida A&M University, John C. Smith University and Berry Academy in Charlotte, N.C. He has since retired to his hometown, Dunellon.

Errict Rhett (BSR ’95) played for three NFL teams: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Today, he builds custom homes with this brothers and lives in Plantation.

Brad Culpepper (BA ’91, history; JD ’01, MESS ’01) played for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Today, he is a personal injury attorney in Tampa with the Culpepper-Kurland firm.

Kirk Kirkpatrick (BA ’90) had a short stint in the NFL and then as a financial trader, but found his calling when he co-founded Riverside Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Tampa. As CEO, his goal is to eliminate the stigma of addiction so more people will seek the help they need.

Huey Richardson (BA ’90) played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins and New York Jets. Then he joined Merrill Lynch in New York City where he was a financial analyst, but now serves as a stock market trader. He lives in Mahwah, N.J.

Richard Fain (BSESS ’90) of Fort Myers played for the Cincinnati Bengals, Phoenix Cardinals and Chicago Bears. Today he owns and operates RF Financial Consulting and broadcasts a wide range of video tutorials about investing throughout social media channels.

Jason “Jerry” Odom (BSESS ‘96) coached football at UF, the Orlando Predators arena league and Jacksonville University. Today, he coaches the Tusculum College Pioneers in Greenville, TN, in the South Atlantic Conference.

Cal Dixon (BSESS ’92) spent five seasons in the NFL, playing for the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. He went back to his hometown of Merritt Island, where he taught and coached football before heading to Orlando for a career in the hospitality industry. Today, he’s semi-retired working for Shipped, an online grocery delivery service. He, his wife and their five children (one is a UF junior in environmental engineering) live in Merritt Island.