Gators Going Greater

The Quarterback and The Queen

50 years after leaving Gainesville, the University of Florida remains a special place for Tommy and Kathy Shannon

The 1960s were wonder years for college sweethearts Tommy Shannon and Kathy Green — the quarterback hero and the Homecoming queen. Back then, nestled between cool fall afternoons and warm spring evenings, were the moments that made their time at the University of Florida unforgettable.

“It went by so fast,” says Tommy (BSBA ’66), MVP of UF’s 1962 Gator Bowl upset over Penn State. “I remember walking across campus in the middle of my senior year thinking, ‘My goodness, where did it go?’”

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The university has been part of our lives since Tom and I met my freshman year. It just feels like home to us.

— Kathy Shannon —

Tommy Shannon
Selected Honors
  • UF Foundation Board of Directors Lifetime Membership, 2016
  • UF Distinguished Alumnus, 2009
  • Horatio Alger Award, 2009
  • Top 100 Irish American Business Leaders, 2007
  • Ellis Island Medal of Honor, 2006
  • Spirit of Life Award, 2004 (City of Hope National Medical Center)
  • Restaurateur of the Year, 2002 (California Restaurant Association)
  • UF Hall of Fame, football and baseball
  • Gator Bowl MVP, 1962

All these years later, memories of those months in Gainesville still bring stories and smiles. None of the grins bigger than the recollection of a particular celebration at St. Augustine Catholic Church — just a block or so from the football stadium where Tommy had been a star. There, in Kathy’s junior year, Miss Green became Mrs. Shannon.

Five decades later, the University of Florida, to the Shannons, is forever magical.

“The university has been part of our lives since Tom and I met my freshman year,” Kathy (BAE ’67) says. “Sometimes it feels like we never left. It just feels like home to us.”

Destined to be Gators

Notre Dame recruited him. So did the Naval Academy and other schools. Tommy Shannon was that good an athlete coming out of high school in Miami, where his family had moved when he was 11. In the end, though, UF was where he wanted to be.

Once on campus, it didn’t take long for the Irish-Italian kid, who’d been toughened up in Boston’s rough Charlestown neighborhood, to find his footing. Despite being the Gators’ first-string safety, in the third game of his sophomore year he took over as starting quarterback. In that role as a junior in fall 1963, he led the Gators to victories over Alabama, Georgia, Miami and Florida State. And as a senior sharing quarterback duties with an upstart named Steve Spurrier, the Gators won seven games, making it one of the best seasons in school history to that point. It wasn’t just football for him. In baseball, Tommy was All-SEC in back-to-back seasons, 1964 and ’65.

“I grew up in my early years in the projects. My dad worked three jobs; my mom had two. To go to the University of Florida and have them sitting in the stands watching me play quarterback or first base was the thrill of my life, having them share in those accomplishments,” he says.

But when the final whistle blew on his collegiate career and offers to turn pro came in — both for football and baseball — Tommy passed. An old knee injury and a wedding promise to Kathy’s father to remain in Gainesville until her graduation, still more than a year away, kept him off the sports field. Instead, it was in the classroom where Tommy unexpectedly discovered his calling. Entrepreneurship intrigued him. And from one of his favorite professors, Alfred Ring, he’d learned the value of strong business ethics.

“Dr. Ring was very influential in my life. You can read books on accounting, and you can read books on economics, and you can read books on finance. But it was hard to find books on ethics in those days,” Tommy says. “How to look a man in the eye and with a handshake promise him he can take your word to the bank, you really learned that from the professors of that day.”

The University of Florida scholarship was probably the greatest opportunity I’ve had in my life, along with meeting Kathy.

— Tommy Shannon —

Within years of lacing his last pair of cleats, Tommy was Sun State Builders’ vice president of west coast operations. And in 1976 — the bicentennial of America’s independence — he and Kathy struck out on their own to be real estate developers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, forming Village Development Company.

The Shannons’ gutsiest business move, however, wouldn’t come for another 17 years, in 1993, with the creation of their T-Bird Restaurant Group, the exclusive franchisee for California’s Outback Steakhouse chain. At its peak, the T-Bird Group owned and operated 63 restaurants and had 4,000 Outbackers on payroll.

Now semi-retired in Odessa, on Lake Keystone near Tampa, Tommy insists he wouldn’t have been as successful without his education at his alma mater.

“The University of Florida scholarship was probably the greatest opportunity I’ve had in my life, along with meeting Kathy. It was an opportunity that I can’t put a number on financially, I can’t put an emotion on emotionally and I can’t put an education on it educationally,” he says. “It has been such a major influence on my life. It opened so many doors because of its importance in the state and countrywide. I’m so proud to be member of The Gator Nation.”

Family, Friends and Faith

The unofficial Association of Silver ’60s celebrates its golden anniversary in 2019. “Unofficial” because that happens to be what the men who sweated and bled for football Coach Ray Graves in the 1960s decided to call themselves. Each year, usually around Father’s Day, they gather for brotherhood and to share in life’s glories and struggles.

“We’ve stayed together because we love each other’s families. We all had a common thread, and that was Coach Graves, ‘the Bull Gator,’” Tommy explains.

But, really, it’s more than that.

The Shannons have made it a lifelong habit to support the people and causes that matter to them, be it the schools their children and grandchildren attended, the hospital that twice treated Kathy for breast cancer or their alma mater. The Tom and Kathy Shannon Family Foundation is especially generous in the Tampa community, particularly when it comes to children and the sick. Tommy, for instance, is president of the not-for-profit Gold Shield Foundation, which provides financial assistance to families of law officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty; Kathy, a longtime volunteer, coordinates with Moffitt Cancer Center to be a comforting ear and informal guide for patients dealing with cancer scares.

“She’s a walking saint,” Tommy says of his wife, marveling at the care she always shows to their children and grandchildren, friends and even strangers. “She’s a really special survivor … a 102-pound super athlete.”

Tommy and Kathy Shannon at their wedding, April 22, 1967

Of her husband, Kathy is just a complimentary.

“Not only is he the love of my life,” she says, “he’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. He loves people.”

For the Shannons, their generous nature is a matter of living their faith.

“We’re extremely blessed in family, in faith and in friends,” Kathy says. “It seems natural to want to give back.”

That, the couple says, is part of the reason they’re so committed to the University of Florida, where being a Gator has become a family tradition — along with Tommy and Kathy, their daughter and son, two nieces and Tommy’s sister all earned UF degrees. The university, they say, has the power to influence lives. That appeals to the Shannons. Together, they’ve given about $1.6 million to UF, most of it spaced between the business college and athletics department.

“For us to be able to make a contribution to help the university be the best it can be, it makes us feel good to know the school is getting a return on its investment,” says Tommy, referring to the scholarship he received as an undergraduate. “It’s so much more than the rankings. It’s the experiences students have at the university.”

It all goes back to those wonder years on campus in the 1960s.

“We feel very grateful,” Kathy explains. “UF has given us a lot more than we’ve given it.”