For you young Gator fans out there, believe it or not, we haven’t always had it this good.
Growing up in the '70s and early '80s, being a Gators fan was a lot like being a Mississippi State fan is now.
A good season was finishing over .500. A great season was getting a bowl bid. The ultimate would be to win the SEC. Not that it would ever happen—because it never had before.
A national title? Be serious. We’re Florida. National titles are not for us. They’re for Notre Dame, Alabama, USC, Oklahoma, or Nebraska.
Oh sure, we had some good teams in the '70s. One year we went to the Sugar Bowl and almost beat Nebraska. But somehow we always managed to mess up when that first SEC title was within our reach.
Most of the time it was at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party where we lost it. Georgia drank theirs before the game. We drank ours after.
In 1980, things went from bad to worse. The Dawgs found a great running back. His name was Herschel Walker. He was big and he was fast. He would run defenders over on one play and blow right by them the next. Nobody could stop him.
In 1979 the Gators went winless. Florida State went unbeaten. We thought that was rock bottom. It wasn’t.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the replay of “Lindsay Scott.” Had that play not happened, we win our first SEC title. Instead Georgia went on to win the national championship.
Walker was only a freshman, so he came back to torment us for two more years. My three years of high school were Walker’s three years at UGA. One of my best friends was a huge UGA fan. So you can imagine what it was like.
Then it happened. A walk-on QB named Kerwin Bell came to UF. He was way down on the depth chart. In fact, he may not have even been on it. But he got the coach’s attention. He worked his way all the way up to No. 1. He was an instant hit.
Behind the “Throwin' Mayoan” the Gators were winning games. They lost the first game to defending national champion Miami, and the second game was a tie vs. LSU. After that it was nothing but Ws. This included a 27-0 shutout of the hated Dawgs.
So it all came down to a road trip to Kentucky. The Gators won a tight game in bad weather, and it had finally happened.
The Gators and the fans celebrated much like we celebrate national titles today. We bought anything and everything that said “1984 SEC Champions” on it. Whether it was t-shirts, hats, or Coke bottles (I still have a few unopened), if it had that on there, we had to have it. It was pure joy in Hogtown.
Then came the word from the SEC. There would be no Sugar Bowl. There would be no SEC Championship. It was being taken away for NCAA violations.
To make it worse, the national championship was won by BYU. They got it by winning the Holiday Bowl by beating a 6-5 Michigan team. Had we been allowed to go to the Sugar Bowl, who knows? Several polls voted us national champs anyway, but not the ones that really counted, like the AP and UPI.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. But this should not mean we forget that team. The 1984 Florida Gators gave us our first taste of what it’s like to be a Gator today. They gave us our future. After that team, we knew it could be done. Gator fans and boosters have never settled for mediocrity since.
There used to be a “1984, 1985” marked on the façade at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium that has since been taken down. It wasn’t taken down because we have forgotten. It was to make room for the many championships won since. We just needed the room. We have the 1984 and 1985 teams to thank for that.
Thank you Kerwin Bell. Thank you Ricky Nattiel. Thank you John L. Williams. Thank you Neal Andersen. Thank you to all the 1984 Gators. We couldn’t have done it without you.