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No titles, but plenty of pride

Published November 27, 2005

GAINESVILLE - In days gone by, they were defined by what they had not done. In years ahead, they'll likely be recalled the same way.

But for a few minutes Saturday evening, they could almost taste immortality. They could nearly imagine a view from on top of the world.

The seniors of the University of Florida will not leave the football program with many accolades, but they will leave with this memory of a perfect November day against the Seminoles of Florida State.

And they will leave with each other.

That is how the regular season ended at Florida Field. With Mike Degory throwing an arm around Vernell Brown. With Tavares Washington holding Lance Butler in a meaningful embrace. With a final rendition of the alma mater, and a joyful walk across the field and into memory.

"We'd like to be remembered as a class that went out with a championship, but that didn't happen," linebacker Todd McCullough said. "But when I think of this senior class, I'll think of a class with great character.

"Not too many programs go through what we've been through here. To lose one of our better players, Eraste Autin, that first summer and how his death affected all of us. To go through three head coaches, have guys transfer because of all the changes. We withstood all that. Right now, I'm honored and proud to have been a part of it."

At times, we forget these truths. That a college football season is usually defined by what happens on 12 fall days and generally ignored for the rest of a calendar's rotation.

That as high as expectations are at Florida, they are just as high at Florida State, Miami, Tennessee, Alabama and a dozen other programs.

That what we see from the bleachers or on our television is not all there is to a team.

"We'll always remember what we did here today," defensive end Jeremy Mincey said. "We've hung together through an awful lot. We ate together, we cried together, we bled together. It's going to be hard for me to put all of that in the past, but we have to move on now."

Unfortunately, for the 14 seniors who were introduced before Saturday's game, there will always be a stigma attached to their names.

This was the first senior class since 1990 to walk away from UF without a championship. And even the class of '90 finished first in the Southeastern Conference but had its title denied by NCAA sanctions.

In a hallway outside the home locker room at Florida Field is a collection of photographs that highlight the program's triumphs. There are award winners and conference champions. Record holders and a national champion.

Time will tell whether this senior class is ever recognized on that wall of honor. For even though they leave without rings on their fingers, there are reasons to remember how they persevered.

Steve Spurrier bailed on them, Ron Zook disappointed them and Urban Meyer did not have enough time to completely rescue them.

The record books will show that Florida lost more games the past four seasons (at least 18) than at any time since the late 1980s. That once Spurrier walked off the field at the Orange Bowl after the 2001 season, the Gators would not reach another SEC title game or a BCS bowl.

Yet, in the absence of riches, there is room for pride.

"Our senior class stuck with it. We've always given our loyalty no matter who was in the coach's office," Degory said. "The most we can hope for is to be remembered as a group of guys who gave it their all.

"We have a small class, but we stuck together and we stuck with the program. And if they go on to have success next year, we can take a little pride in that because we planted the roots. I met a lot of good people while I was here, and that's more important to me than any win."

It has been a strange final season for this senior class. It is the first group in a decade to win against Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State in the same season, but it also must live with the memory of losing to Spurrier and South Carolina in a game that could have meant the SEC title.

It was more successful than Zook's three seasons, but it shared a common thread: the failure to make the one play that could change fortunes.

"You can always play the if or what game," McCullough said. "What if this happened? If Georgia-Auburn had gone like this, or if this guy didn't make this play? But you have to go forward in life.

"That's one thing we've learned here."

If nothing else, these seniors will have their final Saturday at Florida Field to recall. The way they embarrassed FSU. The way they refused to let a season, and their careers, end on a down note.

If nothing else, they will forever recall the cheers that fell upon them as they walked away.

[Last modified November 27, 2005, 01:18:21]

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