By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 2, 2000
ORLANDO -- Doug Johnson's last game for the Florida Gators steamed with passion. Producing a load of Florida Citrus Bowl pluses. Twenty-four completed passes, 288 yards and three touchdowns.
But then, there came a 5 o'clock New Year's Day shadow. Another uphappy ending for the Gators. Michigan State had the smiles. Florida, a 1990s college football giant, was swallowing hard, trying to digest a third consecutive loss.
"It's been a weird year," said Johnson, the senior's face drawn with disappointment. "Things kept happening to the Gators. I wasn't the most effective (Florida) quarterback ever, but I did the best I could. It seemed like it was never enough."
Johnson had frequent philosophical scuffles with Gators coach Steve Spurrier. So, in a way, was the kid from Gainesville relieved, experiencing career's end at UF?
"Relieved?" said No. 12, mirroring a reporter's question, the athlete's eyes feisty with desire. "I don't want to leave. I wish a lot of things had happened different, but I had a great time."
He'll play once more as a collegian, on Jan. 15 in the East-West Shrine Game. Guess who'll boss the East team. Oh, yeah, it's Spurrier. "Doug played pretty well against Michigan State," Steve said. "I'm proud of him hanging in there. That's about how it's been for Doug with the Gators; he has played pretty well."
But it was never enough.
Saturday's emotions became scalding. You'd think, after high-intensity bouts with No. 1 Florida State and then Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, both losses, that an Orlando consolation dance with Michigan State might run a few quarts shy on spirit.
Hardly. It became fierce, mouthy, nasty and occasionally disgusting. An entertaining, high-velocity game would be bruised by excessive vulgarity, multiple ejections, unimpressive officiating and an aftermath low on sportsmanship.
Welcome to the 21st century.
"I was disappointed in some of our guys," Spurrier said. "It's sad all that happened. We haven't had that kind of ruckus all year." Too much dancing and prancing. They watch guys doing that in the NFL, where it's legal."
Football is a combative, violent, artistic and immensely popular American endeavor. But when it borders on WWF theatrics and/or Jerry Springer Show nonsense, those who govern the sport would be remiss to not be offended.
"Michigan State started the trouble," said linebacker Andra Davis, named Florida's defensive MVP in a press box vote. "Before kickoff, during our warmup drills, they came cutting through. Invading our turf. Smart-mouthing."
Somewhere along a four-hour journey, there would be a quite smashing football attraction. Mountains of offense. Seventy-one points. But, mixed in, there came gobs of ugliness.
"Bad blood came from our anticipation of playing," Bobby Williams said after his first combat as MSU head coach. "Our kids from Florida (10 of them) had something to do with that."
So fierce were Spartans practices, preparing for the bowl, fights erupted repeatedly among teammates, Williams had ropes strung in the shape of a boxing ring. When his jocks brawled, the coach would dispatch them to the arena to settle it.
"I'd like to think we're a pretty tough team," Williams said. "We were ready for a brawl." But where should the line be drawn? Saturday was hard to categorize as wholly acceptable.
As the winning field goal by Paul Edinger in a 37-34 slugfest sent Spartans soaring, emotions predictably became mega-macho. Michigan State players strutted to the enemy side of the field to laugh in Florida faces. Had the success instead belonged to Florida, it's a good guess that the outburst would've been precisely opposite.
Dozens of sudden Michigan State victors mocked the Gator Chomp. Certainly not a sin, according to 21st century law of civility. But then, Greg Robinson-Randall, a 312-pound offensive tackle, stood at the 50-yard line, facing thousands of UF fans, while grabbing his crotch.
Over the edge.
None of the garbage should stain some extraordinary performances, most notably by Plaxico Burress, a 6-foot-6 MSU pass catcher gifted enough to play in the NFL any time he wants. Thirteen receptions for 185 yards and three touchdowns.
So much was good.
Doug Johnson impressed, except for two fumbles and fourth quarter misfires when Florida had its opportunities to win. "We went out playing our kind of football," said the departing QB, who heaved 50 passes. An old-time Spurrier air barrage.
"What now for me?" Johnson said, taking one more question. "Baseball? I don't know for sure. Football is my favorite. I think I want to give my abilities a shot at the next level (NFL)."
Will it ever be enough?