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He's giving someone an earful still

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published May 30, 2001

Somehow, you just know. Somewhere, Charley Pell is in full snarl.

If your path ever crossed his, you can picture him. He is standing belly to belly with St. Peter, and the veins are jutting out of the side of his neck, and his face is flushed purple, and his voice is climbing so loud it threatens to drown out the harps from the nearby clouds. He is jabbing that index finger of his forward, and he is saying exactly what is on his mind.

[AP photo]
Pell with a symbol of two forces that brought joy and frustration for him: a football with an NCAA logo.
Somewhere, you can rest assured, Charley Pell still is giving them hell.

Rest in peace? Charley? Please.

Nope. Somewhere, Charley still has something to say to somebody, and he's going to say it with the speed of an auctioneer and the volume of a drill instructor and the conviction of a tent evangelist.

That was the thing about Pell. You might have a different view of the world, but you were going to get your face blistered as he told you his version.

Today, everyone has a story about cantankerous old Charley, who died Tuesday at the age of 60. Mine starts outside the University of Florida locker room as the sun was going down on Pell's career. It was September of 1984. I was a reporter for the Miami Herald. Pell had met with his fellow coaches late one Sunday night, and a couple of us were waiting outside to see if Pell had anything to say afterward. Turns out he had a couple of things to say, but nothing you could print in a newspaper read by anyone under 100.

A couple of months later, Pell was speaking to the Fort Lauderdale booster club. He had been fired days after that Sunday night meeting -- he later said he had been promised he could finish the season -- but whenever Charley opened his mouth, news seemed to spill out. And so I went to the booster club meeting.

Before the meeting, I approached Pell, and we were introduced. He broke into a wide smile, as if I were just the guy he had come to south Florida to see.

"You were outside the locker room that night," he said.

I nodded. He slapped me on the back.

"Ah, don't worry about it," he said, sipping an amber-colored drink. "You had your job to do, I had my job to do. No hard feelings."

I sat in back of the room, at a table by myself, with my notebook. Gee, I thought. What a grand guy that Charley Pell really is. Gracious. Friendly. Funny.

And then the evening started.

And the amber kicked in.

And Charley started.

He railed about the NCAA, and about his ouster. He suggested that other colleges were cheating far worse than he ever imagined. He told stories about other coaches telling him how bad other schools were cheating. The stories were vague, the schools were unnamed. But the pro-Pell crowd ate it up.

Then Pell was pointing his finger toward the back of the room -- toward me.

"Why aren't you writing this down, Mr. Miami Herald?" Pell said, his voice thundering across the room, and every face in the place followed Pell's finger from his hand to mine, which had a pen that didn't appear to be moving. "Why don't you put that in the paper?"

I tried to smile. I held up my pad quickly, as if I were writing it all down, before someone came up with the idea of getting a rope. And I looked around to see where the windows were.

Fortunately, Pell had other targets, so he moved on. And when it was over, and there was fresh amber in his glass, he came over and slapped me on the back again.

"So," Pell said, his voice charming again, as if nothing had happened. "How long have you been with the Herald?"

He coached like he was in charge of an infantry that was determined to take the beach. There was no retreat in Charley, no surrender, and danged if he was going to take any prisoners, either. That's the way it was. That's the way he was.

More than anything else, Pell seemed to give the Gators an attitude. For a long time, that absolute defiance flowed from Pell to the entire personality of the stands at Florida Field. You could see it in that banner -- "Hell, Yes, We Cheat" -- that used to hang in the corner of the stadium. Those who saw that 1984 team will debate that it was as talented as any the Gators have had.

He was a presence. You always knew where Charley was, whether he was roaring on the sideline or ripping the officials after a loss at Auburn.

Pell never seemed complete once he had been banished from the game. Other coaches -- Danny Ford, Jackie Sherrill -- were allowed to rebound from their scandals. Not Pell. His reputation clung firmer to him than to most. His ouster from coaching at 43 turned out to be a lifetime sentence.

It got to the point that in 1994 Pell decided he didn't want to live anymore. He would walk in grave yards, finding comfort in the headstones. He bought a casket, picked out a plot and wrote down a list of pallbearers. He wrote a suicide note, then ran a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car to his mouth, intending to kill himself.

Malcolm Jowers, his old security guard, saved Pell. He found the note, complete with a map to the wooded area where Pell said his body could be found, and rushed to the site. Pell was there, throwing up outside from the vodka and pills he had taken. His reason for failing at suicide? "I tried too hard," he said later.

Perhaps that incident made Pell realize a lot of people still cared about him. He seemed to mellow afterward. He tried high school football for a year, but it didn't take. He moved to Alabama, near his birthplace.

And then the doctors said cancer.

And then time ran out.

So how are we to remember Pell? As a good coach or as a great shopper? As the man who dug the foxhole so Steve Spurrier could win the war, as Pell once suggested? Or as the man who caused the Florida sanctions that helped the programs at Florida State and Miami catch up?

Maybe, if we are smart enough to see the truth, we remember both sides of Charley Pell. Maybe we remember the passion, and maybe we remember the flaws. Maybe we remember that he was like the rest of us: a little bit of heaven, a little bit of hell.

Goodbye, Charley.

And may you be in heaven two seasons before the NCAA knows you're gone.

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