St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Coaching at all costs

Man who achieved historic highs and lows with Gator football program dies of cancer.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2001


Man who achieved historic highs and lows with Gator football program dies of cancer.

Charley Pell raised University of Florida football to a level of national respectability -- but at the cost of his own.

Mr. Pell, who died Tuesday at the Riverview Medical Center in Gadsden, Ala., of cancer at age 60, was an exceptional motivator and coach with the Gators, the Clemson Tigers and elsewhere. But he never convinced himself that he could play the game straight and win.

His legacy is not 1977-78 at Clemson, the Tigers' first consecutive winning seasons in 11 years and their first invitation to a post-season bowl in 19 years. Nor is it jump-starting Florida's football program by sparking booster interest and rebuilding facilities.

Rather, it is the two-year probation, including bans on bowls and televised games and lost scholarships, levied against the Gators by the NCAA in January 1985. The most damaging violations were Mr. Pell's lying to NCAA officials and the existence of a $4,000 slush fund.

Other coaches at other schools, punished for similar misdeeds, have been forgiven and returned to coaching. Mr. Pell, forced to resign early in the 1984 season, never earned reinstatement to the college game that meant everything to him. The closest he came was one season as coach at Lake Region High School in Polk County in 1995.

For the past four years, Mr. Pell was a vice president of Alabama-based National Auction Group, a firm selling properties worth at least $1-million.

Mr. Pell's inability to return to college coaching was a principal reason, along with some failed business ventures, that he attempted suicide in February 1994. "Until this," Ward Pell told The State of Columbia, S.C., in March as her husband battled cancer in his lungs, pancreas and other organs, "that was the worst time ever."

Said Jeremy Foley, UF athletic director: "My heart goes out to his family. Charley is at peace and that's a blessing."

Victory cigars

Mr. Pell was born Feb. 24, 1941, in rural Albertville, Ala., about 20 miles northwest of Gadsden. His parents were farmers. "My mother and dad, like most in the country then, didn't go far in school," Mr. Pell said. "I never saw a daily newspaper until high school, first saw a TV when I was 15."

He didn't play football until 1958, his senior year at Albertville High. It might not have taken him very far -- Snead State Community College in nearby Boaz was his goal -- until coach Bobby Golden pitched him to Alabama's football coach.

Bear Bryant listened, offered Mr. Pell a scholarship -- he was an offensive and defensive lineman on the Crimson Tide's 1961 national championship team -- and later a job as a graduate assistant with the 1963 and '64 teams (the latter also won a national championship). In 1965 Mr. Pell moved to Kentucky, coaching the defensive line under former Alabama assistant Charlie Bradshaw. Mr. Pell met Ward Noel, a student working in the athletics department. They were married in 1969, the year Mr. Pell became coach at Jacksonville (Ala.) State. In the second of his five seasons there, the Gamecocks went 10-0 and defeated Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic.

In 1974, Mr. Pell moved to Virginia Tech and coached under Jimmy Sharpe, another former Alabama assistant.

The next step was Clemson in 1976, where he signed on as Red Parker's defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 3-6-2 that year. Parker was told to fire several assistants. He refused, so athletic director Bill McLellan fired him and elevated Mr. Pell -- but not before he asked Mr. Pell if he would remain as an assistant if Pat Dye was named coach.

"I said, "Hell, no,' " Mr. Pell told The State. "I told him, "I can do the job as well as Pat Dye.' "

He did, guiding the 1977 Clemson team to an 8-3-1 record. After upsetting 17th-ranked Georgia in the season's second game, Mr. Pell began what became a Tiger tradition -- a victory cigar after every win -- that survived through the 1980s. "On the way out of Athens," former Clemson lineman Jim Stuckey recalled, "Coach Pell told the bus driver to pull over at this country store. He went in, came back and passed out victory cigars. ... Clemson's rise started when we won that Georgia game."

Clemson went 11-1 in 1978, winning its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship since 1967, then beat Ohio State in the Gator Bowl.

Gator Nation

Mr. Pell wasn't there to see Clemson beat the Buckeyes. Just days before the Tigers headed to Jacksonville, Mr. Pell flew to Gainesville and was introduced as the Gators' new coach. "He told me 30 minutes before he left that he wasn't going," McLellan said. "Next thing I knew, he'd made the decision. He called me from the Anderson airport before he flew out with the Florida president."

Mr. Pell recalled it differently. He said he told McLellan UF was interviewing him and several other candidates. "I did what I was supposed to do as an employee," Mr. Pell said. "I was up front every step of the way."

In 1982, the year after winning the national championship, Clemson was hit with two years' probation, the result of recruiting violations under Mr. Pell and his successor, Danny Ford. By then, Mr. Pell was well into rebuilding Florida's faltering program.

He started with its facilities, persuading Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy's hamburger chain, to contribute $50,000 for a new weight room. Wealthy alumni helped finance the expansion of Florida Field. And Mr. Pell helped create Gator booster clubs throughout the state. The money rolled in.

"Charley did so much to bring Gator fans together," said former Florida defensive lineman Bill Dorsey, a founder of the Gators' booster club in Jacksonville. "I remember a few of us met with him ... the night he announced he was going to be the coach, and he talked about uniting what's now called the Gator Nation."

"It was the force of his personality," said Norm Carlson, UF's longtime assistant athletic director for communications. "He convinced the right people if we wanted to be competitive, they had to get in there (and donate money)."

Ben Hill Griffin III, after whose family the team's football stadium is named, called Mr. Pell's death "a very personal loss. Charley Pell should be credited as the one that really took the Florida Gators and put them on the track to become one of the greatest football programs in the United States of America. ... Charley Pell had a uniqueness about him that took young men and instilled in them a work ethic that made them believe in themselves, not only on the football field but later on in whatever career they chose."

Mr. Pell's first season in Gainesville, 1979, was 0-10-1. The next four seasons the Gators went 32-15-1, including 9-2-1 in 1983 when they finished sixth in the Associated Press poll, their highest final ranking ever to that point. "He turned the Florida football program around," longtime Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen said. "For all the rest that might have accrued, he nonetheless gave people a reason to go back to the University of Florida and to begin wearing the orange and blue in great numbers and with great pride."

'I took the blame'

In March 1982, the Alligator, UF's independently run student newspaper, reported that an NCAA representative had come to Gainesville to investigate the football program. A series of St. Petersburg Times stories after the NCAA's preliminary investigation made the allegations against UF public for the first time.

Just before the 1984 opening game against Miami, Mr. Pell wrote a letter of resignation, to take effect at the end of the season, in which he said his "drive to win" resulted in his making the same mistakes he had made at Clemson. After three games he was gone, replaced by Galen Hall. The Gators finished 9-1-1, champions of the Southeastern Conference and third in the AP rankings. In January 1985, the NCAA charged Florida with 107 rules violations, including allegations of slush funds, spying on opponents' practices and giving money to players. The penalties: a two-year ban on television appearances and post-season bowls and the loss of 20 scholarships. The SEC vacated the Gators' conference championship.

The Gators, once the state's elite football team, fell behind Florida State and Miami. The scholarship penalties, at the time the most stringent in NCAA history, "allowed us to get a foothold," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said.

"I took the blame for every coach, every charge leveled at Florida," Mr. Pell said. "I made a deal with the president (Florida's Marshall Criser) that I'd admit I ordered or instructed coaches to do what they said we did." In return, he said, he was supposed to be allowed to coach the full 1984 season. "I should've fought them. I lied to the NCAA, yes. It was wrong, illegal. But I should've fought for my career."

For the next decade, Mr. Pell sold real estate in Pensacola, was licensed to sell insurance, and worked full time for Tampa-based TeamStaff Inc., which provided human resource management services to small and midsized companies in Florida. None of those jobs could take the place of the one role for which he was best suited, which he longed to resume: coaching college football.

On Feb. 2, 1994, the day after his 25th wedding anniversary, Mr. Pell drove to a wooded area near Jacksonville, drank vodka, swallowed sleeping pills and ran a hose from the exhaust pipe into the back window of his car. A friend, receiving a map directing him to where Mr. Pell's body could be found, discovered the semi-conscious Pell.

He received 21/2 weeks of treatment and medication in a mental health facility and later became a spokesman for depression awareness and member of the board of the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

"The message I want to get out," Mr. Pell said in 1996, "is that it's an illness (but) it's manageable, it's treatable."

Mr. Pell is survived by Ward Pell, his wife of 32 years; two sons, Charles Byron Pell Jr., (Betsy) of Birmingham, Ala.;, and Carrick Benton Pell of Shreveport, La; a daughter, Sloan Pell Farrell of Huntsville, Ala.; and two grandchildren.

The family has requested that contributions be sent to the Charley Pell Scholarship Fund, c/o GSOC, 11 W University Ave., Gainesville, FL 32601, or the Charley Pell Scholarship Fund, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, AL, 36265. Proceeds will enable the children of former players to attend college.

Funeral arrangements were not available.

- Information from staff writer Joanne Korth and other news organizations was used in this report.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.