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UF wants tough start? Check your back yard

By JOHN STRICKHOUSER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000


Chicken Gators.

That was what us University of Florida football fans were called after UF dropped the Miami Hurricanes from its schedule after the 1987 game. The reason? Something about the expansion of the SEC schedule reducing Florida's non-conference games.

Whatever.

In Miami, where I lived among Hurricanes fans who gloated as four national titles were piled up, there was no doubt: If the Gators wanted to keep the UM series going, they would have found a way. Instead, the Gators took the first opportunity to drop UM because the Hurricanes had become too good.

Chicken Gators.

Those humiliating days come to mind because of Steve Spurrier's recent comments that he wished UF could open against teams such as Notre Dame and Penn State instead of patsies such as this season's Ball State and Middle Tennessee State. My response: From 1981-87, the Gators had a fantastic first- or second-game opponent in Miami and blew it, so quit complaining.

The series started in 1938 (the Gators lead 25-24), but with the Hurricanes suddenly turning into an '80s powerhouse, Florida-Miami had become a rare early September game that mattered.

There was animosity. I interviewed Miami defensive lineman Kevin Fagan before the 1985 game. Fagan was in a good mood, smiling and patiently answering innocuous questions, then I mentioned that I was a UF graduate and asked if there were extra motivation when facing the Gators. Fagan's face darkened and he spit out one comment: "They're a bunch of damn cheaters up there in Gainesville."

Interview over.

And what Gator Hater can forget Howard Schnellenberger, angry about being pelted with debris, ordering an in-your-face field goal to close out a 31-7 rout in Gainesville in 1980?

There were great finishes. In 1981, Danny Miller's school-record 55-yard field goal with 45 seconds remaining gave Miami a 21-20 victory. In 1982, James Jones' controversial catch as he fell out of bounds (was his foot really in?) gave UF a 17-14 victory. In 1984 at Tampa Stadium, Bernie Kosar drove the Hurricanes 72 yards in 29 seconds for the winning touchdown with seven seconds remaining.

There were great players. Among future NFL players competing in Florida's 35-23 victory in 1985 were Vinny Testaverde, Jerome Brown, Alonzo Highsmith, Neal Anderson, John L. Williams, Ricky Nattiel and Kerwin Bell.

I looked hard for justifiable reasons for dropping the Hurricanes. What I saw was poor Galen Hall left to drone repeatedly that he didn't make the schedule and had no opinion about the situation. What I saw was a deluge of critical comments from the media. (Leo Suarez, sports editor of the Miami News, suggested some teams UF would approve as replacements. One was William and Mary, "but only if William agreed not to play.") What I saw, very plainly, was that my team, headed for some tough years of probation, took the easy way out.

The series will resume when UF hosts Miami on Sept. 7, 2002, and visits the Orange Bowl on Sept. 6, 2003. Chicken Gators? Hopefully a thing of the past ... but Coach Spurrier, let's not forget the past when we start talking about how we wish the Gators didn't have to wait until Game 3 to face a quality opponent.

- John Strickhouser is a Times sports designer/copy editor.

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