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UF vs. UM: What took 'em so long?

Foes had intense rivalry through 1987 before myriad circumstances cut it short.

[Times file photo]
Gators QB Kerwin Bell goes down in the next-to-last Miami-Florida contest in 1986 at Florida Field.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 28, 2000


Mike Pearson doesn't remember the last time Florida and Miami played football. He was 6 years old in 1987. College football was not yet part of his Saturday lineup.

"I was watching WWF," he said.

Pearson, a sophomore offensive tackle for UF, is among many people wrestling with the fact that two of college football's top programs, both in the same state, have not played since Pearson was in first grade.

"I know we played them a lot in the past, but recently we haven't played them at all," Pearson said. "It is going to be neat to finally get to play them again and get a good rivalry going."

Dormant for 13 years, the rivalry will be renewed with a fresh cast when No. 2 Miami and No. 7 Florida play Tuesday in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Scheduled to play in 2002 and 2003, when the calendar allows for a rare 12th regular-season game, the Gators and Hurricanes will get a head start in a high-stakes bowl game sure to prove that bitter feelings and bragging rights never go stale.

"It stirs up great passion that we have not played them since 1987," said Art Kehoe, part of the UM program as a player and coach for 18 seasons. "There's a lot of animosity when we play, but there's a lot of respect for each other."

The Gators lead the series 25-24. Except for 1943, when UF did not field a team, the schools played every season from 1938 to 1987. Then, they stopped. Why is a matter of debate.

Florida claimed it wanted to enhance its national image by scheduling teams from outside the south. Miami, which thumped UF 31-4 in the 1987 finale on its way to the second of four national championships, thought the Gators were chicken.

When UF hired coach Steve Spurrier, he announced at his first news conference on New Year's Eve 1989 that Florida and Miami should play. But before things were finalized, the Southeastern Conference expanded to 12 teams and added an eighth game to the schedule for 1992.

"It wasn't practical for us to keep Miami on the schedule," said Spurrier, who lost two of three to the Hurricanes as the Gators quarterback from 1964-66.

Miami in the Big East and Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference play seven league games each season. The Gators are locked into eight SEC games, plus FSU. The neutral-site game against Georgia in Jacksonville makes it impractical for Florida to go on the road for either of its two remaining non-conference games.

[Times file photo]
Winston Moss tries to wrap up Florida's Anthony Williams during Miami's 23-15 win in 1986.

To avoid dropping to five home games in odd-numbered years, when Florida has only three SEC games at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the Gators must play all three non-conference opponents at home. That means paying about $350,000 each to two small-school opponents who do not expect reciprocal home dates. It makes sense, but to some it doesn't exactly satisfy.

"If you're living in Florida and you're not playing the University of Florida, what's the reason?" said Kehoe, UM's offensive line coach. "It's an extra conference game, whatever. To me, it's dumb."

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley can think of 1.8-million reasons why the schools do not play regularly. That's how many dollars a home football game is worth to the Gators athletic department.

The $1.8-million figure includes ticket sales, concessions and gift shop revenue. It does not include booster donations or the economic impact a UF game has on the Gainesville community.

"There's not a financial reason in the world why we would make that decision," Foley said.

Nor can the Gators be swayed by peer pressure. Florida takes flak for opening the season against "patsies," this season Ball State and Middle Tennessee State, but according to NCAA and BCS rankings, UF played the nation's toughest schedule in 2000.

"Why should one team in America play the toughest schedule in America every year?" Spurrier said. "Heck, I'd like to play Penn State or Notre Dame, but there's no playoff system. So, we go 6-5 or 7-4 playing the toughest schedule in the country, and nobody's happy.

"With eight SEC games and FSU in there, I don't know that it would be fair to our players to add Miami and maybe Ohio State or somebody as our other two."

Current players at both schools don't know much about the past rivalry. But they look forward to getting a head start on the UF-UM rivalry of the future.

"I think we hear from the fans more than anyone else about how much they hate Florida," Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey said. "We don't want to let them down."

- Correspondent Joe Frisaro contributed to this report.

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