From Reynolds to Pell - Old myths die hard
By Charlie Barnes, Executive Director - Seminole Boosters
This is just for fun, a sort of get-it-off-my-chest exercise about certain myths associated with our athletic program and our university. The problem is this: once a piece of information enters into the memory banks of public communications, it can be retrieved by the single stroke of a key, and so springs into print or on the air as flesh on the bones of some commentary written by someone primarily interested in beating a deadline.
For example, it is accepted as an article of faith that FSU and Florida are required by law to play each other. Not true. The Legislature did vote on the issue in 1955, and voted not to require it. The last game under the current contract is 1996, and if either school wants the series to end, there's no statute to stop them.
Beyond being a source of irritation, the repeated appearance of these myths does little harm. But once they settle into the minds of our Seminole loyalists, they can shape a picture of our history that is not accurate.
If you are told over and over, for instance, that another university is the state's oldest, is not the implication that your university is somehow lacking? The myth lives in print, but here are the facts: the Florida Legislature passed an act in 1851 establishing two colleges (seminaries, actually). In 1853, Ocala was selected as the site for one; Tallahassee was the site for the other in 1857. It is Tallahassee, where the Westcott Building now stands, that is the oldest continuous site of higher education in Florida. The University of Florida traces its actual beginnings to the Florida Agricultural College in Lake City. The FAC did not begin classes until 1884, yet the 1853 date appeared on later versions of the university's seal. A few years ago, Florida quietly received permission to push the 1853 date back even further to 1851. It has been suggested by some of the garnet-and-gold stripe that 1851 would suit us just as well, and that a change in our own seal would be appropriate.
Here are a few more of the most often-repeated myths.
Unkind remarks about Reynolds' football career have seemed to rise and fall in sync with his fortunes as an actor. The chorus of put-downs hit its shrill peak during the years when he was the leading male box-office draw in the world.
The squeals came mostly from the usual suspects, and went something like this: "FSU acts like Reynolds was a big-deal Seminole football star. Well, he may have been on the team, but he was not a star." Oh, but he was a star.
Some, maybe most, of the snide comments spring from jealousy. And Reynolds has never made any secret of his loyalty to FSU, liberally seeding his movies and TV series with Seminole miscellanea.
Reynolds came out of West Palm Beach High School in 1954 with all-state and all-South credentials, and committed to the University of Miami. According to Reynolds, Seminole Head Coach Tom Nugent got him to make a recruiting visit to FSU, really just as a courtesy.
But Nugent knew what he was doing. He took Reynolds on a long tour of the beautiful campus, taking great pains to point out the ratio of men to women. "Nugent should really be in my business," laughed Reynolds. "Either that, or he could be one of the most successful used car salesmen in the world...I decided I didn't want to be a Hurricane after all."
Reynolds went into the lineup as a true freshman, churning out an 8.3 yards-per-carry average along with two touchdowns. One of them was a 54-yard (Reynolds says it was 60) run against Auburn.
But on a dusty practice field just before the start of the 1955 season, Reynolds leaped high into the air to snag a punt and came down wrong and hard on a knee. There was an operation. Then, there was a bad car accident, and another operation, and it was all over. He tried to come back, briefly, in 1957 -- came back to play football even after signing a movie contract with 20th Century Fox in 1956 -- but the cat quickness that had promised football stardom had been cut out of his knees years before.
A long time ago, I winced at reading a comment Reynolds made in one FSU publication. He said, "If I hadn't had the bad wheel, right now I'd probably be coaching high school football in some small town." I thought it might be seen as a put-down of high school coaches, the coaches we depend on so in our recruiting. But, I was wrong; that's not what he meant at all.
In fact, the small town high school coach he played on Evening Shade probably comes a lot closer to revealing the real Burt Reynolds than any of his other roles.
Burt Reynolds was a football hero. Still is.
I really hate this one. Even though it's usually stated to illustrate how far we've come, it still suggests a weakness in the history of the program that is flatly not true.
Granted, 1973 was a dreadful season. We lost by a field goal to a Wake Forest team that counted us as their only win of the year. That year, Virginia Tech beat only FSU -- and Wake Forest. We were 0-10 going into the Florida game, and tried to out-smart the Gators with an on-sides kick. No dice; we lost 49-0.
But our Seminole team had played in the Fiesta Bowl in 1971, and had missed a bowl bid in 1972 only on an errant screen pass against South Carolina. Big fullback Fred Miller was blind in one eye, and quarterback Gary Huff forgot which one. He threw to the wrong side.
By 1976, Bowden's first year, things were looking up again. There were really only three awful years back to back, and the program was strong and successful on either side of them.
Dr. Stan Marshall was president of the university then. "There was no way we were going to drop football," he said. "I would never have let that happen." The athletic reserve had been depleted and Coach Larry Jones' contract had to be paid off. There was an immediate need for cash to balance the budget.
Marshall called all the principal movers and shakers together and told them rather directly what must be done. "There might have been a few things said for dramatic effect," he laughed. "But, there was never any real chance we would get out of football. There were a few statements in the press from the Board of Regents about how they weren't going to bail out our athletic deficit, but frankly, it's not the job of the regents to pay for college sports. That's something we do for ourselves, and that's exactly what we did."
Yes, we did do that. Seminole Boosters records show that more money was raised in 1973 than in 1972, and more in 1974 than in 1973. In fact, the boosters have raised more money every year than the previous year for nearly a quarter-century.
Here's a sampling: From a 1993 article in the Florida Times-Union examining Terry Bowden's relationship with the Gators, "the team that was his father, Bobby's, nemesis until the NCAA significantly reduced Florida's strength in the late 1980s."
From a 1994 St. Pete Times article: "The widely accepted theory is that the Gators helped elevate both the Seminoles and the Hurricanes in the 1980s. Florida's run-ins with NCAA investigators in 1984 and 1989 sent recruits scurrying to FSU and UM."
And this, from a 1994 Tampa Tribune story: "There is no doubt...that the sins of the Pell era contributed to the shift of the balance of power out of Gainesville both north to Tallahassee and south to Miami."
The unspoken implication is that Florida was the unquestioned dominant program until it was crippled by probation. But that's not true. Forgotten is the fact that Bobby Bowden recruited well enough to win four in a row against Florida (1977-1980) until Charley Pell began buying players wholesale. Ignored is the fact that Miami won a national championship (1983) before Pell got caught.
The truth is that both Florida State and Miami were beginning to surpass Florida until Pell tied down all the gauges and steamed straight for probation hell. The interesting part of this story is that Miami continued to do well in recruiting against Florida (remember, they still played each other then), while FSU did not fare very well at all.
Miami Coach Howard Schnellenberger employed the very latest in modern recruiting methods and technology. FSU was slow to catch up. After a disappointing 1983 season, Coach Bowden ordered a radical overhaul of the Seminoles' recruiting machinery. Gene McDowell was placed in charge, and passed along the new program into the care of Brad Scott a year later when McDowell became head coach at Central Florida.
The first big success was the 1985 class -- Sammie Smith's class. There's no doubt that Florida's probation sent some men to FSU who would have otherwise become Gators, but the larger reason for FSU's success came from a superior recruiting system, on a par with Miami's.
With the arrival of Bobby Bowden at FSU and Howard Schnellenberger at Miami, both those programs leaped past Florida with startling quickness. "All that probation did," one coach told me smiling, "was to restore order back to nature."