There was a time—we swear it was true—when Florida and Tennessee were complacent titans at the top of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Georgia and Alabama were secondary. The garrulous alligators embodied the spirit of their garrulous and witty coach Steve Spurrier, while the coolly competent volunteers existed in the guise of their phenomenal quarterback Peyton Manning—always competitive, always in the championship talk, but all too often. without reaching the biggest goal of all.
Twenty-five years ago this week, that rivalry came to a head with Spurrier’s infamous statement that “you can’t say ‘Citrus’ without UT”—a devastating quip at the time that today requires some backstory to appreciate.
Join us now as we return to the days when the Gators and Vols were the talk of the town in the college football world. Just make sure you have thick skin.
Back in the 90s, the purest form of entertainment in college football came in the summer to the meetings of the Gator Club, a Florida football community with outposts throughout the Sunshine State. It was there, over plates of rubber chicken and perhaps a few cold beers, that Steve Spurrier would go into full-fledged ball coach mode, taunting and harassing each of his opponents to the complete delight of the loyal alligators present.
“In the off-season, I played 21, 22 Gator clubs,” Spurrier recalled to Sportzshala Sports on Wednesday. “Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm… you tell a banal joke, you have a couple of beers, everyone is having fun.”
Here’s a little open secret: Spurrier didn’t really come up with all the wild quips he used to throw like diamond-tipped darts. FSU stood for Free Shoe University, Auburn’s library burned to the ground with unused coloring books inside… he collected insults and then uttered them with the panache and time of a nightclub comic.
“Someone in our group would have given them to me,” Spurrier says. “Some guy from the booster club, an alumnus, maybe an assistant coach. It wasn’t all that important.”
Hey, Frank Sinatra didn’t write his own songs and Marlon Brando didn’t write The Godfather. It’s all about performance and the head ball coach knew how to give people what they wanted.
“I was talking all this nonsense over the summer,” says Spurrier, now 77 and still not caring what people think of him, with a laugh. “When the season came, a week of games, I said something good about the opponents. I would say like all the other coaches.”
The Spurrier’s Gators were considered one of the leading teams of the 90s. In Spurrier’s 12 years as head coach, the Gators went 122-27-1 and finished in the top 10 in 10 different seasons and in the top 5 eight times. They won seven of the first nine SEC Championship games and won the 1996 National Championship.
“We beat teams just because we were confident on the field,” says former Florida quarterback Doug Johnson. “As soon as we climbed them, you could see it in their eyes: “Well, here we go again.” ”
The SEC split into East and West divisions in 1992, two years after Spurrier’s tenure, which meant that the path to the national championship was through the SEC championship. And that’s where Tennessee, Florida’s only true contender in the conference at the time, comes into the chat.
“This game has always been in the circle,” Johnson recalls, “this is the former USSR.”
Tennessee-Florida was a heavyweight battle, Every year. From 1992 until the end of Spurrier’s term in 2001, both teams were in the top 15 in every game, and only three times was one team even outside the top 10.
The game always takes place in mid-September, and in the 1990s it set the tone for the entire season.
“They were our biggest rival, top of the food chain,” says former Tennessee quarterback Fred White. “We never lost to Alabama, we never lost to Georgia. Whoever wins it [Florida-Tennessee game] going to the SEC Championship.”
If this rivalry had developed the way it does today, Tennessee and Florida could often meet again in the playoffs, but it was a winner-take-all game – the winner would have an internal lane to the SEC championship, and from there – theoretically direct) connection with the national championship … provided that the voters liked them enough, since before the 95th there was no “title game” as such. (All of this is going to sound so weird when college football makes it to the 12-team playoffs.) So the incentive was not just to win games, but to dominate them by humiliating your opponent at every stage of the game.
Luckily for Florida, humiliating opponents was Spurrier’s specialty. His fast-punch attacks could hang fifty on an opponent as easily as running laps, which inspired “Genius” half of his “Evil Genius” moniker.
“His confidence went through us,” says Johnson. “Many people do not understand that he speaks from the bottom of his heart. It’s not a push. He really approaches every game with such confidence and that’s how he wanted us to play.” Spurrier fired up his team with statements like “Today we’re not even going to punt!” And it shone through.
Tennessee, meanwhile, was building its own behemoth, first under Johnny Majors and then, starting in 1992, under Phil Fulmer. When the volunteers hired the most promising recruit of 1994—a New Orleans high school student named Peyton Manning—Tennessee seemed poised to take down Florida once and for all.
Spurrier had other ideas.
Manning did not play in his freshman year against Florida — he was still buried in the depth map — so when the opportunity presented itself in 1995, he intended to make the most of it. It was a good idea, in theory.
Against Danny Wurffel in Gainesville, Manning threw for 326 yards and bet No. 8 in Tennessee with a 30–14 first-half lead over the No. 4 Gators. rain, losing 48 points in a row. Final score: Florida 62, Tennessee 37. It was Tennessee’s only loss of the season, but Florida’s win eliminated them from the national championship. Meanwhile, the Gators went undefeated until Nebraska scored 62 points to Florida’s 24 in the national championship game.
The following season, No. 2 Tennessee salivated at the prospect of playing No. 4 Florida in Knoxville. Florida fired a quick and unanswered 35 into Tennessee…and then Peyton went to work, showing off all the maddening fame he possessed. He threw for a school-record 492 yards and four touchdowns, throwing 65 times… but he also threw four interceptions, two of them on Florida’s goal line. Final score: Florida 35, Tennessee 29, and Florida will win the school’s first national championship.
Did Spurrier’s constant banter make it to Tennessee? Maybe. “Looking back, it was 20/20, but I felt the difference,” Tennessee-based White recalls when Florida switched schedules. “The coaches were tighter, tighter.”
“Coach Spurrier set the tone for the game,” says former Florida cornerback Fred Weary. “It was the taste. We fed on it. We had a winning mentality. We bought everything you needed to do to win.”
More historical context: before the college football playoffs, before the BCS, championships were in the hands of… voters and committees. Until 1995, all conferences were bowl-locked and the battle for the national championship was more like a beauty pageant, especially if conference membership meant Nos. 1 and 2 could not meet in January. In 1995, the Bowl Alliance brought together the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country…until they were members of the Big Ten or the then-Pac 10 who refused to participate in the Bowl Alliance. (Despite all the complaints about how college football now defines its champions, remember: there was a time not so long ago when things were much worse.)
During the 1990s, the Citrus Bowl, which began life as the Tangerine Bowl (and later briefly became the Capital One Bowl), was in contention for the SEC’s second-best rankings. For three out of four years during the Peyton era, Florida edged Tennessee into the Citrus Bowl slot.
You now have all the context you need to understand why Spurrier’s summer 1997 joke about “can’t write Citrus without UT” in Tennessee was the soul of genius, babble, and brutal truth at the same time. This phrase, in the words of another 90s icon, was overwhelming. It hurt because it was true in every way.
“A few years ago I ran into (Tennessee wide receiver) Peerless Price at the SEC,” Spurrier says. “He said, ‘We didn’t think the UT-Citrus story was that damn funny, but looking back, yeah, it was pretty good.’
When Manning returned for his senior season in 1997He set four goals for himself. He wanted to win the national championship, he wanted to win the SEC championship, he wanted to win the Heisman… and he wanted to beat that damned Spurrier. Florida knew exactly how much this meant to him and prepared accordingly.
“We knew they were going to try to put on their best game when they came in,” Weary recalls. “I knew Peyton was the best quarterback I was going to face in the SEC back in college. He was a Man. I was going to be tense.”
“I don’t like to say that I hate someone, but hatred is what I felt,” White says. “The whole experience of playing against Florida. They were the worst of the worst. Their fans were the worst for us. Their coaches were the worst for the media.”