There was a time — we swear this was true — when Florida and Tennessee were the swaggering titans atop the SEC, and Georgia and Alabama were afterthoughts. The trash-talking Gators embodied the spirit of their mouthy, blade-witted coach, Steve Spurrier, while the coolly competent Volunteers existed in the mold of their phenomenal quarterback, Peyton Manning — always competitive, always in the championship conversation, but all too often falling short of the biggest goal of them all.
Twenty-five years ago this week, that rivalry hit its apex with Spurrier’s infamous declaration that “you can’t spell ‘Citrus’ without U-T” — a devastating-at-the-time one-liner that, today, requires some backstory to appreciate.
Join us now as we return to a time when the Gators and Vols were the talk of the college football world. Just make sure you’ve got thick skin.
Back in the ‘90s, the purest form of college football entertainment came in the summertime at meetings of the Gator Club — the Florida football booster community with outposts throughout the Sunshine State. It was there, over plates of rubbery chicken and maybe a few cold beers, that Steve Spurrier would kick into full-on Head Ball Coach mode, sassing and harassing every one of his rivals, to the utter delight of the Gator faithful in attendance.
“I did 21, 22 Gator Clubs during the offseason,” Spurrier recalled to Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm … you tell the corny joke, you drink a few beers, everybody has a good laugh.”
Here’s a little open secret: Spurrier didn’t actually come up with all those savage one-liners he used to throw around like diamond-tipped darts. FSU standing for “Free Shoes University,” Auburn’s library burning down with unused coloring books still within … he’d crowdsource the insults, then deliver them with the punch and timing of a nightclub comic.
“Somebody in our group would give them to me,” Spurrier says. “Some guy from the booster club, the alumni, maybe an assistant coach. It wasn’t that big a deal.”
Hey, Frank Sinatra didn’t write his own songs, and Marlon Brando didn’t write “The Godfather.” It’s all about the performance, and the Head Ball Coach knew how to give the people what they wanted.
“All that crap, I said in the summertime,” Spurrier, now 77 and still not giving a damn what anyone thinks of him, says with a laugh. “When the season came around, the week of the games I’d say something nice about the opponents. I’d talk like all the other coaches.”
Spurrier’s Gators stood as one of the ‘90s’ marquee teams. During Spurrier’s 12 years as head coach, the Gators went 122-27-1 and finished in the top 10 in 10 different seasons, and inside the top 5 eight times. They won seven of the first nine SEC championship games, and claimed the 1996 national championship.
“We would beat teams just by the mere fact of our confidence walking onto the field,” former Florida quarterback Doug Johnson says. “Once we got up on them, you could see it in their eyes: ‘Here we go again.’ ”
The SEC divided into East and West divisions in 1992, two years into Spurrier’s tenure, and that meant the path to a national championship ran through the SEC championship. And this is where Tennessee, Florida’s only true in-conference rival at that time, enters the chat.
“That game was always circled,” Johnson recalls, “that and FSU.”
Tennessee-Florida was a battle of heavyweights, every year. From 1992 through the end of Spurrier’s tenure in 2001, both teams were ranked in the top 15 for every single matchup, 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 would set the tone for the entire season.
“They were our biggest rival, top of the food chain,” former Tennessee safety Fred White says. “We never lost to Alabama, never lost to Georgia. Whoever won that [Florida-Tennessee game] was going to the SEC championship.”
If this rivalry had unfolded the same way today, Tennessee and Florida might often match up again in the playoffs, but this was a winner-take-all game — the winner would have the inside track to the SEC championship, and from there a (theoretically) direct line to the national championship … assuming the voters liked them enough, since there was no “title game” per se until ‘95. (This is all going to sound so weird once college football goes to a 12-team playoff.) The incentive, then, was not just to win games, but to dominate them, humiliating your opponent in every phase of the game.
Fortunately for Florida, humiliating opponents was a Spurrier specialty. His quick-strike offenses could hang half a hundred on an opponent as easily as running laps, which inspired the “Genius” half of his “Evil Genius” nickname.
“His confidence ran through us,” Johnson says. “A lot of people don’t realize that he’s speaking from the heart. That’s not a put-on. He really is that confident going into every game, and that’s how he wanted us to play.” Spurrier would fire his team up with declarations like “We’re not even going to punt today!” And it shone through.
Tennessee, meanwhile, was building a behemoth of its own, first under Johnny Majors and then, from 1992 onward, under Phil Fulmer. When the Volunteers landed 1994’s most promising recruit — a high schooler out of New Orleans named Peyton Manning — Tennessee seemed primed to unseat Florida once and for all.
Spurrier had other ideas.
Manning didn’t play meaningful minutes in his freshman year in Tennessee's 31-0 against Florida, only coming in for backup duty — he'd started the season buried on the depth chart — so when his starting opportunity against the Gators came along in 1995, he intended to make the most of it. It was a nice idea, in theory.
Against Danny Wuerffel in Gainesville, Manning threw for 326 yards and staked No. 8 Tennessee to a 30-14 first-half lead over the No. 4 Gators. But then Wuerffel out-Peyton’d Peyton and the Vol defense folded like tissue in the rain, surrendering 48 consecutive points. Final score: Florida 62, Tennessee 37. It was Tennessee’s only loss of the season, but Florida’s victory boxed them out of the national championship conversation. The Gators, meanwhile, stayed undefeated right up until Nebraska rung up 62 points to Florida’s 24 in the national championship game.
The next season, No. 2 Tennessee salivated at the prospect of playing No. 4 Florida in Knoxville. Florida hung a fast and unanswered 35 on Tennessee … and then Peyton went to work, showing all the maddening glory that he possessed. He threw for a school-record 492 yards and four touchdown passes, slinging the ball 65 times … but he also threw four interceptions, two of them at the Florida goal line. Final score: Florida 35, Tennessee 29, and Florida would go on to win the school’s first national championship.
Was Spurrier’s constant jabbing getting to Tennessee? Perhaps. “Hindsight is 20/20, but I did feel a difference” when Florida rolled around on the schedule, Tennessee’s White recalls. “The coaches were more tight, more stressed.”
“Coach Spurrier set the tone for the game,” says former Florida cornerback Fred Weary. “That was the flavor. We fed off it. We had that winner’s mentality. We bought in on everything you had to do to win.”
More historical context: before the College Football Playoff, before the BCS, championships were in the hands of … voters and committees. Until 1995, all conferences were locked into bowls, and the battle for a national championship was more of a beauty contest, particularly if conference affiliations meant that No. 1 and No. 2 couldn’t meet in January. In 1995, the “Bowl Alliance” paired the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country … as long as they weren’t members of the Big Ten or the then-Pac 10, which declined to participate in the Bowl Alliance. (For all the complaints about how college football determines its champions now, remember: there was a time not long ago when it was so, so much worse.)
During the 1990s, the Citrus Bowl, which began life as the Tangerine Bowl (and would later become, briefly, the Capital One Bowl) claimed the second-best team the SEC. For three of the four years during the Peyton era, Florida shoved Tennessee into a Citrus Bowl slot.
Now you have all the context you need to see why Spurrier’s summer-of-'97 “can’t spell Citrus without U-T” jab at Tennessee was the soul of genius, trash talk and brutal truth all at once. That line, to appropriate the words of another ‘90s icon, was a stone-cold stunner. It hurt because it was true, in every sense.
“I ran into (Tennessee receiver) Peerless Price at an SEC championship a few years back,” Spurrier says. “He said, ‘We didn’t think that UT-Citrus thing was very dang funny, but looking back, yeah, it was pretty good.’”
When Manning returned for his senior season in 1997, he set four goals for himself. He wanted to win a national championship, he wanted to win an SEC championship, he wanted to win a Heisman … and he wanted to beat that damned Spurrier. Florida knew exactly how much it meant to him, and prepared accordingly.
“We knew coming in that they would try to be on their A game,” Weary recalls. “I knew Peyton was the best quarterback I was going to face in the SEC, in college. He was The Man. I was going to be tight.”
“I don’t like to say I hate anybody, but hatred, that’s how I felt,” White says. “The whole experience of playing against Florida. They were the worst of the worst. Their fans were the worst to us. Their coaches were the worst to the media.” (He’s quick to add he had no problems with the Florida players, except that “when they were playing us, they were the enemy.”)
The Vols had to go back to Gainesville for 1997’s version, and it didn’t go well for the men in orange. Once again, Manning threw for an astounding number of yards — 353 yards on 51 attempts, with three touchdowns — but once again, he handed Florida two interceptions. The game wasn’t ever really in doubt. Final score: Florida 33, Tennessee 20.
"It bothers me that we never did beat Florida, but hey, I can't control the way other people view Tennessee or view my career," Manning said immediately after the loss. "I'm sure Coach Spurrier will go make a few more jokes. That's fine. He's got a good ballclub."
The road to a repeat national championship was wide open for the Gators … and they promptly drove into a ditch. Florida would go on to lose to both LSU and Georgia that year, allowing Tennessee to slide past the Gators into the SEC championship anyway. (“Beat LSU and Georgia 11 out of 12 times,” Spurrier says, “but lost to ‘em both in one year.”) Tennessee played its way into the Orange Bowl, but lost to Nebraska. (Yes, Nebraska was also once very good.)
Florida, meanwhile, ended up in, of all places, the Citrus Bowl … the same place Spurrier had once called “the winter home of the Tennessee Volunteers.” The Gators knocked off Penn State and finished the year ranked fourth in the country.
“It was disappointing, in the fact that we felt we were better than the No. 4 ranking we ended up with,” Johnson says. “Back then, No. 4 was a failed season at the University of Florida. That’s how the fanbase made you feel, that’s how the coaching staff felt.”
Manning couldn’t win for losing that year; he finished second in Heisman voting to Charles Woodson. And in one of the crueler twists of college football fate, Tennessee would go on to win a national championship the very next year after Manning left, with Tee Martin at quarterback. (Along the way, the Vols would knock off then-No. 2 Florida 20-17 in overtime.) Manning lost only six games during his entire tenure as Tennessee’s quarterback, but three of those came against Spurrier’s Gators.
Spurrier, for his part, up and left Florida in 2002 … and then just happened to sign the then-richest coaching deal in NFL history with Washington a few days later. His stint in the NFL — which is famously resistant to the kind of Spurrier-esque wit that bedeviled college teams — lasted all of two years, and he bolted from the league with a career 12-20 record and the realization that, as he put it, “There are no Vanderbilts in the NFL.”
He coached at South Carolina for more than a decade, and then ran the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football until the league folded midseason. Spurrier’s Apollos had a record of 7-1, best in the league, when the AAF folded, so he’s since declared himself the AAF’s only “regular-season champion.”
These days, he often stops by Spurrier’s Gridiron Grille, his restaurant/museum just off I-75 in Gainesville. The Head Ball Coach still stays in touch with his former players, happily recalling the days when they stomped their SEC rivals into paste in the fall … and then laughed at them the next summer.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.