She's doing fine, just as you know she would.
Ward was always a class act who could have written a
book for the wives of future head coaches, a manual
for what a coach's wife is supposed to be: loving,
supportive, caring and accommodating.
It was ironic that I would get the sweet note and
update on the Pell clan from Ward because during the
past couple of weeks I've been talking to members of
The Great Wall, the magnificent offensive line that
defined the 1984 football season at the University of
Florida. You can't talk to the players Charley Pell
coached without an involved conversation about the
man. Charley recruited The Great Wall to Florida and
though the NCAA forced UF to fire him three games into
that season, he remained proud of them until the day
he drew his last breath back in May of 2001.
On the day it was announced that Charley was fired as
the football coach at Florida back in September of
1984, I remember talking with a couple of the boosters
who said, "It's bad what they've done to Charley, but
they're firing Ward, too. I don't know which one's
Ward Pell wasn't the football coach at Florida but she
was partners with Charley and the visible first lady
of Gator football. They left Gainesville physically
after that season, but their hearts always remained
here. On the day in May of 2001 when cancer killed off
what was left of Charley's body, his spirit was still
strong and defiantly Gator. When the embalmer prepared
Charley's body for the funeral and burial, the blood
that he sucked out of those veins was colored orange
Some younger Gators and those who allow their
bitterness over the NCAA probation to cloud the big
picture don't appreciate who Charley Pell was and what
he did at Florida. Yes, probation was a dark cloud on
our university, but the probation is a bug on life's
windshield compared to the good that was done on
Charley's watch. For those of you who are unaware,
it's The Swamp not just because of what Steve Spurrier
accomplished as the head coach for the twelve years
that began in 1990, it's The Swamp because Charley
Pell galvanized the boosters back in 1979. If not for
Charley Pell, who did what no Gator leader had ever
done, Florida might still be doing what Florida did
best at that time, which was waiting for next years
that never came.
Ward's Christmas greetings said, "Charley had a gift
for bringing many folks together to support their
universities …" and indeed, he was truly gifted in
that capacity. When he got to Gainesville, the
boosters were in total disarray, the facilities ranked
at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, and
Florida football was in a nosedive. What Charley Pell
did next was nothing short of remarkable. He grabbed
us by our lapels, smacked our collective faces to get
our attention, and then achieved what no one else had
ever done --- united and organized us.
Once united and organized, the other tough part was
easy. He got us to write checks. Big checks. Great big
checks. The stories of Charley riding back to
Gainesville with a bulging pocket full of checks
written by boosters for four and five figures each
aren't just the tales that old folks tell about the
good old days. That's the way it was. If you ever saw
Charley work a room full of boosters then fire them up
with a "we're going to win a national championship"
speech, you're smiling right now. Charley Pell could
make you want to run through a brick wall or leap a
tall building with a single bound.
Florida began the foundations that are the Gators'
long term success on Charley Pell's watch. I'm not
just talking about the football program here although
football always has and always will be the bell cow
that leads the rest of the sports herd at UF. The
foundations of the athletic success that the entire
Florida sports program enjoys are there because
Charley Pell got it all started when others had tried
and failed. If he doesn't get the boosters united,
organized and willing to pony up large chunks of cash
on a regular basis, there is no renovated Swamp filled
with 90,000 people with gorgeous sky boxes for the big
money boosters. There is no beautiful McKeithan
Stadium. There is no tennis complex, or volleyball
training facility or basketball practice facility.
There is no small fleet of athletic department planes.
That willingness to give the kind of bucks it took to
build and renovate all began because Charley Pell not
only worked those rooms filled with boosters, but he
made each person who wrote a check feel important
enough to make contribute even to the point of
So if you want to be bitter about the probation, go
ahead. Be bitter. It's your life. But before you
totally dismiss Charley remember that you've got a
first class sports program to enjoy at the University
of Florida because Charley Pell got it started.
When Charley left Gainesville there were some good
years and some lean years. He toughed it out through a
variety of difficult situations, some of his own
doing, others because he was far too willing to trust
people who didn't always have his best interests in
mind. Along the way, after one of his more difficult
moments when he botched a suicide attempt, he
discovered that God wasn't far away but right beside
him as He always had been, just waiting for Charley to
give in and say "this is too big for me to handle."
Charley gave in to God but he didn't give in to
cancer. He didn't lose that battle with cancer, his
body just ran out of energy and time to fight it. In
those last years when he fought the disease and its
never-ending pain, there was a peace about him that
had always managed to elude him when he was younger
and more intense. A heart that had always been soft to
those who were disadvantaged or handicapped became
softer still. In those last years, the tough, gruff
coach became a reminder that demons can be conquered,
that troubles can be overcome and that there is always
the promise of a better tomorrow. He spent those last
years doing what he had always done best, bringing
people together for good causes.
The boys that Charley Pell long ago turned into men
remember him well. At Jacksonville State University,
where he landed his first head coaching job, Charley's
memory is part of the capital campaign. When it's
completed, they'll name either the football facility
or the football stadium after Charley Pell. The J-Club
(former football players) at Jacksonville State has an
annual golf tournament in Charley's memory.
The state of Alabama has an annual golf tournament to
benefit young people with mental health problems. It's
also named after Charley. That tournament gets a lot
of support from the 1961 members of Alabama's national
championship football team. Charley played on that
team which was coached by Bear Bryant. He was a team
leader and it's obvious that even though he's gone,
in one way or another, he still leads.
Last week I talked to Lomas Brown, the greatest Gator
offensive lineman ever and the left tackle on The
Great Wall. At some point, the conversation turned to
Charley Pell. Lomas, whose voice is always optimism on
the verge of an eruption, changed his tone from sheer
exuberance to the most caring, sweet tone imaginable
when he began to speak of his former coach.
"You know, I could probably start talking today and
next week at this same time I'd still be talking if
you wanted to hear all the good stuff I can tell you
about Charley Pell," said Lomas, now retired after an
18-year National Football League career that will
someday land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Charley Pell took boys and made men out of them. I
know because I'm one of them.
Perhaps Shakespeare's eulogy of Julius Caesar by Mark
Antony says it best about Charley:
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
Charley Pell was a man's man, not because of what he
did as a football player or coach, not even because of
the legacy he leaves of a united Gator Boosters, but
because he had a way of bringing out the best in
people and because he showed that no matter how many
times life kicks you, there is honor and purpose if
you keep getting up.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that nature might stand up
And say to the world 'This was a man!'
I'm about to leave Gainesville for Eustis where I'll
spend Christmas at my sister's home with my family.
I'll be driving by Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and all
the Florida sports facilities on my way out of town.
When I look at them I'll see a Christmas present that
was given to Gators everywhere long ago when Charley
Pell looked at what wasn't there and saw what could be
if only we united.
So on this Christmas I want to say Merry Christmas
Gators, and to that one special Gator in Southside,
Alabama, here's love and hugs back at you, Ward. Merry
Christmas from Gator Country and the entire Gator