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 worse."
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 and blue.
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 sacrifice.
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 Nation.