Terry Dean: Welcome Back To Gator Nation

BONITA SPRINGS --- Until a couple of months ago, Terry Dean was living in his self-imposed exile from Florida football, totally disconnected from the Gator program. He missed the Gators, but there were a lot of factors that figured into maintaining his absence from UF football reunions.

Although he had made a choice to get on with life and leave the past behind, Dean's well documented feud with Coach Steve Spurrier was at the heart of the problem. The wounds may have healed but the scars were there and there was just no sense in rehashing things that couldn't be changed.

When Ron Zook succeeded Spurrier as Florida's coach three years ago, the door might have opened up for Dean's return. Zook's problems with Spurrier during his days as a Florida assistant --- the same time that Dean was having his own difficulties with the Old Ball Coach --- were of similar magnitude. The coach and the quarterback shared a common antagonist and that drew them close to each other.

But not close enough that Dean would be welcomed back into the Florida fold. Zook was fighting for his coaching life from the day he took the Gator job and there was just no time to bring back old players. So an opportunity was missed.

Enter Urban Meyer.

Exit pariah status for Terry Dean.

"I think my story is a little bit different than most of the guys who played at Florida, because I felt like the black sheep of Florida football for a long time," said Dean Monday night at the Southwest Florida Gator Gathering at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "I've not been involved in Florida football for ten plus years but Coach Meyer came here and things changed. I met him a couple of months ago and he has done so much to recruit the former players to bring them back."

Meyer's invitation to former Gators to return home to their Florida football roots is well documented. At every one of the nine stops along this first Meyer tour of Gator clubs, one by one, former players have talked emotionally about how they have been made to feel part of the family for the first time in a long, long time.

For Dean, it started like it did for all the old Gators. He got the letter from Meyer inviting him to return to Gainesville to be an active part of Gator Nation once again. He thought about it and then decided to take Meyer up on the invitation to return.

"The first time I met him (Meyer) they were watching film and he stopped what he was doing to spend more than 15 minutes with me," Dean recalled. "He acted like he would spend all the time in the world with me."

From that first meeting with Meyer, Terry Dean has felt the orange and blue blood flowing in his veins once again. He's sent a letter to Athletic Director Jeremy Foley to inquire about getting involved with the board of Gator Boosters. He's been to the Orange and Blue game.

He's also done plenty of research about Florida's New Ball Coach. He's become an avid reader of all the stories and reports coming out of Gainesville. He's feeling like a Gator once again.

"For me it's been a cathartic experience to get back involved and I'm excited about it," said Dean. "I'm excited about him (Meyer) and I'm excited about the Gators. It's a shame what happened in the past. I spent a lot of sweat and tears into my experience at Florida but all that's past and now I am excited about the Gators again."

For years there has been a lot of speculation that Dean was harboring bitterness toward Spurrier. In Dean's senior year in 1994, he went from Heisman Trophy candidate one week to sitting the bench the entire second half of the Auburn game at The Swamp the next. After that benching, he never played another significant down for the Gators, his place in the lineup taken permanently by Danny Wuerffel, who would win the Heisman Trophy and lead the Gators to the 1996 national championship.

While Wuerffel's star ascended, Dean graduated from UF and tried his hand at the Canadian Football League, the World League (now NFL-Europe) and Arena Football League. He never again recaptured the magic that he showed that game against New Mexico State in 1994 when he threw seven touchdown passes, still a Florida single game record.

"It (pro football career) got to a point that my wife and I looked at each other and said, that's enough," said Dean, now a partner in a wealth management company in Naples. "If I have regrets then it's that I waited so long to get into what I'm doing now. It's hard to imagine a better job than I have now."

Dean was the Most Valuable Player in the 1993 SEC championship game against Alabama and also in the Sugar Bowl victory over West Virginia that same season. In 1994, he had that game against New Mexico State that always stands out as a highlight as well as a masterful performance in a 31-0 thrashing of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Those are all good memories, but they pale in comparison to the Alabama game in 1993.

"My biggest highlight because I grew up in the state of Alabama was beating Alabama in the SEC championship game in 1993," he said. "Frankly, everything kind of pales from there."

The 1994 season was supposed to be his. The expectations of Gator Nation were on his shoulders and for the first few games he didn't disappoint, but he struggled against LSU, throwing four interceptions in a Florida win, and he came out flat against Auburn, a game the Gators would lose in the final seconds. When he was benched he became Florida's forgotten man.

"My overall relationship with Steve deteriorated to the point that it just was no longer enjoyable," he said. "When I look back on my playing days I look back on the good times and I don't even think anymore about the bad times.

"My career certainly did not end the way I would have liked it to but looking back, I have zero regrets. I got a great education, I met my wife there, and I'm doing what I want to do for a living so it turned out very good. It's hard to complain when so much has turned out so well."

Dean and his wife have four children, boys age 5 and 7 and girls age 2.5 and 1.

As long as Spurrier was the coach at Florida, there was little chance for reconciliation. While a superb coach who brought the Gators to their greatest 12-year run of success in school history, Spurrier has been known to struggle with some personal relationships among his players. There was no such problem with Ron Zook, whom Dean liked during his Gator playing days and still likes, both as a coach and a friend. However, Zook's situation was not conducive to reconciliations of former players who might have been jilted during their Gator experience.

"Ron was there when I was there and he had his troubles with Steve, too, so we kind of developed a bond that no one else but guys who went through it like us would understand," he said. "I like Ron. I like him a lot. He was thrown into an incredibly difficult situation and I think he handled it incredibly well considering the circumstances.

"He was following up Spurrier which almost made it a no win situation. He had a lot of things to overcome from day one. He did some things very well, but then there were the bowl games. If I'm disappointed in one thing, it is the bowl games when we had a month to get ready and still we came out unprepared. That's a reflection on the coaching. I wanted Ron to succeed and I think he will at Illinois even though it's going to be a real challenge for him but the time was right to make the change. I think it had to be done and I think Urban Meyer is the right guy."

Meeting Meyer the first time, he instantly sensed a presence with the New Ball Coach. He immediately felt that Meyer was a man capable of handling any situation and the kind of leader that players would follow.

"He just has a presence about him," said Dean. "You know just standing there and talking to him that you're with a very strong leader. He realizes that there are very high expectations at Florida but if there's one guy out there who can handle the expectations, I think it's him."

During the Zook era, he felt the Former Ball Coach didn't establish enough of an authority presence with his players. That's a problem he doesn't see with the New Ball Coach. Dean said, "One of my favorite stories that I've heard about Coach Meyer so far is during one of his first meetings with the team, he told them, 'I'm the head coach, you're the players. I'm not your buddy but I've got your back.' That's the way it has to be. The head coach can't be your buddy but he has to have your back. Just hearing that, that's the kind of guy that you want to get behind."

And so Terry Dean becomes the latest ex-Gator who has felt the healing touch of a welcome home letter. Now he is learning to be a part of Gator Nation once again, this time as Terry Dean, ex-player, not the guy who had the big rift with the Old Ball Coach. The bad memories, which he has pretty much kept stuffed in the corner for years, have been fully released. He's been made a whole Gator once again and he's fully behind the New Ball Coach.

"There are too many positive things to think about to dwell on what went wrong," he said. "I'm happy about the future for the Gators. I think we've got the right guy with Coach Meyer."

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