The love affair that Ralph Ortega has with the University of Florida began on October 4, 1969, the day he saw his first football game in The Swamp, which was then known as Florida Field. Ortega was one of the nation's top high school linebackers, a standout for the legendary Nick Kotys at Coral Gables on teams that won back to back state and mythical high school national championships in 1967-68.
In those days the Coral Gables Cavaliers were the nation's most talented and feared high school football team. They dressed 100 players and nearly every year, 15-20 of them signed Division I football scholarships. That 1969 team featured four future Gators --- Ortega, Glen Cameron, Randy Talbott and Tom Clifford.
"Every starter on that team either got a Division I scholarship or played football in the Ivy League," said Ortega, who became a two-time first team All-SEC linebacker (1973-74) and a first team All-America (1974) at Florida.
The Friday night before he saw his first game at Florida Field, Ortega led Coral Gables to a 14-7 win over a Gainesville High team coached by another legend, Jim Niblack, at Citizen's Field. The Purple Hurricanes were quarterbacked by Jimbo Latsko, the uncle of present day Gator fullback Billy Latsko. The next day, the entire Coral Gables team sat on folding chairs in the south end zone and watched John Reaves, Carlos Alvarez and the Florida Super Sophs beat Florida State, 21-6.
The stadium held a little over 60,000 in those days. There were only 30 rows of permanent seats in the north end zone and there were bleachers in the south end zone. It was nothing like it is today with tall upper decks in both end zones and sky boxes. But it was packed and it was loud and electric.
"The best recruiting tactic they could have possibly used was bringing our team to that game," said Ortega. "They put us all in folding chair in the end zone and we got to see that football game.
"The only other thing that I had seen in college football at the time was the University of Miami. You would go to the Orange Bowl and there would be maybe 15,000 people there. I had never been to such an atmosphere for a college football game. We had two guys on that team (Cameron was one of them) whose parents had played at the University of Miami but everybody wanted to go to the University of Florida after that."
Ortega says he committed to Florida in his mind that day. He wouldn't sign with the Gators until the spring and by that time, there had been some changes. Ray Graves stepped down after a 9-1-1 season that included a Gator Bowl win over Tennessee. Ironically, Graves' last game as the Florida head coach was also Doug Dickey's last game as the Tennessee coach. Unknown to the public, a deal with Dickey had been made in August by Florida president Stephen C. O'Connell who forced Graves out as the head coach although Graves was allowed to stay on as the athletic director at UF.
There was some turmoil at Florida because of the coaching change, particularly the way that O'Connell went about it, but when it came to recruiting Ortega, Cameron and Talbott, Dickey did all the right things and got the three Gables standouts to sign with Florida.
"Florida could have lost me but Florida only had to keep on doing all the right things and they did," said Ortega.
He had a great career at Florida even though the Gators never won the Southeastern Conference championship during his career. He went on to have an outstanding professional career with the Atlanta Falcons before injuries cut his career short.
He retired from football and stayed close to his roots in Miami where he has become a successful businessman and highly respected member of the Dade County community. The love affair with the University of Florida has never ended even though he admits he doesn't get back to Gainesville nearly as often as he would like.
Over the past five years, he has watched the University of Miami more often than he has the Gators because his son Buck was a tight end for the Hurricanes. Buck graduated this year and signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Redskins.
"I'm really thrilled he's getting this chance," said Ralph. "Buck's my Billy Latsko, an overachiever that's gotten where he is by working hard. We'll just have to see how it all pans out for him but we made a list of three teams that we felt he would be a good fit and Washington is one of those teams. They have a great coach in Joe Gibbs, a nice coaching staff, and I think the things that Buck can do fit in well with their offensive philosophy."
With Buck graduated, there's no need to follow the Hurricanes closely so he's turned his college football attention full-time to Coach Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. Ralph loved the way that Steve Spurrier led the Gators to six SEC titles and one national championship in his 12-year run as Florida's head coach. He feels Florida slipped and stumbled in the three years that Ron Zook was at the helm, but now he sees Meyer as the kind of coach that can not only bring back the glory for the Gators, but take Florida to even greater heights.
"The program is obviously heading in the right direction now," said Ortega. "Now, I'm going to put some pressure on him [Meyer] but I told him if you're not winning a national championship or at least competing for a national championship at least 75 percent of the time then obviously you're doing something wrong.
"I'm dead serious about that. I think USC is right there and I don't see why USC is there and not us. The University of Florida, if you look at all the assets we have in place, ought to be playing for national championships. We ought to be crushing Florida State every single year and we need to get Miami back on the schedule so we can crush them, too. We should be doing that. It ought to be like a semi-pro team of men playing against college boys when Florida plays a game."
Ortega arrived at this conclusion when he considered the vast resources of the University of Florida. He looked at the academics, which have continued to grow to the point that Florida has become one of the truly elite public universities in the nation. Then he looked at Florida's vast alumni network and the kind of support they offer. Finally, he looked at the facilities, both academic and athletic.
"When you look at everything that's on the peripheral and everything that's on the inside, it makes it easily by far the most desirable university to go to in the state of Florida and the entire south," he concluded. "It's probably as desirable as any university in the nation, too. If everybody is paying the same dollar for their education, then where is the greatest value? Look at facilities, academics, alumni, education … where is the value and where do you send your child? It's here, the University of Florida. Look at it from an athletic standpoint. You can recruit kids with first rate facilities, first rate programs and give them a first rate education that's second to none. I don't think there is a better place anywhere than the University of Florida."
GATHERING NOTES: Meyer told the crowd that he likes the way the offensive line is coming together as a unit. He said that O-linemen are a different breed and there has to be the cameraderie and sense that they are a unit both on and off the field for the line to have tremendous success ... Meyer will be speaking to the Broward County Gator Club on Tuesday and Wednesday, he will be speaking at the Palm Beach County Gator Club. Safeties coach and south Florida recruiter Doc Holliday will be speaking to the Gator Gathering in Okeechobee Thursday night … A torrential downpour that included high winds and hail forced Hialeah-Miami Lakes to cancel its Monday football practice, denying Meyer and Holliday a chance to watch stud running back Armando Allen work out in a contact drill … Meyer and Holliday will be visiting some high schools in Broward County on Tuesday. One of the stops will probably be St. Thomas Aquinas High School to look at safety Major Wright, a 6-1, 205-pounder that is considered one of the top prospects in south Florida in a year when south Florida is loaded.