He looked above the rim of the jam-packed stadium and saw a sky streaked with orange, the last remnants of what had been a spectacular sunset. At that moment, he knew exactly what Bob Davie had been talking about. Absolutely nothing was going to spoil this evening. His team had taken that last great stride, leaving behind uncertainty and immaturity to become a confident, cohesive unit. The momentum from this win would carry over into the practices for the Outback Bowl and the game itself, a 31-24 win over Iowa.
"We're not a great team yet, but we almost got there in those last two games," said Meyer, who also briefly described some of the trials and tribulations the Gators went through before they scored their breakthrough wins that transformed a mediocre season into one that gave Gator Nation hope that good times and great moments are well on their way to a successful return.
As Meyer talked about how his team came together for that win over Florida State and about living in the moment, the man whose name tag read simply "Hagood" sat quietly in the back absorbing the atmosphere. Hagood Clarke could relate to what Meyer was talking about. Back on October 12, 1963, he was part of a Florida team that broke through the crust of mediocrity to come together for a victory that was a signature win for the Florida football program, not just for that one season but in all of Gator football history up to that point.
On that day, the Gators faced mighty Alabama, ranked third in the nation and coached by Bear Bryant. The quarterback was Joe Namath and a graduate assistant football coach on Bryant's staff was a former All-SEC lineman named Charley Pell, who would become Florida's football coach 16 years later.
"When we arrived at the hotel [the day before] the hotel staff told us we might as probably should forget about playing and just go straight home," said Clarke, who went on to play for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL before retiring from the pro game to become a financial executive in Ft. Lauderdale. "They let us know that there was no way we were going to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa so we'd probably better not even unpack our bags."
The Gators were two touchdown underdogs. They were 1-1-1, having lost their season opener to Georgia Tech, 9-0, in a game where they had negative total offense. They tied a mediocre Mississippi State team 9-9 at home and then barely eked out a 35-28 win over Richmond. Alabama was undefeated and considered a favorite to bring home Bear Bryant's second national championship in three years.
On Friday night at the team hotel, Florida's defensive coordinator Gene Ellenson told some war stories. Ellenson was a highly decorated combat officer in World War II, the winner of two Silver Stars during the Battle of the Bulge. For an hour or so, the Gators listened, sometimes crying and sometimes laughing, as Ellenson recollected those final months of the war and the push to Berlin.
There were a couple of motivational themes to Ellenson's stories. First, he wanted to let the Gators know that they should never give up, even when the odds were stacked against them. On one cold night during the Battle of the Bulge, Ellenson and five of his troops fought off wave after wave of attacks by Germans who outnumbered his little band by more than 20-1. Secondly, he wanted the Gators to know that they had to stick together and trust each other completely, that their only hope of winning was to band together and fight as one.
Very little was said when Ellenson finished his speech. The Gators filed out of that meeting room back to their hotel rooms without much talk and there was very little talk at breakfast the next morning or on the bus to the stadium in Tuscaloosa. It was Jack Katz, the guy we all know now as Panama Jack (sun tan products and clothing line), that broke the silence. After Graves said a few words to the team in the locker room, Katz took off his helmet and smashed it into the blackboard.
When he shouted, "Let's go!" the Gators rushed to the door. It was an almost cartoon-like scene. There was only one single door leading out of the locker room and all the team rushed to the door.
"In retrospect, it was a pretty comical moment," said Clarke, who would make two plays that factored heavily in the game's outcome. "There was just that one door and we all tried to get out of there at once. We were so excited and we were really ready to play the game."
On the opening kickoff, Clarke set the tone for the Gators when he launched himself like a rocket at the seven yard line into the head and shoulder pads of Alabama's All-American tailback Benny Nelson, who had taken exactly one step to the five when Clarke nearly decapitated him. Nelson's helmet went flying off and he landed face first on the turf. As the Alabama offense took the field, there was apprehension and uncertainty. They certainly weren't prepared for a play like that by an opponent in their stadium on the opening kickoff.
Clarke says it was great coaching that set him up to make that play.
"I think that probably had more to do with great coaching because we had set up a play for that kickoff that was a cross the field kickoff," he said. "We lined up on the wide hashmark and kicked the ball to the other side of the field with great hang time. Of course, Bobby Lyle was a great kicker that could make the ball talk back to you, back it up, make it go forward, roll over … whatever you wanted it to do. It just worked out for us real well because he kicked it so high that I arrived just about the same time the ball got there."
That was the first of so many great plays by Florida's inspired Gators. On this day, the team that had shown so few positives in the first three games of the year played with heart and emotion. They played like a true team that had for once buried all its issues and left them behind.
Florida's defense swarmed and the offense played ball control. Sophomore Dick Kirk got the only touchdown of the game. Senior Larry Dupree kept grinding out positive yards on sweeps. Bobby Lyle kicked a field goal. Late in the game, Clarke intercepted Namath and that iced a 10-6 win for the Gators.
"This was really a great team effort because so many players contributed," Clark said. "You take a guy like Dick Kirk who scored a 43 yard touchdown and he was playing third team at that time yet he contributed the winning touchdown for the game. Tommy Shannon was great throwing the ball. Larry Dupree … wow, it was student body left, student body right … he was something that day. Our defense just wouldn't give in against them.
"What made it so special was that everybody played their best game. There wasn't anybody on our team that wasn't ready to play and give it all he had. We had such great teammates and everybody played together and just wanted to get the job done. There was no one star, just everybody working together for one single goal and getting the job done."
So when he hears Meyer talk about a team coming together and putting all the negatives behind, it rings home with Hagood Clarke. He's been there and done that. He hears the Meyer speech and he feels confident that the team building efforts of the last two games of the season when the Gators rescued themselves from mediocrity will continue in the fall with tremendous success.
"I've got a lot of confidence in Urban Meyer," Clarke said. "The way he's running the program and the way he's generating enthusiasm for the Gators is the way it should be. I can see him bringing this team together the right way and that's something to be proud of.
"I like where he's taking the Gators. I think our best days are ahead of us."
GATHERING NOTES: Meyer said that in the spring semester, the Gators had the highest collective GPA in the history of the football program. "We had 41 percent of our scholarship players get a 3.0 or higher," he said. … Meyer said the Gators are a democracy but that he has "one very big vote. Dallas Baker will be a team captain." He later added that Billy Latsko will also be one of the team captains no matter what the team votes … Meyer said that when there is a team gathering he always brings his 7-year-old son Nate and has him sit by Vernell Brown. "I want a little bit of Vernell Brown to rub off on my son," Meyer said. … In addition to Clarke, former Gators Wylie Ritch, Cameron Davis and Matt Morrall were in attendance … Meyer will speak to the Palm Beach County Gator Club Wednesday night.