Saturday, February 27, 2010

Is there a more exciting moment in football than the opening kickoff of a game between the University of Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles? For fans in the Sunshine State, it's the ultimate moment of truth.

Hard to believe it practically took an act of Congress to bring the two teams together in the first place. The behind-the-scenes machinations required to convince the teams to play were almost as complex as a Double Reverse-Pass-to-Quarterback.

Complications began in 1947 when FSU converted from a woman's college to a co-ed school. That's when the State Board of Control, the governing body for state schools, adopted a ruling prohibiting athletic competition between the two universities. "When the day comes that FSU can hold its own against UF," the board announced, "the rule will be rescinded."

That day finally arrived in 1954 when, for the first time, the NCAA included the Seminoles on its ranking of "major schools," and the board lifted its ban. Fans were dismayed to learn, however, that UF Athletic Director Bob Woodruff opposed the game, citing previous scheduling commitments.

Finally, State Senator Harry Stratton of Nassau County--himself a former high school football star and pro baseball player--had heard enough. He announced plans to introduce a bill requiring the two football teams to meet.

That spurred a flurry of activity. Woodruff agreed tothe game provided it was played in Gainesville every year and that the Seminoles accept a flat fee rather than a split of the gate.

Stratton proposed a compromise: play in Jacksonville and split proceeds 50/50. No dice, said Woodruff.

In April 1955 Stratton's bill was placed before the senate, where it was defeated by a vote of 19 to 5, despite support from Senators Carraway of Tallahasse and Shands of Gainesville.

Still, negotiations continued between the schools. Woodruff, apparently fearful that a Gator-Seminole game wouldn't draw flies at the gate, proposed that FSU receive only $10,000 if attendance fell under 20,000. FSU rejected the offer.

Finally, the Board of Control stepped in, issuing the following statement to each school president:

"Either play the game or find new athletic directors."

In December 1955--at long last--the deal was brokered: The Gators and Seminoles would meet for the 1958 season at Florida Field. FSU would receive $20,000, but each year thereafter would split the gate 50/50.

If Gainesville officials were worried about attendance they shouldn't have been.

On November 22, 1958, 43,000 fans flooded Florida Field for the schools' historic first confrontation. Naturally, no one expected underdog FSU to win. After all, UF fielded its first team in 1906; FSU's football program was barely a decade old.

On the game's opening kickoff, Seminole running back Bobby Renn faked a handoff and scampered 80 yards to the Florida 15 before being tackled by UF's 140-pound quarterback Jimmy Dunn. That lead to an FSU touchdown, and suddenly the underdog was ahead 7-0.

Still in the first period, the Gators tied the game with a touchdown off a blocked kick. UF scored twice more in the second quarter, both times on runs by Dunn. The second half was a defensive battle with neither side able to score. The Gators had beaten the Seminoles 21-7.

The next day, Daytona Beach News Journal sportswriter Benny Kahn had this to say: "Treating Florida State like a fresh kid who keeps...sassing his elders, the Gators took the Seminoles out behind the woodshed and gave them an old-fashioned spanking."

In the 46 years since, the two teams have met 68 times. UF holds a 27-19-2 advantage.

Whenever the Seminoles and Gators meet, it's magic--no matter their respective records, rankings, or bowl prospects. And to think it nearly took an act of Congress to force them to play!

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 19