The Florida Battle to Be No. 1

When Florida and Florida State clash, more than a US championship is at stake

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Bob Woodruff would have been aghast. As head football coach and athletics director of the University of Florida in the 1950s, the late Mr. Woodruff never wanted to play Florida State. He didn't think the former women's school in Tallahassee, which took up football in 1947, was a suitable match for his proud and ancient (1906) program. Even when threat of action by the state legislature forced him to begin the series in 1958, Woodruff kept a hole card: He scheduled the first six games in Gainesville.

"So how did it come to this?" he would have asked today: No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 FSU. This Saturday. In Tallahassee. Winner becomes the favorite for the national championship.

"You couldn't ask for it to be any better," says FSU's down-home head coach Bobby Bowden. This is the most momentous game in a series that has grown from an annual family squabble into a clash of perennial college football titans. Under head coach Steve Spurrier, Florida has captured five Southeastern Conference championships in the 1990s - the only SEC championships the orange-and-blue Gators have earned in 64 years. Last year, they fought for the national championship right down to the final losing game with Nebraska.

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Under Bowden, FSU has finished in the nation's top five teams for an NCAA record nine consecutive years - and won a national championship in 1993.

Yet, this is the first time both teams have been 10-0 - much less Nos. 1 and 2 - for their season-ending match. All 80,000 tickets in FSU's expanded stadium have been sold. ABC televises the game at high noon.

Since its inception, this match has always been more important to FSU and its fans, who resented Florida's traditional dominance in the battles for legislative money, media attention, and athletic superiority. And to Seminoles, the Gators' arrogance always showed when they met on the football field:

In 1962, Gator quarterback Tommy Shannon said, "[FSU] gets all the Florida rejects." In 1964, Gator players wore practice jerseys emblazoned "Never FSU Never." In 1982, Gator fans tore down the goalposts after a win over FSU - in Tallahassee.

Only in the past decade, as the garnet-and-gold clad Seminoles became TV darlings and won 10 games a year for 10 consecutive seasons, has the relationship begun to even up. Florida still leads the series 24-13-2. But a new generation of Florida fans claims FSU is the one with the superiority complex.

"[FSU] has the worst fans," says Gator booster Marj Hazouri. "I know they think we're the worst. But out of all the stadiums I've been in, that's where I've been treated the worst."

If there remains an inequality between the two programs, it may be in the warmth engendered by their two coaches. Spurrier is Florida's prodigal son, and least-liked personality. Son of a demanding Presbyterian minister from East Tennessee, he won the Heisman Trophy as a Florida quarterback in 1966, then became a journeyman pro player and coach. He returned to Gainesville in 1990, and quickly brought the Gators back from the abyss of an NCAA probation created by his predecessors. He's called a coaching genius, whose Fun 'N' Gun offense rips holes in defenses.

But his unrelenting criticism - some call it whining - of opponents, media, and even his players has earned him the nickname "Steve Superior," and made him the coach opponents most like to beat.

In contrast, Bowden, a self-effacing humorist and devout Christian, charms all he meets, even Gators. In 1976, the Alabama-reared Bowden took over an FSU program that had won only four games total in three seasons. He since has led FSU to 196 victories and 18 bowl games, has been affectionately dubbed "St. Bowden," and has become the fifth-winningest coach in Division 1-A history (269-81-4).

Of course, players will decide Saturday's game. And in a state that ranks with Texas and California as the nation's most fertile recruiting grounds, both schools are talent-rich.

Florida's star rides with quarterback Danny Wuerffel, a deeply religious young man with a clunky throwing motion, who nonetheless holds 35 records, including two NCAA passing records. He completes better than 6 passes out of every 10 - an NCAA best. He is a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, after finishing second in the balloting last year.

FSU counters with tailback Warrick Dunn, whose oft-told tale of boyhood tragedy - his mother was a Baton Rouge, La., policewoman gunned down by robbers - has underlined his talent. A small speedster who changes directions like a water bug, he is FSU's alltime leading rusher.

But in a state where Gator-Seminole marriages are the norm, this isn't simply a game between young men. It is an affirmation of identity. It's a statement of character.

Forget the national championship. The winner gets to say, "Nyah, nyah, na-nyah, nyah," for the next year.

NO. 1 VS. NO. 2 IN DOLLARS, TOO

Saturday's clash between the Florida State Seminoles and the Florida Gators pits not only the two top-rated teams, but also the two best-paid coaches.

Gator coach Steve Spurrier pulls down the nation's top pay package - a deal worth more than $1 million a year.

FSU's Bobby Bowden is close behind at $975,000 - giving him the sole claim to No. 2 now that Lou Holtz of Notre Dame is stepping down. Coach Holtz also got $975,000.

The fat salaries rile some critics. Mr. Spurrier gets more than four times the pay of UF's president. But the Florida sports program has earned the school $9 million since 1986.

Spurrier could make more. A pro team this year offered him $12 million for a six-year deal.

- Staff writer

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