A Gridiron Dynasty Forged By Passion, Speed, and Heat


For most of this century, college football was dominated by Midwestern teams whose game plans involved running the fullback into the middle until the other guys buckled. But not anymore.

Today's college game, like American society itself, is faster, flashier, and more technical than ever. The best teams nowadays have three things in common: speed, a pro-style passing game, and a Florida zip code.

Between them, Florida's three college powers, the Miami Hurricanes, Florida Gators, and Florida State Seminoles, have cracked the top ten 27 times in 13 seasons, capturing five national titles. This week, as Florida State University and the University of Miami prepare to do battle, all three teams remain unbeaten.

It's become a dynasty, but will it last? Floridians say the state's deep talent pool and its passion for the game will sustain it. But off-the-field scandals and new academic requirements instituted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association could pull Florida's soaring teams back to earth.

Nevertheless, for the moment, Florida has stolen the game of college football from the cold factory towns of the North and, in all likelihood, changed it forever.

"A lot of parts of the country are football crazy, but they haven't developed this kind of dynasty," says Jim Orcutt, a Florida State sociologist. "It comes from the environment down here. It's a more wide-open kind of football with an emphasis on speed. It's a lot like the culture of Florida."

Indeed, the Florida teams have developed a reputation for moving the football at Mach 2. Steve Spurrier, head coach of the No. 1-ranked University of Florida in Gainesville, has dubbed his pro-style passing offense the "Fun and Gun." Led by quarterback Danny Wuerffel, a Heisman Trophy candidate with a rocket arm, the Gators have proved they can rack up points in a hurry, opening up a 35-0 lead against then No. 2-ranked Tennessee in that game's first 20 minutes. And Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, a longtime adherent of gridiron trickery, has earned the nickname "Riverboat Gambler."

But for all their derring-do, Florida's coaches owe much of their teams' explosiveness to the athletes they've recruited. Like most teams, Florida's rely heavily on local talent. In the last three decades, Florida's population has swelled, increasing the pool of recruits. With only three division 1-A schools in the state, there's plenty of talent to go around.

And what talent it is. Florida's athletes, by all accounts, are among the nation's best. Each year, as many as 300 Florida athletes win scholarships to the nation's college football programs. The state has produced more National Football League players than any other, including stars such as Deion Sanders, Emmit Smith, and Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys.

Last year, according to Orlando Sentinel football writer Bill Buchalter, 132 high school athletes in Florida broke the 11-second barrier in the 100 meters. Not only are Florida athletes fleet of foot, he says, but they have the advantage of playing against opponents who are, too.

The chief reason for this glut of talent, says Miami head Coach Butch Davis, is the weather. "I think the climate has a lot to do with it," he says. "A lot of kids get a tremendous amount of outside activity growing up here. There's just a prolific amount of really good athletes."

Florida's endless summer produces other advantages. According to Jim Martz, author of a book about Miami Hurricane football, Florida is one of only three states that allows a month of full-contact high school football practice in the spring. "By the time kids get to college," Mr. Martz says, "they've already had an extra four months of training."

But just because the Sunshine State is teeming with talent doesn't mean it all gravitates to Florida teams. According to Martz, one of the keys to the rebirth of football here after a drought in the 1960s and early '70s was a concerted effort to keep kids at home, rather than losing them to Northern powers like Notre Dame and Ohio State.

One of the advantages of local players is that they're accustomed to playing in searing temperatures. Former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger has said that early in the year, before the mercury settles, Florida's heat and humidity give native teams a 7-point advantage in daytime games. The heat, Schnellenberger argues, is more difficult to adjust to than subzero temperatures up North.

The record bears him out. As Martz notes, "you can count the number of times Florida teams have lost at home in the 1990s on one hand."

Yet the path to greatness has not been without hubris. In the last decade, Florida teams have grown notorious for scandals and even hooliganism. Miami was placed on probation last year for a series of rules violations. It is prohibited from appearing in a bowl game, and scholarships have been limited. The NCAA is investigating Florida State for alleged wrongdoings involving a shoe contract.

Florida teams have also been hammered for a lack of sportsmanship. Miami teams were notorious for taunting opponents, celebrating madly after routine plays and picking fights on the field. Driven by complaints about such behavior, the NCAA instituted new rules three seasons ago that strictly limit end-zone celebrations and other forms of personal expression.

In addition, behavioral troubles have continued to plague the Hurricanes off the field. Before this season, Coach Davis suspended five players for violations ranging from assault to kidnapping and burglary.

If suspensions don't keep some Florida players off the field, new NCAA regulations might. Starting this year, high school players nationwide must score an 820 on the SAT and earn a 2.5 grade point average to be eligible to play at college. Mr. Buchalter says only about half of this year's top 300 Florida prospects meet these standards.

But whatever the future holds for the college football teams on this palm-fringed peninsula, they will be able to point to an unprecedented era of domination. Last week, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, one of the game's foremost traditionalists, summed it up this way: "I don't know what it takes to get somebody outside the state of Florida to be No. 1."

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