When the University of Florida football team takes the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the players customarily roar out of an end zone tunnel to the frenzied delight of 85,000 orange-clad spectators.
That's in the fall, when the Gators are playing a powerful state or conference rival. But now it's March, and the only opponents the Gators face at their first full-contact "spring" practice are themselves - blue-jersey defense versus white-jersey offense in an intrasquad scrimmage.
With shadows fast falling across Florida Field, about a thousand fans (max) await their first glimpse of the defending national champions. Having warmed up down the street, the players enter the stadium like spectators, descending single-file down a long aisle, the clatter of cleats clearly audible in the mostly empty structure. After assembling, the ball is placed on the 20-yard line and play begins without fanfare.
The atmosphere is workmanlike but casual, just the way Gators head coach Steve Spurrier wants it during the 15 days of spring drills.
"Basically, spring practice is for teaching the young players how to play and giving them an opportunity to earn playing time," he says from behind a desk in his in-stadium office. "We're not out there trying to see who is the toughest."
Squeezing in even 15 minutes with Spurrier proves no easy task. The coaching offices are swarming with National Football League scouts. They've converged on Gainesville to run a pair of pro-bound Gators, receivers Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard, through their pre-draft paces.
Anthony and Hilliard still work out on campus, but Danny Wuerffel, Florida's all-everything quarterback, has already picked up his diploma and lives elsewhere.
Wuerffel, the son of an Air Force chaplain, was presented the Heisman Trophy as the nation's outstanding player even before leading Florida over Florida State, 52-20, in a Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl date. That victory, coupled with Arizona State's Rose Bowl loss, gave the Gators their first national championship in the school's 107-year history.
Like baseball's Boston Red Sox, Florida's football team has been known, until now, for its consistent inability to put it all together. Spurrier himself won the Heisman in 1966, but never played on a Southeastern Conference (SEC) champion, something Florida didn't officially claim until after he arrived as the head coach in 1990. The Gators have won the SEC crown five times in the '90s, and need one more to tie Alabama's streak of five in a row, set under the legendary Bear Bryant from 1971 to 1975.
A brilliant offensive strategist and passing-game architect, Spurrier might inwardly long to still have Wuerffel and his seasoned targets. But he is not into underestimating his own team's potential.
"There were a lot of excuses that hung around the Gators for years ... it filtered all the way down," Spurrier says. He determined that success depended on eliminating excuses.
Asked about rebuilding next season, he says, "We don't use that word. You should be able to keep on clicking if you have a pretty strong program, if your recruiting has been solid year in and year out. We should have a fine team."
Spurrier, who quarterbacked the NFL's expansion Tampa Bay Buccanners in 1976 after serving as a backup with San Francisco, says his head coaching acumen, first exhibited at downtrodden Duke University, is all acquired, partly from a willingness to ignore conventional coaching wisdom.
"When I was hired here," he observes, "all the experts said you had to run the ball and play super defense to win championships in the SEC. There's nothing in the rule book that says that. It says you've got to score more points than the other guy. So that's what we try to do."
Florida did that convincingly last season, leading the nation with nearly 47 points a game. But with fewer offensive lettermen, is this the year for winning with a defense that returns more key players?
Spurrier acknowledges that the defense might outshine the offense. He does not, however, anticipate a steep dropoff in offensive production. "We may average 38 or 40 [points]," he says with seeming sincerity.
It helps, he adds, that he can concentrate on developing the offense while Bobby Stoops ("the best defensive coordinator I ever hired") handles the defense.
The national championship makes an encore difficult, yet Spurrier admits having no regrets about his decision, made after the '95 season, to stay at his alma mater rather than accept a lucrative pro coaching offer.
"Life is just too good here," he says. "We've got the opportunity to win championships each year. You can't beat the weather, the golf courses, or the beaches, plus my whole family lives in the area. But who knows, five or six years down the road, they [university officials] may get tired of me here or I may get tired of them. Things change."