The tale of the Ol' Ball Coach and the Gunslinger began in The Swamp, when a charismatic coach, Steve Spurrier, first laid eyes on a can't-miss high school quarterback, Danny Wuerffel.
"The first time I saw Danny play, he led his Fort Walton Beach High School team to the Florida state championship game," Spurrier says. "The game was in Gainesville, and they were playing St. Thomas Aquinas out of Fort Lauderdale."
The initial impression, surprisingly, was one of curiosity.
"I was watching him warm up and he was dropping the ball behind his ear on throws," Spurrier says. "He had a funny throwing motion. Then the game started and he didn't drop the ball behind his ear once. Every throw he made hit the players right between the numbers."
The on-point throws caught Spurrier's attention. The variety of his skills kept it.
"He was throwing it right over guys' shoulders on a dead run," Spurrier says. "I remember he threw a post route for a 30 or 40 yard touchdown, then he ran an option play down the sideline where he outran the entire secondary of St. Thomas Aquinas ... and they had a few NFL players on their team."
Wuerffel ended up leading the Fort Walton Beach Vikings to a championship while also finishing up his senior year as the valedictorian of his high school. The rare trio of passing accuracy, athleticism and academics proved irresistible to the biggest programs in the country. In addition to Spurrier, in-state rival head coach Bobby Bowden of Florida State and then head coach of Alabama, Gene Stallings also had Wuerffel in their sights.
"But I said, 'we have got to get this kid'," Spurrier says. "Fortunately, we got him."
Wuerffel's commitment to the Gators would quickly alter the landscape of the SEC, as he proved to be the perfect quarterback for Spurrier's pass-happy Fun 'n Gun offense, where he split time with Terry Dean during his freshman year and the first part of his sophomore year. When he took over the position for good, halfway through his second season, it continued a run of four SEC championships. It featured a blizzard of offensive stats, the backbone of which was back-to-back seasons with a passer rating over 170, a feat that had never been done.
He also threw for 35 touchdown passes in 1995 and 39 in 1996. Tack on the TDs he threw as a freshman and sophomore and you end up with 114 career touchdowns against only 42 interceptions -- not to mention a total of 10,875 yards. According to Spurrier, the numbers could have been higher, much higher.
"Most of those games we got so far ahead the back-up quarterback would play the whole fourth quarter," he says. "Danny had to throw all of his TDs in the first half."
This run of Gator dominance meant that Wuerffel would enter his senior year as one of the biggest stars in college football, though Spurrier never worried about whether he could handle the pressure of high expectations and the fame that goes along with it.
"First of all, you have to know Danny Wuerfell," Spurrier says. "He is a sincere, passionate Christian young man who I don't know if he's ever done anything wrong in his life. In football, he was always giving credit to the offensive line, the receivers, and the defense. He took whatever praise he got and passed it along."
For Wuerffel, praise could be measured in awards, of which he won, well, all of them. He was a First Team All-American (both for football and academics) twice. He won the Davey O'Brien Award (best college QB) twice. He won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and the Sammy Bough Trophy. He won the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award, and the SEC Player of the Year Award twice. And all of these awards remain runners up to his winning the 1996 Heisman Trophy.
Spurrier, who won the Heisman Trophy 30 years before Wuerffel, became the first winner of the award to coach a fellow award winner. After the trophy ceremony, the coach and the QB had one last order of business: Win a national championship.
That year, Florida had only one loss on their record, a gut-wrenching defeat at the hands of rival Florida State. After the loss, the Gators' path to the national championship game had to go through Alabama and its No. 1 ranked pass defense. Wuerrfel was unfazed by the Crimson Tide, throwing for six touchdowns and 401 yards to set up a rematch against Florida State for the national title in the Sugar Bowl.
"We wanted to beat FSU," Spurrier says. "They had knocked Danny down about 36 times. We only got a few roughing the passer calls that day but they could've called 10.
"The refs chickened out."
Wuerffel, for his part, took the hits and continued to deliver clutch throw after clutch throw, racking up 300 yards passing, three touchdowns and a rushing TD to demolish Florida State 52-20 and win Florida's first national championship, capping one of the most outstanding seasons ever put together by a college quarterback.
"He was a special player," Spurrier says, in summation. "Just a perfect team player."
-- Jon Finkel is the author of The Dadvantage: Stay In Shape On No Sleep With No Time And No Equipment. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Finkel.
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