1984 Gators: A Championship Scorned

The ring is a constant reminder to Scott Trimble of what happened on the field in 1984

By FRANZ BEARD

On the field, the Florida Gators won the Southeastern Conference championship, the first in school history, but off-the-field run-ins with the NCAA put the Gators in the NCAA jailhouse. Five months after a championship season ended with the Gators on probation and unable to go to a bowl game, the SEC presidents voted to strip Florida of the title, overruling the conference’s executive committee.

“Vacating the title was the ultimate slap in the face,” says Trimble, a tackle and a member of “The Great Wall,” what some experts still believe to be the greatest offensive line in SEC history. “We were the Southeastern Conference champions and we won it on the field. To say we didn’t, which is what they said by vacating the title, is the ultimate insult. I have this championship ring and nothing the SEC or anyone else can say takes away the championship we won on the field in 1984. I’m like a lot of my teammates from that team in that if you want my championship ring, you better bring a chainsaw to cut my finger off.”

The way the SEC went about vacating Florida’s SEC title is still a sore source of contention for Trimble. He doesn’t lose sleep over it, but whenever the subject is broached he doesn’t mince words.

“I get it that rules were broken and the NCAA punished the University of Florida, but look at what happened since then …” Trimble says, his voice trailing off.

In the years since the Gators were hit with some of the most severe NCAA sanctions in history – two years with no TV or bowl games and a loss of 30 scholarships over a two-year period – Georgia (1985) and Alabama (1999) were sanctioned by the NCAA but the SEC didn’t vacate their titles. Georgia’s sanctions are a joke.

The NCAA ruled the Bulldogs had violated recruiting rules during the Herschel Walker years but Georgia lost only two scholarships and neither the three SEC titles (1980-82) nor the 1980 national title were affected. Alabama lost 21 scholarships for serious recruiting violations that nearly resulted in the NCAA issuing the first death penalty since SMU in 1985, but the Crimson Tide’s 1999 SEC title was never in jeopardy.

And then there was Auburn. Cecil Newton essentially put son Cam Newton up for sale in 2010. Cam went to Auburn and led the Tigers to an undefeated season in which they won the SEC and national championships. Details of Cecil’s scheme to sell his son to the highest bidder came out in the weeks before the national championship game but the NCAA ruled that Cam didn’t know a thing about what dear old dad was doing. Not only was Auburn’s SEC championship preserved but the Tigers escaped the wrath of the NCAA.

What the SEC has done with rules breakers in the years since the league presidents vacated the 1984 Florida championship that causes Patrick Miller to shake his head. It’s 33 years since the Gators had their title wiped out but it still stings the Gainesville High School head football coach, who was a headhunter of a linebacker and perhaps the greatest special teams player in SEC history back in the day.

“Yes, we were on probation but they penalized 19- and 20-year-old kids for things adults did,” Miller says. “You want to punish the football program, sure, but there were better ways to do it than punishing a bunch of kids, probably 95 percent of whom never saw a dime or anything close to an extra benefit.”

Wilber Marshall, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and a two-time National Defensive Player of the Year (1982-83) had already graduated when the Gators went on probation in 1984, but in a 2006 interview with Fightin’ Gators Magazine, he stated, “I went to Florida because it was close to home and I’m a mama’s boy. I didn’t go there because they paid me to go but other schools made offers – some big offers – some of the same teams that voted to strip the SEC championship from us in 1984. You would go on recruiting trips and some fat cat booster would let you know what you could expect … that was pretty common then.”

* * *

At the core of Florida’s problems with the NCAA was head coach Charley Pell, who had taken over a Florida program that was as close to rock bottom as it gets in 1979. The athletic department was $700,000 in the red, facilities were among the worst in the SEC, the Yon Hall athletic dorm resembled a bombed out war zone and the football program had its share of drug and racial problems.

After getting Florida close to SEC titles three straight years (1974-76), the Gators were in a downhill spiral that culminated with the firing of Douglas Adair Dickey following a dismal 4-7 season in 1978. A nationwide coaching search zeroed in on three coaches in the Southwest Conference. Florida seriously flirted with hiring Lou Holtz (Arkansas) and Fred Akers (Texas). Ron   Meyer (SMU) claimed he would crawl backward from Dallas to become Florida’s head coach.

With all eyes on those three and expectations that one of them would become the next Florida coach, UF president Robert Marston and prominent booster Warren Cason held a clandestine meeting with Charley Pell of Clemson in the baggage claims office for Eastern Airlines at the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. They were so impressed they offered Pell the job on the spot.

“Charley comes home and asks me, ‘What do you think about Florida?’ and I told him it’s a great place for a vacation,” recalls Ward Pell, Charley’s widow and still the “First Lady of Florida Football” in the eyes of the Pell era players and boosters. Ward had just moved into a brand new home in Clemson and she hadn’t even finished unpacking. “I still have to go rummaging through boxes to find a dress and Charley is talking about going to the University of Florida. We have everything going at Clemson.

“We’ve got the best booster organization in the country, a great athletic director, great facilities that are constantly being upgraded, and we’ve recruited players that won the national championship in 1981. I wanted to dig in my heels and tell Charley he could go on to Florida if he wanted but I was just fine there in Clemson, but you know how persuasive he can be. He got that look in his eye and I knew we were on our way to Florida.”

What Charley Pell inherited at Florida and what he left behind when he was forced out after the third game of the 1984 season are like comparing a high school program to one in the NFL. Pell immediately organized the boosters, implemented a plan to get the facilities upgraded and he ran off his share of problematic players and malcontents. Before Charley there were racial divides that ran deep in the UF program. It didn’t take long before the healing began.

“Charley Pell never saw you black or white,” Miller remembers. “He saw you as a person and he had a vested interest in making you better in every aspect of your life.”

Starting with the first day on the job, Pell begin talking about winning national championships. This was a school that still hadn’t won an SEC title and yet Charley Pell was talking about bringing home the big trophy. At first, nobody believed him but that didn’t stop him from selling the dream to anyone who would listen. There were 200 speeches in the first year alone. So much barbecue was consumed that Ward Pell won’t touch the stuff even today. Boosters bought what Charley was selling and they ponied up cash like never before. Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas wrote a check to pay for a modern weight room. Yon Hall was renovated and a brand new locker room was added when the South End Zone at Florida Field was expanded.

Recruits also caught Pell’s vision. In short order, the Gators began dominating the state for the elite talent. From 0-10-1 in 1979 to 9-2-1 in 1983 Florida football was transformed. As the 1984 season approached, the Gators had what was for all practical purposes an NFL roster.

“That was year five of Charley’s five-year plan to win a national championship,” Ward said. “He had a plan from the first day he took the job and by 1984 everything was in place to win like never before. We had transformed the program from the worst to one that even Bear Bryant (Charley’s former coach, boss and mentor) was telling people, ‘Ole Charley’s got the sleeping giant (Florida) awake.’”

The giant had awakened but in remaking the Florida football program in his own image, Pell caught the attention of the NCAA. Ward contends that Florida got too good too quick and that upset the NCAA establishment. Unquestionably, corners were cut and rules were broken along the way but what was going on at Florida wasn’t a whole lot different than what was going on in the rest of the NCAA. In the SEC the unofficial motto was “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t winning.” The NCAA hit Florida with 107 major violations originally but that number was pared down to 59. Some of the heinous crimes included buying recruit Dale Dorminey a pack of Juicy Fruit and a Sprite while waiting on his plane at the Gainesville Regional Airport.

“Some of the infractions were a total joke,” Trimble recalls. “Like we had 7-foot beds in Yon Hall. Can you believe that was a violation? Roger Sibbald had a family emergency and Mike Shanahan loaned him his car so he could drive down to Dunnellon and back to take care of things. It’s not like he used the car to go out on a date or something like that. It was a family emergency!”

Now, there were some serious violations but they pale in comparison to what happened at Georgia (1980s), Alabama (1999) and Auburn (2010). Still, it was enough that the NCAA put a bullseye on the back of Charley Pell and the Florida football program. There were whispers that something was amok at Florida long before the NCAA sent out its letter of allegations to Gainesville.

In all fairness, not all of what went wrong had Charley Pell’s fingerprints on it, but he was the captain of the Good Ship Gator and like all good captains, he went down with the ship. While Pell never once blamed anyone but himself for the violations that led to the harsh probation and his forced resignation after three games of the 1984 season, the late Dwight “Hoss” Adams, saw things differently. Adams, Pell’s trusted lieutenant and special teams guru, said two questionable staff hires ultimately brought down the program.

In a 2013 interview, Adams said, “Charley Pell made one mistake and I’m not second-guessing him but I told him, ‘You’re putting your trust in two people that’s going to be a problem. I called their names and said, ‘These guys are trouble and they’ll get you in trouble.’ Boy, he got irritated because he trusted these guys and he shouldn’t have.”

Perhaps Pell might have been able to save himself if he had only pointed fingers and named names but that just wasn’t his style.

“Charley fell on the sword for everybody,” Adams said. “It happened on his watch and he wasn’t going to blame anyone else, but believe me, most of what happened was because Charley trusted people he shouldn’t have and they did the stuff that got us in trouble.”

* * *

The dark cloud of pending NCAA probation hung over the Gators heads as the 1984 season began. Four days prior to the season opener with 1983 national champ Miami at The Big Sombrero in Tampa, Dorminey, a fifth-year senior quarterback, tore his ACL on a goal line drill. His replacement was redshirt freshman Kerwin Bell, a walk-on from tiny Mayo. Bell performed gallantly in the Miami game and in a 21-21 tie with LSU in game two. Things began to click in game three, a 63-14 walloping of Tulane, but that was the last college football game Charley Pell ever coached. A couple of days later he was forced to resign. Months later, Pell said he had been promised the chance to coach out the rest of the season but UF president Marshall Criser reneged on the promise and then denied there was ever such a deal in place. Ward Pell disputes Criser’s recollections.

“They (Criser and the UF administration) can deny it till the cows come home, but Charley was promised that he could coach until the end of the season,” Ward said. “They didn’t keep their promises and that’s something they’ll have to live with.”

Later in the week, with offensive coordinator Galen Hall taking over as the interim head coach, the Gators ground out a workmanlike but unspectacular, 27-12, win over Mississippi State at Florida Field with Ward and Charley Pell watching the game high above the stadium floor from Warren Cason’s sky box. After the game, the entire Florida team looked up at the box and raised their helmets to Pell.

“Charley Pell was why we were all at Florida and that’s why we did that,” Miller said. “It was really emotional for us. I don’t care what the NCAA or anyone else said, this man was about changing lives and getting us to believe we could be something better than we were. He took a bunch of boys and made men out of us.”

Those were angry young men the rest of the 1984 season. Many of the Gators donned black wrist bands to protest Pell’s forced resignation and their determination to win out for their former coach. From that 1-1-1 start, the Gators went on an 8-0 tear. The games became beatdowns. Behind The Great Wall (five of six played in the NFL led by College Football Hall of Famer Lomas Brown) future first round running backs Neal Anderson (916 rushing yards), John L. Williams (793) and Lorenzo Hampton (693) the Gators had the nation’s most effective running game, averaging 244.8 clock-eating yards per game. Bell didn’t have to throw much (184 attempts, 17 TDs and only 4 INTs) but he had future NFL receivers Ricky Nattiel, Frankie Neal, Ray McDonald and Gary Rolle as targets. Bobby Raymond was the nation’s most accurate kicker (34-35 on extra points, 23-36 on field goals) and the defense led by Alonzo Johnson and Tim Newton was downright nasty.

“I’ll tell you why we were so good and so dominant on defense,” says Miller. “Because we controlled the ball and the clock so well with our running game, our defense was only on the field for an average of 48 plays a game. We came on the field fresh and got the ball back, then it was grind, grind grind for our offense. We just wore people out.”

In the final three games of the season, the Gators blew the doors off 8th-ranked Georgia (27-0), won the SEC regular season by beating Kentucky up in Lexington and then finished off Florida State, 27-17, in a downpour of Noah proportions in Tallahassee. There wasn’t a team in the country the Gators couldn’t have beaten but there was no bowl game for the Gators to prove themselves on the national stage due to the NCAA. The national championship went to a BYU team that finished unbeaten against an easy schedule and handed Michigan its sixth loss in the Holiday Bowl prior to Christmas.

“BYU … seriously?” Trimble asks. “I hate to think what we could have done to them if we could have played them, but not just them, anybody else in the country.”

Both the Associated Press and United Press International (forerunner of today’s coaches poll) gave the national title to BYU, which finished as the nation’s only undefeated team. The Gators ranked third in the final AP poll (BYU and Washington were 1-2) and seventh in the UPI poll. The New York Times, however, gave Florida its national championship trophy.  The University of Florida has that New York Times trophy on display in the foyer of the Heavener Football Complex but it doesn’t recognize it as a legitimate national title like the ones from 1996, 2006 and 2008.

“I have a lot of near and dear friends who played football with Charley at Alabama,” Ward Pell said, “and they claim every one of their national championships no matter who gave it out. I wish Florida would do the same thing for that 1984 team. They won the SEC on the field and if you ask me, they were the best team in the country. I’ve had a lot of people who know an awful lot about football who’ve told me that and I believe them.”

* * *

Neither Trimble nor Miller expect the SEC will ever do anything to reinstate Florida’s league championship and they understand that the New York Times national championship isn’t recognized as an official national title. What they would both appreciate is a little bit of respect for what those teams of the Charley Pell era accomplished, particularly in 1984 when the Gators did something no other UF team ever did by winning a championship on the field.

“In a lot of ways, we’re kind of the black sheep of Florida football,” Trimble said. “I think the way some people think we were all on the take but that’s not the case. All I got was a football scholarship and I’m happy I got it. I got a great education, played on some great teams with some great guys who are still my friends and I got coached by Charley Pell. You can say what you want about the probation but Coach Pell was a great man. You look at what happened before he got there and look at what happened in his time there. He changed Florida football but he also changed the entire athletic department. Because he organized the boosters, the Gators are great in all sports now.”

Miller sees the University of Florida bringing back teams of the past for reunions but notes that the school has yet to bring back the 1984 team. It saddens him that after all these years, the players from that team are considered pariahs by many Gators.

“Okay, I admit it, it gets to me,” Miller said. “The bottom line is that we won a championship on the field and even if the University of Florida doesn’t want to recognize our championship they should at least recognize that we were a great football team. We’ve never really felt as if we were welcomed back and that’s sad because we’re Gators and we’re proud of our school and proud of the championships that have been won since we played. We all feel like we were part of the foundation for what happened later on. I think it wouldn’t hurt if they recognized us.”

Through the years, Trimble has been a regular at Florida football games but it wasn’t until this past April when he began feeling welcome again.

“Coach (Dan) Mullen is changing things,” Trimble noted. “I left the spring game feeling like he wants all of us there, no matter who we played for or when. We’re all Gators. Maybe it’s time that 1984 team started getting treated like Gators.”