A cultural history of Florida’s fervor for football.

By Gary R. Mormino

A splendorous October afternoon blessed “a delightful high rolling country,” the Red Hills of La Florida between the Aucilla and Ochlocknee rivers. For days, opposing sides hyped the game to a religious pitch. Players drank hyper-caffeinated beverages to maintain a buzz. Spectators lined the bloodied field, screaming for divine intervention. Upon the game’s conclusion, contestants and spectators sang lustily and performed a “mad dance.” An observer concluded, “All ended in perfect good humor.”

The date was October 1823; the location was “the new Tallahassee village,” a settlement of the Seminoles led by Chief Neamathla. The players were young Native American men and women participating in a centuries-old ritual and described that day by Dr. W.H. Simmons and John Lee Williams, a St. Augustine physician and Pensacola lawyer who had been appointed to a commission to select the seat of government for the Florida Territory. They were not the first to be bewitched or befuddled by the spectacle of a ball game.

In 1676, Father Fray Juan de Paiva served at San Luis de Talimali, a Spanish mission located in the heavily populated Apalachee country overlooking present-day Tallahassee. The Franciscans left extensive accounts of el juego de la pelota, the Indian game of ball, including a drawing of the goalpost (a pole resembling a Christmas tree topped by an eagle’s nest). 

Apalachee villagers attempted to kick the buckskin-covered ball against the goalpost and score one point. A player who kicked the ball into the eagle’s nest received two points. The first team to score 11 points was victorious. 

Not everyone approved. A Spanish bishop criticized the game as “barbaric and bestial,” pleading for its abolition. “And they fall upon one another at full tilt,” he lamented, adding, “when the pile is broken up, four or five are lifeless, others have their eyes gouged out, and many arms and legs are broken.”

Tallahassee remains the site of games played full of sound and fury, signifying everything. “Thousands of faithful followers, dressed in ritual clothing, go on long pilgrimages to sacred shrines where they writhe in emotional fervor, enacting bizarre rituals of worship of their god-like leaders,” writes David G. Hackett, a University of Florida professor of religion. He is describing a University of Florida-Florida State football game, three centuries after Spanish friars first recorded ball games a brisk walk from today’s Bobby Bowden Field. 

Football has long aroused primal needs in Floridians, fostering a passion and intensity unequaled in any enterprise short of love, war and religious revivals. Born of populist roots, baseball was popularized by workers and barnstorming teams across the South. Football, however, traces its roots to students enrolled at prestigious universities in the North during the late 19th century.

One of the earliest descriptions of football in Florida dates back to 1898, as American troops camped in Tampa, preparing for an invasion of Cuba. Some Rough Riders had played football in the Ivy League, while one authentic cowboy insisted on playing with his spurs on.

Nationally, football gathered popularity despite critics who branded the game barbaric.

In a brief span between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modern collegiate football unfolded across the Sunshine State. Football’s protean elements appealed to diverse communities and constituencies. The game fostered regional pride while accepting innovative Yankee coaches; it appealed to the state’s rural masses while filling city bleachers.  American presidents boosted the game. 

“Don’t flinch, don’t foul, and hit the line hard!” exhorted Theodore Roosevelt at a pep talk.

Football was also a business. From the beginning, the game was surrounded by controversies: tainted money and athletic subsidies, commercialism and amateurism, violence and racism. Amherst College professor Allen Guttman, author of scholarly books about sports, has written, “Sports are an alternative to and, simultaneously, a reflection of the modern age.”

Football Goes to College

Collegiate football began in Florida in 1899, when players organized a team at Florida Agricultural College in Lake City. School president T.H. Taliaferro doubled as football coach. Florida’s first intercollegiate game was played on Nov. 22, 1901, as squads from Florida Agricultural College and Stetson squared off at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds. Two thousand fans cheered as Stetson triumphed. The following year, East Florida Seminary at Gainesville faced West Florida Seminary at Tallahassee, a rivalry that reemerged a half-century later under different names and higher stakes.

In 1905, the Florida Legislature reorganized higher education. Florida Agricultural College in Lake City became the University of Florida in Gainesville. West Florida Seminary in Tallahassee became the Florida State College for Women. 

In October 1906, UF played its first game as a club sport, when the Gators faced the Rollins Tars from Winter Park.

Football spread across the Mason-Dixon Line as former players and graduates of Southern colleges became sports writers, teachers and coaches. Most cities and towns had a football team. A Manatee County legislator, alarmed at the game’s violence, introduced a bill in 1903 to outlaw the “playing of the game known as football.”  A committee scowled, hissed and then rejected the bill.

Southerners may have appropriated the Rebel Yell, but Northern schools dominated intersectional play until the 1920s. The University of Alabama’s triumph over the University of Washington at the 1926 Rose Bowl turned the tide and has been called the most significant game in college football.

Football appealed to values Floridians cherished: a reverence for tradition and spectacle with a jolt of violence. Winning coaches became icons. Southerners may have been woefully poor, but the gridiron allowed citizens to escape reality, at least on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

Like Longfellow’s Evangeline, Floridians endured the pain of patience and fortitude. Florida teams enjoyed few victorious seasons in the first half of the 20th century. The Gators achieved only one winning season during the 1940s. The university discontinued collegiate football during the war years. In 1946, the squad finished 0-9. 

The deplorable state of UF football flared as an issue in the 1944 and 1948 gubernatorial campaigns. Winning candidates Millard Fillmore Caldwell and Fuller Warren promised champion teams, if elected. Or at least a team capable of beating the Georgia Bulldogs. Governor Warren, a Gator alum, signed a bill setting aside a special University of Florida night at state racetracks. Warren earned $12,000 in 1950, while Coach Woodruff’s salary topped $17,000, making the football coach the state’s highest-paid employee.

Florida State University emerged from the cocoon of Florida State College for Women in 1947, organizing a fledgling football squad. UF, citing state law and an even higher authority, opposed the formation of a football team in Tallahassee.

But FSU won the fight and chose a new nickname: the Seminoles. Other suggestions included Rebels, Tarpons and Crackers. The tradition of Chief Osceola charging across the field on his Appaloosa horse named Renegade began in 1975.

FSU’s trajectory was as unpredictable as it was stunning.
The Seminoles’ 1949 squad earned an invitation to Tampa’s Cigar Bowl, where the team defeated Wofford College from Spartanburg, South Carolina. The 1950 team went undefeated, but team members rejected a bid from the Refrigerator Bowl, preferring to earn money during the semester break. Coach Don Veller earned $7,500, matching the salary of FSU professors. The construction of Doak Campbell stadium underscored the school’s commitment to football. 

In 1950, the University of Miami was the state’s best football team, finishing 9-0-1 and earning a trip across town to the Orange Bowl. Opened in 1925, UM had played its first collegiate football game in 1926. Eerily, its opponent was the University of Havana.

In Miami, boosters nurse bigger-than-life dreams, and on Sept. 25, 1926, workers began constructing an 8,000-seat stadium. Alas, a hurricane smashed Miami two days later, pricking the real estate boom but inspiring the team with a perfect nickname: the Hurricanes.

Friday Night Lights

Football also captivated Floridians at the local level. From the Perdido River to the Saint Mary’s River, from Key Biscayne to the Keys archipelago, Floridians worshipped such high school teams as the Apopka Blue Darters, the Chattahoochee Mighty Yellow Jackets, the Key West Conchs, the Lake Wales Highlanders, the Lakeland Dreadnaughts, the Largo Packers, the Lemon Bay Mantas, the Pompano Beach Beanpickers, the Seabreeze Fighting Sandcrabs and the Tarpon Springs Spongers. In Dade County, three high schools—Jackson, Miami, and Edison—called the Orange Bowl home.

For a quarter century, 1925-1950, the Miami High Stingarees carved out a legendary record, defeating every Dade County challenger. A 1965 game between Miami High and Coral Gables drew 48,631 fans. Football intensified natural rivalries between towns and within cities.

J. Earle Bowden, a longtime observer of West Florida manners and morals, described the meaning of football to his neighbors: “Giggly girls giggle. Mammas choke back tearful joy. Papa stands strong and proud. It’s Friday night. Hear the big drum roll; tom-toms beat for a noisy crowd bathed in hot lights on chilly Florida nights.”

Nowhere in Florida has football unchained lives more than the communities lining the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee. The hunger for winter vegetables and Big Sugar arrived in the decades after the world wars. The agricultural towns attracted disparate and desperate African Americans and later Caribbean workers. Few imagined that football scholarships might transform fates.

A myth holds that hungry young boys from Muck Cities learned to run fast and hard because of a local ritual. Before the ripe sugarcane is harvested, planters ignited fields to burn away cane leaves and debris. Fires also ignited waves of marsh rabbits fleeing, only to be run down and clubbed by young boys. 

“It’s not that they chase rabbits,” explained an observer, “It’s that they find it necessary to chase rabbits.”

In 2001, seven Glades High graduates played in the National Football League, more than any other American school. The numbers rose to 31 in 2013. Unlike other football powerhouses such as St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale or Plant High in Tampa, Belle Glade Central had no booster club or luxurious locker room. “Even more extraordinary,” wrote a New York Times columnist in 2013, “is the world that produced these players.” Each fall, when the Belle Glade Raiders meet the Pahokee Blue Devils, 10,000 fans cheer wildly.

Belle Glade, Pahokee and Fort Myers illustrate how sport can transcend some of the grim realities of life.  

A 2015 headline read, “Dunbar Community Turns to Football in Wake of Violence.” Fort Myers police had responded to four separate shootings in the traditionally Black neighborhood. But Dunbar is nationally known not for crime statistics but for its celebrated National Football League alumni, most notably Deion Sanders, currently perhaps the hottest commodity in college sports in his first year coaching at the University of Colorado. 

In a society where neighborhood-owned stores have been eclipsed by Amazon and Walmart, the ultimate high school may be IMG (International Management Group), a private, for-profit sports prep and boarding school in Bradenton. IMG has been astoundingly successful as an athletic prep school, a springboard to professional careers in football as well as basketball and tennis. A Swedish private equity firm recently purchased IMG for $1.25 billion. Tuition and room and board for 2023-’24 top $71,000.

Few professions offer more pressure and celebrity than high-school football coaches. J. Crockett Farnell coached football at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, winning four state championships in the 1940s. Farnell leaped from the gridiron to the superintendent’s office.

Gerald Odom coached for 40 years, winning back-to-back championships while leading the Merritt Island Mustangs. For 34 years, George Smith led the St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders in Broward County, where he won six state titles and two national championships.

One cannot discuss the history of football in Florida without including some extraordinary role models and heroes: Black coaches, who faced limited resources and widespread prejudice.

Born in Live Oak, Arthur E. Woodward played for a Florida A&M team that won the Black national championship in 1949. He coached DeFuniak Springs’ Tivoli High football teams to five undefeated seasons and the title of champions of the Northwest Florida Big Bend Conference. He often received letters addressed to “The Colored Football Coach.” 

Another Black icon, Earl Kitchings, coached the 1958 Matthew W. Gilbert High School Panthers. His Jacksonville team featuring Bob Hayes, who went on to pro Hall of Fame stardom, went undefeated, outscoring opponents 254-43. “We did not have any field at all at Gilbert High,” recalled Kitchings. He became Jacksonville’s Raines High School’s first coach in 1965. There he coached future NFL greats Harrold Carmichael and Ken Burrough. The stadium bears his name today.

Racial segregation united, divided and defined Floridians—and Florida football.

For decades Florida colleges scheduled Southern opponents, refusing to play Northern teams with Black players. In the 1940s, UM canceled games against Penn State and an integrated UCLA team that included Jackie Robinson.

In the 1962 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, the all-white Gators played Penn State, whose desegregated team had the previous year became the first to play in the Gator Bowl. When asked about the importance of the 1962 game, Florida Coach Red Graves said, “We sort of feel we’re upholding the honor of Southern football.” Ninety minutes before gametime, bands blared “Dixie.” Gators’ helmets were emblazoned with Confederate flag decals. 

Under legal segregation, no white Florida college team came close to winning a national championship in football. Yet few whites were aware that a football powerhouse existed in Tallahassee. Florida A&M, coached by Jake Gaither, brought home the National Negro Collegiate Football Championship, reaping the honors seven times between 1942 and 1961. In an age of rigid segregation, Gaither turned racism to his advantage, packing his teams with outstanding Black athletes. Recruits received a letter, elegant in its simplicity: “You are invited to attend Florida A&M University.” When his greatest player, Bob Hayes, was on trial for cocaine possession in 1979, Gaither sat in the courtroom. After Gaither’s death, Hayes told a reporter, “That man was my father, my coach, my friend and my mentor.”

A charter member of the Southeastern Conference since 1932, the University of Florida slowly began to desegregate its athletic teams. Not until 1962 did UF admit Black undergraduate students. In 1971, furious that “Dixie” was still played and sung at home games, Black students stormed President O’Connell’s office to protest. The Big Ten and other conferences had already been recruiting Black athletes from the South. FSU signed its first Black players around the same time. 

The struggle to force UF to play its upstart rival FSU was an epic battle among college coaches, athletic directors, the press and bloviating politicians. As early as 1950, Fred Pettijohn, a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, explained why the Gators would never agree to schedule a game against the hated Seminoles: “They’d go into [such a game] with everything to lose and absolutely nothing to win since only the most fanatical FSU fans could figure that Coach Veller’s po’ little amateur Dixie Conference club could handle Bob Woodruff’s high-priced talent.” 

In 1954, The UF athletic director informed his FSU counterpart that the Gators would never schedule the Seminoles in football. But state legislators—and remember, this was the era of the Porkchop Gang, which favored rural North Florida over fast-growing urban South Florida—realized the significance of the fight. Ultimately, the State Board of Control, not the Florida Legislature, ordered UF to play FSU.

The first Gator-Seminole football game kicked off on Nov 22, 1958, and the unbridled rivalry has only intensified. 

The Golden Age 

For all the hoopla, the state of college football in Florida from 1950 to 1980 ranged from bad to mediocre, only occasionally rising to high caliber. In 1980, UM’s football fortunes had plunged so low that the trustees considered pulling the plug on the program. UF had never won a coveted SEC championship, and FSU faced an uphill battle against “the boys from old Florida.”

When Howard Schnellenberger took over UM’s foundering program in 1979, he proclaimed that Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties were now officially, “the State of Miami.” During the next four decades, dynamic new coaches statewide reaped extraordinary homegrown talent. The arrival of Schnellenberger, Bobby Bowden (FSU), Jimmy Johnson (UM), Butch Davis (UM), Steve Spurrier (UF), Urban Meyer (UF) and Jimbo Fisher (FSU) elevated Florida football into the stratosphere of national conversation and championships. 

Winning 11 different national championships by three different teams, Bowden and Spurrier, Meyer and Fisher became coaching icons.

The ascendancy of Florida football paralleled a new term: “The Rise of the Sunbelt.” In 1940, Florida was the smallest state in the South. But between 1970 and 2010, its population exploded from 6.8 million to 19 million, while the Rust Belt struggled. The football fortunes of UF, FSU and UM soared, dominated and overlapped.

University of Florida's Ben Hill Griffin stadium, aka The Swamp.

Nowhere was the ascendancy more electric than UM, newly known as simply “The U.” The Hurricanes owned the ’80s, winning a national championship against Nebraska in 1983. 

In a 10-year span, 1985 to 1994, the South Florida juggernaut won two national championships, twice compiling perfect 12-0 seasons. The ’Canes lost only 14 games in that fabled decade. 

Mike Bianchi, a sportswriter for the Orlando Sentinel, argues that the 2001 squad might “not only be the best team in state history, but it might have an argument for the best team in college football history.” The team produced a record 38 draft picks.

Football dynasties rise and fall. The Hurricanes’ teams unraveled after 2006, a sad story of excess and corruption.

There may never be another icon-athlete-coach like Steve Spurrier. An Atlanta sportswriter acknowledged his charisma, writing, “Blindfolded, with his back to the wall, with his hands tied behind him, Steve Spurrier would still be a two-point favorite at his own execution.” Following success at Duke University, Spurrier returned to UF, his alma mater, in 1990.

The 1991 Gators won their first recognized SEC championship, followed by four consecutive titles beginning in 1993, culminating with the school’s first national championship in 1996. Even sweeter, the Gators defeated the Seminoles in that championship game. Their coach even became a punch line in a joke: “The definition of an atheist in Florida is someone who doesn’t believe in Steve Spurrier.” 

Spurrier shocked Gator Nation when he abruptly resigned in 2002 after a victory in the Outback Bowl. His teams had won 22 of the last 23 games. His replacement struggled, and in 2005, Urban Meyer was introduced as head coach. Meyer surpassed Spurrier’s lofty record, winning national championships in 2006 and 2008. Critics pointed to the number of players misbehaving off the field, but Meyer was a driven, focused coach and successful recruiter. He found Tim Tebow, blending his atypical wholesome personality and sheer talent into Spurrier’s offensive system. 

During its first four decades on the gridiron, FSU struggled on the margins of college football, playing as an independent or in a lackluster Dixie Conference, where its opponents included Samford, Mercer, Millsaps and the University of Tampa. Their breakout began with the hiring of Bowden in 1976. His predecessor finished with three wins and seven losses. Not until 2020 would an FSU football team have such a miserable season. 

Under Bowden, FSU became respectable, and then a national powerhouse. To build his program, Bowden agreed to play America’s best teams on the road, with few guarantees. FSU played LSU for six consecutive road games. Bowden’s 1985 recruiting class will be remembered as the turnaround class, one that included Deion Sanders, Tom Willis and Sammie Smith. Bowden’s 1987-’88 teams finished 22-2. Only the Hurricanes defeated the Noles. 

“Dadgummit!” Bowden quipped, “They’re gonna chisel on my tombstone: ‘He played Miami.’”

Admitted to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1992, the Seminoles won the 1993 and 1999 national championships. Steve Spurrier never defeated Bowden in Tallahassee. Remarkably, every single game between Bowden and Spurrier between 1990 and 2000 featured two teams ranked in the top 10. Between 1987 and 2000, the Seminoles won at least 10 games and finished ranked in the top five for 14 straight years. Jimbo Fisher succeeded Bowden and won the national title in 2013.

Despite Bowden’s remarkable success, his career ended on a sad note, as he was pushed out for younger blood, and FSU’s program soon began to falter, only recently to begin another ascendancy.

Money Matters

The legacies of Spurrier and Meyer, Bowden and Schnellenberger and Johnson and Fisher left accountants as well as fans in a rarefied firmament of college sports. Administrators understood the high stakes at risk in football just as the gambler Tea Cake did in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, when he observed, “This ain’t no game fuh pennies. Po’ man ain’t got no buisness at de show.”

In 1994, broadcaster Don Ohlmeyer famously said, “In sports, money is the answer to all your questions.”

The coffers of big-time college sports are bulging with cash. In 2022, the UF athletic budget had swollen to $164 million and brought in $190 million in revenue. The Gators just dedicated the Heavener Football Training Center, an $85 million football complex. In 2009, the SEC signed a $3 billion television deal. To place these numbers in perspective, consider that in 1963, CBS paid $10.2 million for the right to broadcast NCAA football games.

 UF has also benefited from the ultimate sports drink. In 1965, Dr. J. Robert Cade was perplexed by the dehydration of players practicing in the summer heat. He concocted a beverage designed to add reenergizing electrolytes and carbohydrates. Gatorade has enriched the University of Florida with vast royalties.

Money matters. College football’s legacy is intertwined with renovated stadiums holding 75,000 fans, coaches’ salaries resembling corporate moguls and streams of fat checks rolling into athletic departments, courtesy of rich alumni.

In 1945, UF’s football coach earned $6,000. In 2021, the school’s head coach Billy Napier signed a seven-year salary averaging $7.4 million a year. Football teams of 1950 would be gobsmacked by the gilded training rooms and dining halls exclusively for athletes. Paralleling the spiraling costs of coaches are the escalating amounts athletic directors spent on what the Washington Post called “small armies of support staffs to help their premier teams . . . recruit, train, and plan for games.” The strength coach for the 2023 UF football team makes $750,000. The steep cost of paying fired coaches has also become an embarrassing chapter among Florida colleges, as elsewhere.

Amid the chants of “We’re No. 1!” tough questions persist. What is the proper balance between organized sports and academics, between the competing demands of business and education at our universities? 

A new and highly controversial development may topple the existing order. Universities may now pay athletes for their NIL—name, image, and likeness. Sports journalist Rick Telander described the impact of NIL: “It is always exciting to be around for the start of a gold rush. Once the courts finally determined that bigtime college athletes were what they had always been—unpaid workers—and had the right to sell their name, image and likeness on the open market, the mine doors opened. Here is the only example you need: Miami quarterback recruit Jaden Rashada agreed to a $9.5 million deal with billionaire Hurricanes booster John Ruiz.” 

A troubling cloud hangs over football’s future. The sport cannot escape the now obvious health risks, most seriously traumatic brain injuries. Unquestionably, part of football’s allure is the spectacle of physical violence. How will Floridians a century from now reconcile the costs of traumatic and crippling injuries with a love of football? 

Still, for legions of Floridians, few sounds and scenes offer more comfort and hope than the thump of a football being kicked off amid the chants of cheerleaders and screams of fans. 

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Gary Mormino is the Frank E. Duckwall professor of history emeritus at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he is also scholar in residence at Florida Humanities. As a boy, Gary delivered newspapers for the Wood River Journal, the Alton Evening Telegraph, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Gary R. Mormino is the Frank E. Duckwall Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He won the Florida Humanities 2015 Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and serves as Florida Humanities scholar in residence. His latest book is Dreams in the New Century: Instant Cities, Shattered Hopes and Florida’s Turning Point (University Press of Florida, 2022). He is working on a new book, A Social History of Florida: 1513-2020s. It will include the environment, war, immigration, slavery and play.   

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.