TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott honored former Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow as a "Great Floridian" recently, he was just getting warmed up.
Scott sees greatness everywhere.
For a governor hobbled by chronically low poll numbers, sharing the spotlight with Tebow and his radiant smile this month brought Scott the kind of exposure he couldn't buy. Scott needs to find a good vibe wherever he can, so he will replicate the Tebow award, over and over again.
This week, he'll name 22 other people "Great Floridians" for their contributions to the state, a third as many people who received the honor since the Legislature created it in 1981 to recognize people "who have made significant contributions to the progress and welfare of this state."
Scott single-handedly chose most of the latest group, including athletes, politicians, business and military leaders, and even the University of Florida researcher who created Gatorade. They are Democrat and Republican, living and dead, men and women, but mostly men (19 of 23).
The honorees include former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, former Gators football player and coach Steve Spurrier, 2012 Masters golf champion Bubba Watson Jr., former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Irvin, and Dr. Pedro Jose Greer Jr., an advocate for homeless and disadvantaged people in Miami.
Others include Betty Sembler of St. Petersburg, who has championed drug treatment efforts; former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy; the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf War; former state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson; and former state Treasurer Bill Gunter.
Some historians wonder whether the greatness may be getting out of hand.
"There are plenty of great people in the state of Florida," said Rivers Buford III, who until this year was the Senate appointee who nominated award recipients. "But I don't think there's a wall big enough in the state of Florida for all the plaques that are being awarded."
Walt Disney will be recognized. So will novelist Patrick Smith, agricultural leader Ruth Springer Wentworth, former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Alto Lee Adams, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, retired Gen. Craig McKinley, clothing designer Lilly Pulitzer and entrepreneur H. Wayne Huizenga, who has given $450,000 to Scott's political committee.
Scott's thirst for greatness prompted him to include Dr. James Robert Cade, who led a team of UF researchers that created Gatorade in 1965.
"It's just trying to find people that have done something significant in our state," Scott said Tuesday. "It's a good thing that we have such great people all around our state. One of the great things about the 19.2 million people living in our state is you can be proud of a lot of them."
Scott chose nine great Floridians in 2011 and eight last year. Previous governors didn't see as much greatness around them as only 49 people were honored between 1991 and 2010.
The first "Great Floridian" was former Gov. LeRoy Collins in 1981. Other notable recipients have included industrialist Henry Flagler, former Sen. Claude Pepper, citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin Jr., Miami pioneer Julia Tuttle, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Dr. John Gorrie, the inventor of air conditioning.
Scott loves to hand out awards of all kinds, as Tuesday's Cabinet meeting illustrated. The awards can help him make connections, meet new friends, or help advance his political agenda.
He distributed six more "Shine" awards to six regional teachers of the year, as he did at another Cabinet meeting earlier this month. Both times, an appreciative teacher thanked Scott for championing a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for Florida teachers.
Scott then gave out colorful ribbons and medals to three winners of Governor's Business Ambassador Awards. (Not to be confused with the Governor's Innovators in Business Award or the Governor's Sterling Award & Sustained Excellence Award.)
One of them was Craig Tomeo, manager of the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Jacksonville, which he said is the company's fourth-largest maker of Budweiser beer and other products.
Tomeo proudly told Scott that the Jacksonville brewery produced 2.7 billion cans of beer last year — enough Bud Light to stretch around the Earth seven times.
"Most of those cans stay in the Florida market, too," Tomeo told the governor.
"We're a very happy state," Scott replied. "We've got a lot of things to celebrate."
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.