Florida Gators can take their place among history's great programs

MIAMI — Years from now, you may recall the celebration.

The way some players embraced and others danced. The confetti falling, and the voices rising.

Down the road, you may remember the big moments.

The goal-line stands, and the Percy Harvin runs. The Ahmad Black interception, and the Tim Tebow jump pass.

You may take whatever memories you choose out of Florida's 24-14 victory against Oklahoma in the BCS national championship game Thursday night, but you should realize this was bigger than any one moment. It was bigger than one game or even one season.

For, in retrospect, this had the feel of more than just a championship.

In a way, it was like a coronation of football royalty.

Florida may not yet have the football tradition of an Alabama or an Oklahoma or a USC, but it has separated itself from nearly every other campus in the country. Since the beginning of the Steve Spurrier era in 1990, UF has been second to no one.

"We're on the rise," said Black, who stopped a critical fourth-quarter drive with an interception. "We're on top of the world right now, and we're not going anywhere. There are other great teams and other great conferences, but you can't stop Florida. We're going to keep this going."

They don't have football factories in the NCAA anymore. At least not the way they used to.

So this isn't a dynasty, and it isn't a juggernaut. But what Florida has done is still rare enough. Three national championships in a dozen years is the kind of thing you only see from historic football programs.

Notre Dame did it generations ago. Texas and Alabama, too. The last college program with this kind of success was Miami, when it won four national titles from 1983 to 1991. Before that, Oklahoma won three from 1974 to 1985.

So, clearly, what Florida has accomplished on the football field is impressive enough.

But, if you take it to another level, what the Gators have done is truly unprecedented. Between football and basketball — the highest-profile sports in the NCAA — the Gators have won four national championships in three years.

January has belonged to Florida, and April has, too. And no other university has ever come close to pulling off that kind of domination in the sports America cares about most.

"Florida is the place people want to go," safety Major Wright said. "It's a place that knows what it wants and knows how to get there."

On the final night of the season, Tebow was more clutch than brilliant. In perhaps the final game of his college career, Harvin was the most dynamic player on the field. And in the final analysis, the Florida defense turned in a performance that will be talked about forever in Gainesville.

Perhaps, this morning, a few others have reason to gripe. Texas, after all, also beat Oklahoma on a neutral field and, like Florida, has only one loss. USC has one loss and finished the season on a 10-game winning streak. And Utah, at 13-0, certainly has a right to feel cheated.

Still, it is hard to imagine any team being favored against the Gators today.

Florida was a missed extra point shy of a possible 14-0 season. It finished the season with back-to-back victories against the No. 1 team in the BCS standings.

And now Urban Meyer is one of a handful of active coaches with two national titles on their resume. The difference is the rest of them are already getting bulk mail orders on pension benefits and Medicare. Joe Paterno is 82, and Bobby Bowden is 79. Dennis Erickson is 61, and Pete Carroll is 57. As for Meyer? He is 44. He is also 83-17 as a head coach, which puts him 30 victories ahead of where Paterno was at this age.

So take what you want from this victory. Take it as validation or relief. Take it as vindication or joy. But when the emotions fade, be sure to keep the night, and the season, in perspective.

Do not just recall the celebration. Make sure you remember it all.

Remember the moment Tebow turned a season around with his emotion-filled locker room and news conference speeches after a one-point loss to Mississippi in September.

Remember Louis Murphy, of St. Petersburg, pointing toward the heavens for his mother. Remember the heartbreak of Cornelius Ingram tearing his ACL days before the start of his senior season.

Remember Brandon James' kick and punt returns against Tennessee. Remember the timeouts against Georgia. The fourth quarter against Alabama. The goal-line stands Thursday night against Oklahoma.

Remember that, in the 2008 season, the Gators stated their claim to history.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Florida Gators can take their place among history's great programs 01/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 5:13pm]

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