The Florida Gators don't own a gridiron national championship, and they haven't managed to knock off their arch rival, the Florida State Seminoles, in years. But UF President John V. Lombardi can still boast of a No. 1 ranking that makes 'Noles' fans envious.
In the last seven years, UF alumni have purchased more specialty license plates than any school in the United States. At $25 a pop, Gator fans have snapped up more than 100,000 of the blue and orange tags, raising more than $7.5-million for scholarships and various academic programs at the Gainesville campus.
But buoyed by a real national championship, and a specialty tag commemorating it, FSU is catching up, Lombardi recently warned in mailings to UF alumni.
"We obviously can't let this trend continue," Lombardi wrote. "We want to remain "Number 1.' "
That's no small feat. Experts say the state takes a back seat to no one in the specialty tag phenomenon.
"Florida has really been a pioneer," said Gary Kincade, secretary-treasurer of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. "I believe Florida leads numerically in specialty plates (sold), and their designs are definitely the best in the nation."
A West Virginia resident, Kincade owns a half-dozen specialty plates from Florida. At the top of his collection are tags depicting the Challenger space shuttle and the manatee and the plate for Florida A&M University, with its striking rattlesnake logo. He recently paid Florida friends to purchase a panther plate and mail it to him when the tag expires.
"That's my absolute favorite of all," Kincade said of the new plate showing a panther's face, redrawn after a standing panther design was deemed pedestrian. "I'm using my own money for this. Those 50 endangered panthers are probably the richest animals in the country."
Could be. Sales of panther plates since 1990 have raised almost $11-million to help protect the big cats that roam South Florida.
Since the introduction of the Challenger plate in 1987, Florida motorists have shelled out more than $75-million for a variety of specialty plates that demonstrate school loyalty or support for special causes.
What's the appeal?
"A specialty tag says something about the driver of a car," Kincade says. "It says he cares about something. And what better way can you think of to get people to voluntarily hand over what basically is tax money?"
Today, 31 specialty plates have been approved for sale by the governor and the Cabinet. You still have to pay the normal registration fee of $24.10 to $42.10, but for an extra $15 to $25, you can put a manatee, panther or snook on your back bumper. You can advertise your allegiance to any of 10 universities. You can let neighbors know you support education, the arts or programs to prevent juvenile delinquency. You can plug any number of professional teams, including the Magic, the Lightning, the Storm and the Hooters.
Yep, even Hooters. That's the name of Miami's entry in the Arena Football League. The club is sponsored by the same Hooters restaurant chain that's been criticized for winking at a double-entendre humor that many women find demeaning.
Now Hooters has its own sanctioned license plate, complete with the trademark owl with over-sized eyes. So far, the plate hasn't caught on. Through June 20, only one had been sold statewide.
"I can say I don't find it personally acceptable," said Margaret Zeller, president of the Tampa chapter of the National Organization for Women. "Maybe the state ought to put out an ERA tag or a pro-choice tag or a NOW tag, too."
Some, including a handful of state legislators, want to put an end to the proliferation of specialty plates. A law approved in the 1995 session requires a $30,000 fee for new specialty tag applications, as well as 10,000 signatures of motorists pledging to buy the new tags.
"We were afraid all the new tags coming out were diluting the existing tags and damaging their effectiveness," said Rep. Kelly Smith, a Palatka Democrat who heads the House Transportation Committee. "Why, we even had Indiana State University calling us and wanting to get a tag for their school and asking us to send the money back up to them."
The backlash helped scuttle specialty plate campaigns this year for soil conservation, AIDS, sea turtles and the largemouth bass.
Locally, the panther and manatee plates still sell the best, according to auto tag officials, but motorists also are taking a keen interest in 1995 plates providing funds for the arts and children.
The Florida Arts plate features a free-form design that looks a lot like a bikini top. But the Invest in Children tag is full of detail. It features a black child, white child and brown child playing together beneath a palm tree on the beach. A seashell and tiny handprints bordering the plate add to the design's appeal.
The children's tag likely will be the next choice for Diane Nelson, director of tag and title operations for the Pinellas Tax Collector's Office. She already has had the Challenger, panther, manatee and U.S. Olympics specialty plates. Of the Invest in Children tag, she says, "I like where the money goes. That's important. But I do like the design, too."
Another eye-catching tag benefiting children has failed to generate much of a following. The Florida Special Olympics plate, with a runner breaking the tape ahead of the setting sun, is among the poorest selling plates in Pinellas, Nelson said.
In Hillsborough County, there has been a flurry of requests for the new Tampa Bay Lightning tags, a constant demand from teachers for the red-appled education plate, and a surprising number of calls for the distinctive "snook plate." The latter, actually called the Indian River Lagoon tag, benefits the St. Johns River Water Management District, but is a favorite of fishing enthusiasts.
So far, requests for Tampa Bay Buccaneer plates have been nil, according to Barbara McCleery, director of motor vehicle services for the Hillsborough Tax Collector's Office. That's just as well because the state doesn't have any yet.
With the sale of the team to Malcolm Glazer, "We were told the team might leave the state," said Pat Bush, who oversees specialty plate operations for the state's Division of Motor Vehicles. "Then we were told they would stay put but that the team wanted to change its logo. So that's what we're waiting for."
Devil Rays fans will have to wait until the end of the year for logo approval. Also delayed is the tag for the NFL expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. A lawsuit by the makers of the Jaguar luxury automobile forced a redesign of the Jacksonville logo.
McCleery noted sales of the FSU National Champions tag have slowed, with some local motorists asking for the original FSU tag instead.
"Maybe it's because they're not national champions any more," McCleery theorized.
But the battle between FSU and UF for specialty tag superiority proceeds apace nonetheless. The contest is about as close as, well, the last time the Gators and 'Noles teed it up in a regular season game. That one ended in a 31-31 tie.
UF still has the edge, 103,185 to 102,133. But FSU has won the head-to-head tag-buying competition every year since 1993, when its 12-1 record earned the Seminoles a national crown.
"We've been working like dogs on this, and with the national championship, we finally climbed the mountain," said FSU Alumni Director James Melton. "Our people have been buying them and buying them and buying them, and we're catching them."
Melton, who owns the ninth and 10th personalized plates produced for the FSU specialty series, said his university makes mailings to drum up tag business during an alumnus' birth month _ to coincide with the annual tag registration period. And alumni have even won approval for the manufacture of FSU plates in Maryland and North Carolina, he said.
Melton hinted that the Seminoles may have a secret weapon in the battle with the Gators for No. 1.
"The fella who runs the Department of Motor Vehicles, Fred Dickinson? He's a good and loyal Seminole," Melton said with a chuckle.
But the Gators didn't get to be No. 1 for nothing. Remember Kelly Smith, the legislator who worries about new specialty tags "diluting the existing tags?"
You guessed it. He's got a Gator tag on his car.
Special plates, special causes
Florida leads the nation in the sale of specialty license plates, generating millions of dollars annually for college scholarships, conservation, education, professional sports development and other special causes. Currently, motorists can choose from 29 designs, each costing between $15 to $25 from 29 different designs. Two new plates will be available as soon as revised logos are completed for the National Football League's Tampa Bay Bucs and Jacksonville Jaguars. Florida's sale of the plates through June 20:
Type Cost Enacted Issued Generated
Challenger $15 1987 590,489 $27.7-million
University of Florida $25 1987 103,185 $7.5-million
Florida State University $25 1987 102,133 $6.9-million
Florida A & M University $25 1987 20,127 $1.1-million
University of So. Florida $25 1987 8,091 $535,628
University of Miami $25 1989 50,888 $3.2-million
Florida Salutes Veterans $15 1989 46,729 $1.9-million
Super Bowl+ $15 1989 22,469 $790,471
Manatee $15 1990 294,318 $12.8-million
Florida Panther $25 1990 197,840 $10.7-million
U.S. Olympic $15 1992 41,715 $1.1-million
Florida Special Olympics $15 1994 7,162 $130,575
Florida Education $15 1994 15,960 $247,665
Florida Arts $20 1995 6,802 $139,700
Indian River Lagoon $15 1995 5,154 $78,630
Invest in Children $20 1995 1,609 $31,760
Orlando Magic $25 1995 2,166 $52,349
Miami Dolphins $25 1995 442 $9,975
Tampa Bay Lightning $25 1995 169 $4,100
Tampa Bay Storm $25 1995 6 $125
+ No longer issued
SOURCE: Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles