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Ex-Gators football coach Ray Graves dies at 96

Ray Graves, the Florida Gators football coach who recruited and coached Steve Spurrier, died Friday in Tampa. He was 96.. [AP Photo/John Raoux, Orlando Sentinel]
Ray Graves, the Florida Gators football coach who recruited and coached Steve Spurrier, died Friday in Tampa. He was 96.. [AP Photo/John Raoux, Orlando Sentinel]
Published Apr. 15, 2015

The crimson veins of University of Alabama fans were throbbing on Oct. 12, 1963, the homecoming game for Bear Bryant's undefeated team then sitting atop the Southeastern Conference.

Denny Stadium in Tuscaloo­sa, Ala., was packed. The crowd and the sports world beyond expected an easy win for the Tide behind quarterback Joe Namath.

In the visitors' locker room, Ray Graves swept a calm stare across his University of Florida players.

"Coach Graves said, 'Guys, I think we can beat 'em. Let's go beat 'em,' " recalled Russ Brown, who played tight end.

The Gators won the game, 10-6. A photo of Mr. Graves being carried off the field by his players led the next day's New York Times.

Mr. Graves, who took the lightly regarded football program at UF and turned it into a winner, died late Thursday in his Clearwater home after an illness. He was 96.

"He was the biggest influence on my life, outside of my parents," said Steve Spurrier, a future Heisman Trophy winner who was recruited in 1963 by Mr. Graves, a fellow East Tennessean.

Before Mr. Graves, the Gators lost more than two-thirds of their games dating back to 1906.

"Even when I got there (as head coach) in 1990, Florida had a losing record overall," Spurrier said. "That's what Florida football was. It was sort of average, maybe slightly below average."

Under Mr. Graves, the Gators compiled 70 wins, 31 losses and four ties, and five bowl appearances, including the Orange Bowl after the 1966 season. In his 10 seasons, Mr. Graves' teams finished in the top 20 four times.

He did it with a calm demeanor.

"The assistant coaches did the yelling and screaming," said Spurrier, who now coaches at the University of South Carolina. "He kept us under control."

Just last fall, Mr. Graves told BeachNewsletters.com the Alabama win in 1963 was his favorite.

"In the minds of the players and the coaches and the student body, we sort of proved that we could play with the big boys," said Brown, 72, a retired banker, who was the tight end.

Mr. Graves came to Florida in 1960, succeeding Bob Woodruff. Recruiting trips took him to distant corners of the state, taking note of any lakes he might want to revisit for bass fishing.

"The first thing he would do is meet the mamas," said Becky Shaw, his daughter. Once he had gained the confidence of a player's mother, Mr. Graves believed he was halfway there.

That sensitivity to women came early, Shaw said, a likely result of tending to his mother, who contracted rheumatic fever when Mr. Graves was a child.

Ray Graves was born in 1918 in Knoxville, Tenn., the son of a Methodist minister. He played basketball and football at the University of Tennessee, and captained the 1941 Vols' football team. Born deaf in one ear, the Navy would not take him, though he tried with that military branch and others.

In 1942, he played center for the Philadelphia Eagles professional football team. He married Opal Richardson the same year. She taught him how to mix a drink, play cards and dance, diversions his religious upbringing had forbidden.

Mr. Graves stayed with the Eagles organization in 1943 as it temporarily merged with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a result of wartime attrition. The "Steagles," the merged team's unofficial name, went 5-4-1 in their only year of existence.

Mr. Graves served as a line coach for the Vols, scouted for the Eagles and then joined coach Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech in 1947 as an assistant coach. He remained there for 13 years and was on the watch list for several schools before taking the University of Florida job in 1960.

"He was not someone to get up and give a fire-and-brimstone type talk, but he made logical sense, he was extremely intelligent," Brown said.

Mr. Graves will also be remembered for playing a key role in the development of the sports drink Gatorade. In the mid 1960s, university researchers led by Dr. Robert Cade created a "carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage," as Gatorade's website describes the drink, that dramatically helped keep his players from losing fluids during games. Mr. Graves told Hank Stram, then coaching the Kansas City Chiefs, about Gatorade, and the drink spread through the NFL.

After a decade of coaching the Gators, Mr. Graves stayed on as athletic director through 1979. He then moved to the Tampa Bay area and worked as vice president of Steinbrenner Enterprises in Tampa until 1989. Mr. Graves and George Steinbrenner worked side by side creating Tampa Bay Downs — a favorite spot in retirement, second only to a boat on a freshwater lake where bass might live.

Mr. Graves remained the winningest coach in UF football history until Spurrier surpassed him in 1996.

"When we won number 71, I gave him the game ball," Spurrier said. "I told the team, 'This guy made Gator football what it was.' "

Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.