Why former Florida Gators, FSU greats have been fixtures at spring football practices

Steve Spurrier, Bobby Bowden, Percy Harvin and Jameis Winston have all stopped by UF or FSU this spring.
Former Gators Ahmad Black and Percy Harvin mingle with fans at a Florida practice earlier this spring. (Matt Baker, Times)
Former Gators Ahmad Black and Percy Harvin mingle with fans at a Florida practice earlier this spring. (Matt Baker, Times)
Published April 11, 2018

When Florida and Florida State host their spring games Saturday, their programs' past will be on display alongside the present.

Former UF players will join current ones for the Gator Walk, two hours before the 3 p.m. kickoff. The Seminoles are going retro with their end zones (painted as they were in the 1990s), music (postgame concerts by Salt-N-Pepa and Vanilla Ice) and gadgets (the return of the spirit spear to measure noise).

It'll be a fitting end for a spring that's been peppered with nostalgia.

At least four Heisman Trophy winners (the Gators' Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel, the Seminoles' Jameis Winston and Charlie Ward) have addressed their former teams. So have ex-Bucs Louis Murphy and Derrick Brooks. And FSU legends Bobby Bowden and Peter Warrick.

Former Gators great Percy Harvin is around the team so much that defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson calls him "Coach Percy."

"Last year, we would probably see a (former) player every now and then," Gardner-Johnson said. "But now it's like, it's every day."

The infusion of alumni is by design, as FSU's Willie Taggart and UF's Dan Mullen try to reenergize their new programs by tapping into their proud histories.

Taggart grew up a big FSU fan, looking up to Deion Sanders and Ward, and said he felt like a kid getting to meet them.

"Those were the guys that got me crazy about Florida State, watching them and how they played for the university," Taggart said. "I want our players to embrace that."

Fans of both programs are eager to embrace that. It's more fun to relive glory days than rehash last year's struggles.

But some players need a little extra help understanding the greats who preceded them.

When Taggart and Sanders walked into a hotel together before the Independence Bowl, Taggart said a few players recognized the Hall of Famer and two-time All-American, but not as many as Taggart expected. Then he thought about it; Taggart's players weren't born when Sanders starred at FSU, and most of them are too young to remember him in the NFL (his last Pro Bowl was in 1999).

"Then when I hear a story that he hasn't been around as much, I can't expect for our guys just to know Deion and what value Deion has brought to this program and what he's done," Taggart said. "I need to educate them on him and show them film … and get him back around so they understand that."

Mullen is having similar thoughts at UF. He was a Gators assistant from 2005-08, so he remains in touch with some of his former players. He also sent a letter to alumni welcoming them back anytime, including for Saturday's spring game.

Wuerffel preached selflessness in his talk last month. Murphy focused on leadership. Regardless of each player's message, Mullen wants his team to understand the bigger picture of what's expected at UF.

"When I talk about the Gator standard … it's not just them playing now," Mullen said. "They're playing for people who were here before them."

And if they start to play for them, maybe they'll start to play like them, too.

Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.