My Ole Kentucky Home: Reflections On The Florida Gators Team And The Game That Time Forgot

It’s Kentucky week for the Florida Gators.

For anyone under the age of forty that probably doesn’t mean much. After all the Gators have beaten the Wildcats for 29 consecutive seasons, the longest active streak in the nation against one opponent and fourth longest in NCAA history.

But for those of us who remember there was a Gator team once upon a time that played a tough and much more meaningful game against Kentucky.

The greatest Florida-Kentucky game ever. 

Before The Swamp and before The Chomp and even before The Fun n Gun there was a Florida team and a Kentucky game that could not, would not ever be forgotten.

Or so we thought.

This was a Florida team that had finally gotten past arch-nemesis Georgia.

A team that had finally been in line for its first ever SEC championship.

And the only thing that stood in their way was a determined Kentucky team, a cold fall day, and a field with turf tough as concrete.

That team was the 1984 Florida Gators and it was loaded with talent. 

Head coach Charley Pell had come to Gainesville to rebuild a Gator program that had fallen on hard times finishing with a disappointing 4-7 record in 1978, former Gator quarterback Doug Dickey’s last as head coach.

The Gators fell even further in 1979, Pell’s first season, finishing 0-10-1. From the depths of that season, however, Pell would begin recruiting talent to Gainesville at a furious pace. 

Sports Illustrated had an article several years ago documenting the 1983 Florida-Auburn game as having more future NFL draft picks than any other collegiate football game.

That’s how talented the Gators were.

They entered the 1984 season with a new offensive coordinator Galen Hall after previous OC Mike Shanahan had left for the NFL as well as a redshirt freshman at quarterback by the name of Kerwin Bell.

The season began inauspiciously as they lost their opener to Miami, who were fresh off their first national title in 1983, 32-20 and then tied SEC foe LSU the next week 21-21. 

Clouds hung over the program early in the season as an NCAA investigation of Pell’s recruiting practices found numerous violations which left fans and players more than a little uneasy. 

After beating Tulane in the third game of the season, Pell was subsequently fired by Florida and Galen Hall took over as interim head coach.

From that moment on it seemed a weight had been lifted off this Gator team. Pell was notoriously uptight coaching in big games and they could never quite get over the hump. 

As usual, Georgia always seemed to stand in their way.

With the easy going Pell at the helm, however, this Gator team, this Gator season would be different. 

Behind the strong, accurate arm of Bell, the downfield speed and good hands of wide receiver Ricky Nattiel, and the triple threat backfield of Neal Anderson, Lorenzo Hampton, and John L. Williams, as well as a suffocating defense the Gators would go on to rattle off six consecutive victories. The streak included huge wins over Auburn and Georgia in back-to-back weeks on national tv by a combined 51-3 (24-3 and 27-0 respectively). 

Those victories propelled the Gators into the top ten of the AP poll, one of two major polls used to determine national champions back then.

More importantly, however, the Gators were tied with LSU for first place in the SEC and would simply need a victory over Kentucky to gain at least a share of the SEC title.

Could this finally be the year that the Gators won an SEC championship, something that had eluded them throughout their existence? After all they had finally gotten over the Georgia Bulldogs speed bump which had doomed them so many times before.

And so the stage was set.

A Gator team composed primarily of warm weather Floridians playing a tough-nosed Kentucky team on the road in the November cold of Lexington Stadium and its notoriously hard turf.

After playing emotional games the previous two weeks in wins over Auburn and Georgia, the Gators found themselves in a tight affair with the Wildcats. 

The Gators rode the legs and hands of fullback John L. Williams who rushed for 110 yards and caught 6 passes for 79 yards accounting for almost half the Gators total offensive output (394) as well as the leg of kicker Bobby Raymond who kicked six field goals on the afternoon.

But it took an Adrian White interception with 1:16 remaining, one play after a Kentucky touchdown was called back for illegal procedure, before the victory and the SEC title was secured for these Gators.

That Kentucky team finished the season 9-3 and #19 in the final AP poll and gave the Gators all they could handle that day in the bitter cold on the tough Lexington turf but this Florida team would not be denied. 

A loss by LSU that same day to SEC cellar dweller Mississippi State gave the Gators the undisputed crown.

It wouldn’t be undisputed for long, however.

The title would later be stripped ex post facto in a vote by SEC presidents who subsequently passed a rule making teams on NCAA probation ineligible for the SEC crown.

Despite this, the team finished the season with nine straight victories and were crowned national champions by a multitude of publications including the New York Times and the Sporting News.

Sadly, the school does not recognize a national title and no longer recognizes this team for anything other than their record. And the players on that team have never been recognized for their accomplishments. 

But, regardless, it was on a cold November afternoon on a rigid Lexington, Kentucky field against a tough Wildcat team, three years before the current streak began, that the Florida Gators accomplished what many thought would never be accomplished by any Gator team. 

It was a team… a game… and a title that time forgot.