All during the 2006 season, Shelley Meyer carried a buckeye nut in her purse — a superstitious, symbol of a serendipitous season and a far-fetched foreshadowing of a fateful future.
How else but “buck luck” could you explain the University of Florida’s unlikely march to the national championship that season?
Shelley and her husband Urban, then the coach of the Gators, grew up in Ohio rooting for Ohio State University. Shelley, like many Ohioans, believed in the mystical powers of the spiny fruit from the buckeye tree — the namesake of the state’s flagship university.
“I don’t know how to explain this season except to say that it was meant to be,” Shelley told me then. “We were meant to play for the national championship, and we were meant to play Ohio State.”
And after an unbelievable, inconceivable set of circumstances, that is exactly what happened.
The Gators not only played Ohio State for the national championship, they destroyed the Buckeyes and set the stage for Urban Meyer becoming a white-hot coaching star streaking across the southern sky.
Isn’t it ironic that football coaches like Meyer are among the planet’s most maniacal, obsessive human beings and so often their games and their seasons come down to dumb luck?
They miss family birthdays, dance recitals and Little League games just so they can sleep on cots in their office and conjure up elaborate schemes and scams for the upcoming opponent. Still, even with all of the preparation, practice and planning, sometimes it just comes down to which way a silly ball bounces.
And maybe — as we get ready to embark on this cursed once-in-lifetime football season ending in the historically unlucky number of 13 — this explains why so many football coaches and players have superstitions. Because they pride themselves on tireless preparation, they rationalize their lucky charms and frivolous fetishes under the heading of, “Leaving no stone unturned.”
It seems Henderson wanted to be angry before he ever stepped foot on the field.
And it’s why University of Florida players rub the massive Gator head, and Clemson’s players touch Howard’s Rock before they run onto the field.
It’s why Alabama coach Nick Saban receives a lucky penny from his daughter Kristen before every game.
It’s why Penn State legend Joe Paterno used to roll up his pant legs on game days; and why Boise State coach Chris Petersen wears the same hat on the sideline until the Broncos lose; and why Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson goes to the practice field early on Thursdays and smokes a cigar.
When Lou Holtz was coaching at Arkansas back in 1981, his blood sugar crashed on the sideline just before halftime of the Gator Bowl game against North Carolina. He was seeing spots, had an insufferable headache and his team trailed by 17. Trainers got him a strawberry milkshake at halftime and his blood sugar rose and his team rallied to near-victory in the second half. And, so, for the next few decades of coaching, Holtz told team managers to make sure there were two McDonalds strawberry milkshakes in the locker room before every game.
“I never coached another game without drinking my strawberry milkshakes,” Holtz says now and laughs.
But Holtz, like many football coaches, also espouses the more manly definition of luck. Any player from Pop Warner on up has heard their hard-driving coaches recite the timeless adages and axioms.
They will quote legendary golfer Gary Player: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Or Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”
Or Ben Franklin: “Diligence is the mother of luck.”
And their age-old favorite comes from Seneca, a first-century Roman philosopher: “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”
The self-serving concept behind all of these quotes is the idea that you make your own luck; that you are responsible for your own destiny. But this just isn’t always true — in life or in sports. Sometimes, you just say a little prayer, throw the ball up for grabs and hope for the best.
How else do you explain arguably the greatest, most memorable play in college football history? If it was all about hard work and diligence and preparation, the “Hail Flutie” would have never happened.
Let’s face it, nobody worked harder or prepared longer than Jimmy Johnson the former coach of the Miami Hurricanes. Johnson never celebrated birthdays, never recognized Christmas, didn’t see his two boys grow up and wasn’t there when his mother died because he was too busy putting in his game plans. He was so mono-maniacally focused on football that that when he divorced his first wife — the mother of his sons — he infamously said, “I’m putting her on waivers.”
Make no mistake about it, Johnson’s 1984 Hurricanes were prepared with six seconds left and Doug Flutie and the Boston College Eagles on the UM 48-yard line. Flutie called the “55 Flood Tip” play, took the snap, scrambled back and to his right to elude pressure from UM defensive tackle Jerome Brown. Flutie then wound up and threw the football as far as he could.
But there was no way he could throw it into the end zone, right? He was only 5-foot-10 and had already thrown the ball 45 times that day. And from where he released the ball, it would have to travel more than 60 yards against a 30-mph wind. Maybe that’s why the Miami defensive backs cheated up and ignored Boston College receiver Gerard Phelan, who got behind them in the endzone. As the ball came down, Boston College radio voice Dan Davis described it thusly:
“(Flutie) uncorks a deep one to the endzone, Phelan is down there. OH HE . . . GOT IT! DID HE GET IT? HE GOT IT! TOUCHDOWN! TOUCHDOWN! TOUCHDOWN! TOUCHDOWN! TOUCHDOWN BOSTON COLLEGE!!! HE DID IT! HE DID IT! FLUTIE DID IT! HE GOT PHELAN IN THE ENDZONE! TOUCHDOWN! OH MY GOODNESS! …WHAT A PLAY! FLUTIE TO GERARD PHELAN! 48 YARDS! NO TIME ON THE CLOCK, IT’S ALL OVER!”
Songs and books have been written about the play, and Flutie won the Heisman and became a legend because of the play.
“The ultimate Walter Mitty,” college football broadcasting legend Keith Jackson would say later.
“One play, one day, a life it makes.”
All because of luck.
Dumb, daffy, luck.
Phelan, of course, objected when I contacted him the other day and told him I was working on a story about the luckiest plays in football history.
“The harder I work, the luckier I get,” Phelan explained. “The play worked twice that year. At the half of the Temple game, I caught it for a TD, too. The third time it was knocked down in the West Virginia game. It succeeded 66 percent of the time that year. Not much luck there.”
See what I mean about the machismo involved in football? Three decades later and Phelan is still of the belief that real men make their own luck. Of course, there’s reams and reams of evidence to the contrary.
Bowden believes in luck
Like when Bobby Bowden won his first national title at Florida State. His No. 1-ranked Seminoles lost to Holtz’s No. 2-ranked Notre Dame team in a “Game of the Century” late in the 1993 season and then a week later Notre Dame lost on a last-second field goal to Boston College.
There was a huge controversy about who should play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, and the voters chose FSU. The Seminoles would go on to beat Nebraska for the national title on a last-second field goal miss by the Cornhuskers.
“To win the national championship, you gotta have some luck,” Bowden said. “Every national champion was lucky.”
To this day, Holtz believes Notre Dame, because of beating FSU head-to-head and having the same number of losses as the Seminoles, should have been voted into the national title game.
He points to 1989 when Notre Dame played the toughest schedule in the country but lost one game to Miami and then watched as the one-loss Hurricanes got to play Alabama for the national title. Holtz believes there was an anti-Notre Dame sentiment among voters because the Fighting Irish had just signed an exclusive national TV deal with NBC.
“In 1989, everybody said Miami should play for the national title because they beat us head-to-head,” Holtz said. “But that wasn’t the way it was in 1993 when we beat FSU head-to-head. It doesn’t matter what season or which national champion you’re talking about, every one of them had to have an extreme amount of luck.”
Steve Spurrier can certainly vouch for that. His only national championship at Florida in 1996 was filled with a set of unlikely circumstances. The Gators lost the final game of the regular season to Bowden’s Seminoles, but then incredulously stood by and watched the undefeated teams ranked ahead of them — Nebraska and Arizona State — eventually lose in the Big 12 Conference title game and the Rose Bowl, respectively. That meant the Florida-Florida State rematch in the Sugar Bowl would determine the national champion, and the Gators took advantage by destroying the Seminoles 52-20.
“God,” Spurrier insisted then, “is smiling on the Gators.”
A decade later, Spurrier once again sensed that the Gators — Urban Meyer’s Gators — were the benefactors of divine intervention. He stood in the losing locker room as the coach of South
Carolina in 2006 after Florida blocked three kicks, including one on the final play of the game, to beat the Gamecocks by a point.
“Looks like it could be the year of the Gator,” Spurrier said afterward, shaking his head. “Everything’s going right for them.”
And it continued as all the undefeated teams ahead of them went down. West Virginia lost. Louisville lost. Michigan lost. Texas lost. Auburn lost. Then, on the final week of the season, Southern Cal inexplicably lost to UCLA. That’s right, UCLA held high-powered USC to just nine points and then would give up 44 to a mediocre Florida State team in the Emerald Bowl.
How did this happen?
Shelley Meyer — formerly of UF and now, ironically, the first lady of Ohio State — pulled something out of her purse that day in 2006 and showed it to me.
The lucky buckeye.
It’s just a nutty business.
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