When most college football fans think about the Florida Gators 1996 season, two names in particular come to mind: head coach Steve Spurrier and starting quarterback Danny Wuerffel. Winner of seven individual awards in 1996 including the Heisman Trophy (and another Davey O’Brien Award in 1995), Wuerffel led the Gators to their first National Championship in his final effort after a four-year career in which he threw for an astounding 10,875 yards and 114 touchdowns.
A first-team All-America selection in 1995 and 1996, many of Wuerffel’s numbers remain the best in Southeastern Conference history and the second-best in national history. In 1995, his efficiency of 178.4 set a single-season collegiate record, and in his Heisman year of 1996, his 3,625 yards (SEC record), 39 TDs (led nation, SEC record) and efficiency rating of 170.6 made him the first QB to ever post a rating of 170 or more in back-to-back years. Wuerffel led the Gators in passing in each of his four seasons (1993-96) and still holds Florida records for most career passing touchdowns and most passing touchdowns in a season (in which he also holds second place). In fact, one out of every 9.74 passes Wuerffel threw in his career would be scored for a touchdown.
Enshrined in the team’s Ring of Honor in 2006 and set to be immortalized in a statue outside of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in 2010, Wuerffel is now the executive director of Desire Street Ministries, which works to revitalize impoverished neighborhoods through spiritual and community development.
OGGOA spoke to Wuerffel on Tuesday and, even though our interview was feared lost by a technical difficulty, it was recovered at the end of the day. How lucky are we?
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: Coming out of Fort Walton Beach, was attending the University of Florida an easy choice for you – something you always knew you wanted to do?
DANNY WUERFFEL: “Actually, we were living close to Florida State and my sister was attending Florida State. By default, I was more of a Seminole fan in high school. I took three visits – one to Alabama, one to Florida State and one to Florida. At the end of the day, the two things that drew me to Florida were, firstly, the quality of the education with so many different directions – I wasn’t centered or decided on a major and Florida just had so many highly respected colleges and majors to choose from – I was really impressed with the school, and then secondly, the opportunity to play for coach [Steve] Spurrier – too much to pass up.”
AS: When deciding on Florida, did you know your high school coach wanted to eventually go back to the Gators, or did that happen afterward?
DW: “Coach [Jimmy Ray Stephens] – he played at Florida and had coached at Florida and he was always hoping to get back there – I think that was one of his goals. It was a year or so after I got signed, a year or so after that, coach Spurrier gave him the opportunity to come.”
AS: You played four years at Florida – which is not something a lot of quarterbacks really get the chance to do – but obviously broke out in your final two seasons in 1995 and 1996. Was there a particular switch that turned on for you, was it a measure of the talent around you – what was the difference?
DW: “Practically what happened – both my freshman and sophomore year I was splitting time with Terry Dean – so in terms of snaps and reps, [I] didn’t get as much. For both the 1995 and 1996 team[s], there were some really, really dynamic players and folks that came along and we had two really good teams those two years. And it just happened those were the two years I was in the driver’s seat. When you’re in the right place at the right time with the right coaches and the right players, a lot of cool things can happen, and those were definitely some good years.”
Read the rest of our exclusive interview with Danny Wuerffell…after the break!
AS: One thing we like to look at here is trends. In the Gators’ last two championship seasons – there was a definable moment or catalyst that seemed to turn everything around. In 2006 many point to Jarvis Moss’ blocked field goal against South Carolina; in 2008 it was Tim Tebow’s now famous “The Promise” speech after losing to Ole Miss. What was it for you guys in 1996?
DW: “I think a couple of things. One is, after we lost to Florida State, there was a serious [drop] in the morale. When you lose at the end of the year in college football, you are pretty much out of it. We were undefeated, ranked No. 1 and then we lost. To me, the following Monday [and] Tuesday, when there was that painful spirit of many of your dreams seemingly lost, there was a group of seniors – I think of James Bates, Lawrence Wright, myself and several others – that I really felt rallied the team back and said, ‘Hey, we need to get our head up. We have a chance to win the SEC.’ As that happened, and as the coaches helped [the team] believe that, we got the chance to go in. The other things that happened were things we couldn’t control – Texas beat Nebraska the same day that we won the SEC Championship, which no one thought could happen. And then the night before the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State beat Arizona State – so all the other undefeated teams got beaten which then gave us the opportunity to go out there and beat Florida State for the National Championship. So the quick answer would be the rallying after the Florida State loss, and then the opportunities that we just kind of fell into with the other teams losing.”
AS: Obviously you’re a very moral guy – I doubt you truly have or feel legitimate hatred for anybody…but do you hate Florida State?
DW: “[Laughing] No…um… [Laughing] I do, you know… At the time, I didn’t think about it that much, but looking at some of the hits now especially as football has evolved and how they’re protecting the quarterback more and more – if you watch an NFL game now, if they touch the quarterback at all after the ball is gone you’ve got flags and fines. If you compare what’s happening now in the NFL to what happened to me in 1996 against Florida State – it’s pretty amazing.”
AS: Throughout your Gators career, you won a bunch of championships, awards, trophies and titles, most of them in 1996, but what separates you from many other legendary college passers is the fact that you are the only player in history to win the Heisman Trophy and the Draddy Trophy in the same year [Tebow won the Heisman in 2007 and the William V. Campbell Trophy in 2009]. What did it feel like to be recognized as a scholar in addition to everything you accomplished on the playing field?
DW: “I feel very fortunate that I was able to do well not just in football but also to focus and do well in school. Looking back, sometimes you wonder how you can balance so many things going on at one time there. I think we had a great academic support system at Florida and a lot of folks that helped. [It was] just a great honor to have the opportunity to do well in both and be recognized for it.”
AS: Coming out of Florida as decorated as you were, were you surprised to be selected in the fourth round? Did you feel that your talents were discounted by scouts/coaches?
DW: “No, I think by the time the draft happened, I had heard enough from folks to not expect to be drafted higher than that. That’s so far out of your control. I was thankful that [head coach] Mike Ditka and the [New Orleans] Saints drafted me, and I had a chance to go there and play. I really wasn’t disappointed with that, I was thankful to get the chance. When I was in 9th grade, Adam, I remember writing down a goal sheet – things we wanted to accomplish. My goal was to get a college scholarship and, actually at the time, I thought it might be in basketball – I didn’t know. But it ended up being in football. Really, to me, the opportunity to play in college was just phenomenal. And then the NFL was just an extra bonus – living an extra dream that I didn’t count on or plan or expect but just got the opportunity, and it was a blessing.”
AS: After being drafted by the Saints and playing there for a few seasons, you spent a year in NFL Europe and won the World Bowl while capturing the MVP of the game award. You would come back for three more years, the last of which was spent with the Washington Redskins under your old coach Spurrier. What was that phone call like?
DW: “I was playing for the [Chicago] Bears, and the Bears put me on the supplemental draft list for the Houston Texans. I remember my agent called me and said, ‘Look, we don’t think there’s really any chance the Texans are going to draft you, so you should be fine.’ And then he called me back and said, ‘I think they may be drafting you.’ And then they drafted me. And then shortly after that, I got a cal from coach Spurrier saying, ‘Don’t get too comfortable, I think they’re trying to work out a trade with us.’ He was trying to get me, and I think Houston snatched me up because they figured they could trade me [to] Spurrier, which is what ended up happening.”
AS: You were coached by Spurrier for five years and have gotten to see a little bit of Urban Meyer now. First talk to me about the type of coach Spurrier is…but also how does he compare and contrast to Meyer.
DW: “I think coach Spurrier, to me, he’s a strange combination of a precise technician who everything – the passing routes, the timing of the passing game is so precise – it’s like he’s a mechanic or engineer, combined with your old fashioned gunslinger – a cowboy. ‘Well, you run down there and turn left and I’ll hit ya.’ He’s got these two unique combinations. Most people are either too by the hip or too by the book, and he can really bring those two things together. Coach Spurrier is fiercely competitive in all things. He has a really funny sense of humor and really likes to laugh. I think he’s just, in particular, an offensive genius. Thinking of coach Meyer, I think of coach Meyer as kind of like the general of the entire operation. I see him being just involved in all aspects of the game and leading the whole army – leading his troops. Very efficient; everything they do is impactful. I think he manages the games very well, and I think he’s just a complete wonderful head football coach.”
AS: Throughout your time at Florida, you stood out not only athletically and academically, but also morally – a lot of kids really looked up to you. One of them was obviously Tebow, who has followed in your footsteps in all three of those areas and is now a role model himself for kids. What has it been like for you to see him – someone who idolized you – follow such a similar path?
DW: “It is ironic how it goes full circle – my son now wears a Tim Tebow jersey and we can talk about what it means to be a fine young man. I think all of us – whether we know it or not, whether we won a Heisman Trophy or not – we’re impacting people everyday. And you just never know who you are going to impact and how their life is going to impact others. To have stayed an extra couple of minutes to sign an autograph for Tim, for that to impact him and then for him to grow up and think about his life as impacting other people, and to know I played a small part in that is incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. I just hope that people don’t think you have to be a Heisman Trophy winner to have that kind of impact.”
AS: Another thing Tim and you will have in common is that you will be immortalized right outside The Swamp in two of three bronze statues going up this year. What did you think when you first found out about that?
DW: “It was a huge, huge honor to think that they would be interested in putting those up. And certainly to be next to those two guys even makes it even more special for me – my coach and a friend. Hopefully we’ll have room for many more in the next few years.”
AS: Speaking of that, let’s move on to this year. A lot of people are throwing some high praise on redshirt junior QB John Brantley and comparing him to guys from your era – pro-style drop back passers who can really move the ball down the field. What are your thoughts on him as a player and his potential with the program?
DW: “I’ve known Johnny for several years. He attended camp [that] me and Kerwin Bell and Shane Matthews used to [run]. You could tell, even when he was just a real young man, that he had some really special skills throwing the ball and really developed physically – he’s just really a good size and a good athlete. Additionally, the way that he develop[ed] his mind as a quarterback both in high school and college – having the years to develop, watching Tim play – I think he’s in a great, great position. I think he’s a very solid, very capable quarterback, and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he has a great year.”
AS: Since retiring you have been focusing much of your time and efforts on Desire Street Ministries. Talk to us a little about your main mission with the organization when you first started with it.
DW: “I actually got involved right after I got drafted by the Saints, so I’ve been working with Desire Street since 1997. Originally, the goal from 1990 – when it was started – was always to revitalize the Desire neighborhood, which was one of the worst neighborhoods in New Orleans. We would do that through a lot of different initiatives including we started a health clinic, started a church, started a school, started doing some housing renovations and job training and lots of youth development. At the same time, the secondary goal was to help other people in other cities develop similar types of community development ministries that would impact and change their own communities. We’re still working very diligently in New Orleans, and our vision for the next five years is to develop 12 thriving and sustainable urban ministries. We’re working in several cities in the Southeast now – raising awareness and funding and impacting inner cities and the lives of the kids. I look forward to doing that for years to come.”
AS: How has that focus shifted since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area?
DW: “The biggest difference was, prior to the hurricane, we were focused on just the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Post-Katrina, we’re still very much focused there, but at the same time we are working in several other communities and other cities as well.”
AS: What is going on right now with DSM and how can Florida fans get involved?
DW: “Right now, kicking off the fall, in all of the locations one of the main thrusts is the after school program. We take kids after school and, instead of being on the streets, they’ll come in and do a combination of reading, arithmetic, different bible studies. There will probably be about 500 or so kids in all the different neighborhoods where we work starting this fall. So we’re definitely looking for support so we can keep these kids off the streets. Funding for the after school program is a great need right now.”
AS: One of the things Tim became famous for on a game-to-game basis was writing Bible verses on his eyeblack. If you were still playing and were going to do that, what verse would you put on there?
DW: “[Laughing] It’s a good question. I think I might do a different one each week, but one of my favorite verses in Second Corinthians, Chapter 4, Verse 18 [2COR 4:18]: ‘So we fix our eyes not on just what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal.’ I think that sums up a lot of the way I live my life. We look at an inner city community and we see brokenness, but we also try to see something deeper, something broader, something more eternal and then try to see that come to fruition before our eyes.”
» OGGOA Interviews: ESPN’s Erin Andrews | DE Alex Brown | QB Tim Tebow | WR Percy Harvin | F/C Al Horford | TE Cornelius Ingram | DE Jermaine Cunningham | S Major Wright | LB Earl Everett | F/C Chris Richard