For as much as the Florida Gators accomplished on the field in 2012 (check out Monday’s post), the Gator Nation was making plenty of news off of it as well. From crazy occurrences and strange decisions to receiving major awards and being involved in the biggest sports stories of the last 12 months, Florida was spread all over the sports landscape in 2012. Below are OGGOA‘s Top 12 Off the Field Stories of the Year.
12 » A WACKY YEAR, INDEED
For every major story and exciting moment that occurred in 2012, there were plenty of instances in which Gators fans could not do anything but shake their heads, furrow their brows or shrug their shoulders at something they just saw or heard. Below is a list-within-a-list of the 10 most absurd moments of the year (sorted chronologically). Don’t worry, the rest of these stories are much shorter, so keep reading.
(1) Right in the middle of spring practice on Feb. 17, with coaches raving about team chemistry and noting massive improvement from the previous year, junior safety Matt Elam tweeted out a picture that looks like junior defensive end Dominique Easley riding his scooter inside the Florida football facility and around the Gator Head the players touch before heading out to the field each week. (2) One week after playing his last game as a member of the Gators basketball team, then-senior point guard Erving Walker found himself in trouble with the law when he was charged on March 30 with two misdemeanors for allegedly stealing a taco from a street vendor and evading police in Gainesville, FL. (3) Need a lesson on how to turn off an employer? Veteran wide receiver Jabar Gaffney went off on an epic Twitter rant on April 12, sending out derogatory statements about his wife and cousin (fellow former Gators star cornerback Lito Sheppard) only to claim three hours later that his account was hacked. (4) What better way to honor your favorite player than to get your hair cut and designed to look like him? That’s what San Antonio Spurs fan Patrick Gonzalez did for forward Matt Bonner. Gonzalez’s hair cut nearly got him suspended from school on May 16, but it also got Bonner’s attention and resulted in a pair of tickets and a meeting at a playoff game. (5) After some rather mundane barbs went back-and-forth between Florida head coach Will Muschamp and Texas A&M Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin over the summer, Mayor Nancy Berry of College Station, TX decided to post a comedic video of her poking good-natured fun at the former Texas defensive coordinator on June 1.
(6) Hours after taking home the first NCAA Outdoor Championship in program history on June 10, Gators track & field suffered a serious scare in the air when its plane suffered a cracked windshield at 37,000 feet and underwent a rough landing in Tuscaloosa, AL. The windshield shattered after the plane landed but everyone was OK. (7) How do you answer a quarterback controversy and answer questions about which signal caller is going to start the first game of the season? Start both of them! That’s what Muschamp did on Sept. 1 when sophomores Jacoby Brissett (quarterback) and Jeff Driskel (wide receiver) both came out with the starting offense on its first play from scrimmage against Bowling Green. (8) With Muschamp leading the team, he is sure to find his way on this list at least once per year. In a 13-day span, Muschamp made headlines by being himself. After Florida defeated LSU at home on Dec. 7, he decided to celebrate by crowd surfing over his own players in the locker room. Two weeks later, at halftime against South Carolina, Muschamp vented his frustration about the officiating to Brady Ackerman of the Gator Radio Network. He saw an official walking by as the teams headed to their respective locker rooms and made sure to make it known how upset he was at some of the calls in the first half. “Well, we just gotta continue to capitalize on what we’re doing and OVERCOME THE ADVERSITY ON THE FIELD!” (9) With ESPN’s College GameDay in Gainesville for the South Carolina game, having former Gators swimmer Ryan Lochte on set as the guest picker was an easy and obvious decision for the network. Never did ESPN guess that he would find difficulty in reading off the list of picks provided for him. (10) Why is Chad Johnson in Gainesville … and why is he meeting with Florida? Those were questions fans asked on Nov. 2 when it was revealed that the NFL free agent wide receiver – fresh off being embarrassed on national television when he was cut by the Miami Dolphins after being arrested for allegedly hitting his wife – had shown up in town and was taking pictures with players on the team one day before UF took on Missouri.
11 » NFL BLACK EYES: DRUG SUSPENSIONS AND LOMAS BROWN
Three former Gators were suspended by the NFL in 2012 after testing positive for banned performance-enhancing substances. Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden learned of his failed test in the preseason. New York Giants safety Will Hill – a feel-good story heading into the year – was suspended in October. New England Patriots linebacker Jermaine Cunningham was caught in November. Each served a four-game suspension after appeals of their positive tests were denied. All three claimed that their positive tests resulted from an ingredient in ADHD medication with Haden saying he took his recreationally. Four former Florida players have now been suspended for PEDs as New England LB Brandon Spikes got popped as a rookie in 2010 and offered up the same defense.
Just as Cunningham’s suspension ended and the year was about to close, former Gators offensive lineman Lomas Brown made waves by admitting that he purposely allowed a defensive lineman to hit and seriously injure former quarterback Scott Mitchell. Brown also angrily answered fans’ criticisms on Twitter only to apologize a few days later and note that he has regretted allowing that to happen to Mitchell for years.
10 » ERIN ANDREWS FLIPS FROM ESPN TO FOX SPORTS
Ending an eight-year run with ESPN in which she became one of the most popular figures in sports media, former Florida dazzler Erin Andrews left the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” on July 1 and was announced as the newest FOX Sports employee. Andrews was aggressively pursued by FOX Sports to take on a major role in its coverage of Pac-12 and Big 12 college football games. She also added a number of other big-time duties for NFL and MLB games, expanding her reach and cementing her as a major player at her new home. Andrews went in-depth with OGGOA about her future and her deal with FOX Sports, even answering a burning question about whether or not she was up for a hosting role on FOX’s X Factor program.
9 » TOUGH LOSSES FOR GATOR NATION
It would be difficult to recount everything that Gator Nation went through in 2012 without remembering those close to the University of Florida that passed on. Former Florida running back Tony Waters was shot and killed in his hometown of Sarasota, FL at the age of 54; his stepson was charged in his death after admitting responsibility. Just two days later, former Gators center Dwayne Schintzius passed away after an extensive battle with a rare form of leukemia. He was 43. Schintzius is the seventh all-time leading scorer (1,624 points) in school history and the team’s career blocks leader. He watched his first live Florida basketball game in 21 years on Feb. 24, 2011. He remains the only player in SEC history to register more than 1,000 points, 800 rebounds, 250 assists and 250 blocks. One day after that, a UF student committed suicide by reportedly jumping to his death after climbing a stairwell on the west side of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and leaping off. Michael Richard Edmonds, Jr. was a member of the Gators’ cycling club and a journalism student. Former football player Bill McBride, best known for being the Democratic candidate for governor of the state of Florida in 2002, died on Dec. 26 at the age of 67 after suffering a heart attack while on a family vacation. He was a valued member of the UF community.
8 » TWO FIVE-STAR PLAYERS JOIN FLORIDA BASKETBALL
Five-star point guard Kasey Hill (Clermont, FL) committed to the Gators on New Year’s Eve 2011 and just missed last year’s list. Though his pledge alone is an impressive one for head coach Billy Donovan, it was magnified when five-star power forward Chris Walker (Bonifay, FL) decided to join his friend by committing to Florida on July 22. Unanimously ranked as top-10 players nationally, Hill and Walker are the highest-rated pair of players Donovan has ever recruited to the Gators in a single offseason. With three seniors set to leave the program in 2013, Donovan ensured that Florida would not be lacking top-tier talent next year. Hill and Walker officially signed and submitted their paperwork on Nov. 14 and will join the program in the offseason. “How they rank to the rest of the country, doesn’t really matter to me because there are so many things they bring to the table,” Donovan said. “Being in-state guys, I’ve had a chance to watch them grow over a three-year period and I understand what we’ll be getting. They’re athletic, with speed and quickness and competiveness. They both have a chance to have tremendous careers here.”
7 » CHEERLEADING GROUNDED BY UF ADMINISTRATION
You probably noticed that Florida’s cheerleaders were not shown tumbling on the ground or being held or tossed high in the air over the final two games of the regular season. That is because the school’s administration decided in the middle of November to ground the cheerleaders as a reaction to a member of the Orlando Magic Stunt Team falling on her head and being seriously injured during a home game just days earlier. The Gators’ cheerleading squad took to social media to unleash their extreme anger and frustration over the decision. Florida waited days to respond to what became a national story but eventually noted that the school decided to take a proactive stance to protect the cheerleaders “instead of waiting for a tragedy to occur.” The school said “the danger associated with these types of stunts is simply not worth the risk to the cheerleaders or the University of Florida.” The cheerleaders still disagree with that sentiment, noting their great physical condition and the amount of practice the team goes through before performing a stunt. Unless something drastically changes before the 2013 season begins, these women and men appear grounded for good.
6 » SURPRISING SOFTBALL SUSPENSIONS
In the middle of the 2012 NCAA Gainesville Regional, Gators head softball coach Tim Walton announced that junior shortstop Cheyenne Coyle, sophomore outfielder Kasey Fagan and freshman third baseman Sami Fagan had been suspended for undisclosed reasons. Furthermore, he noted that the situation was handled internally and that the trio was suspended indefinitely (eventually kicked off the team). Confirmed details about the incident that led to the suspensions were and are scarce though the father of the Fagan sisters admitted there was an altercation on the team that left the squad divided. Florida was soon eliminated from the softball postseason as it was playing without a productive offensive player, an experienced starter and its best hitter. The Gators made their first Women’s College World Series appearance in 2008 and returned in each of the next three seasons. It had been five years since Florida won fewer than four games in an NCAA Tournament, which is exactly what happened in May following this debacle. UF will enter the 2013 season with more questions than answers for the first time in years as Walton looks to replace four starters including three at positions he expected to have filled for at least two more seasons.
5 » GATORS SELECTED IN NFL, NBA, MLB DRAFTS
Twelve total Florida student-athletes were selected in professional sports drafts over the last calendar year. Three former football players – cornerback Janoris Jenkins (Round 1, Pick 39 to the St. Louis Rams), defensive end Jaye Howard (Round 4, Pick 114 to the Seattle Seahawks) and running back Chris Rainey (Round 5, Pick 159 to the Pittsburgh Steelers) – were all selected in the draft but were not the only youngsters to sign with an NFL team for the first time. In addition to three other players that signed as undrafted free agents, RB Jeff Demps filed paperwork with the league on Jan. 12 and was eventually signed by the Patriots. [Read: OGGOA‘s exclusive interview with Demps.] The Giants also decided to give Hill, who did not play for a team in 2011, a chance as a free agent and picked him up in May with a promise from him that his life was turned around.
Freshman guard Bradley Beal was a hot name heading into the NBA Draft with teams vying for his services and giving serious consideration to the idea of trading up in order to acquire him. In the end, the Washington Wizards stayed put and selected Beal with the No. 3 overall pick. He was the first player to ever be drafted by a Washington NBA franchise and matched forward/center Al Horford as the second-highest drafted player in school history, one spot behind Neal Walk (No. 2 in 1969).
Junior catcher Mike Zunino was also taken No. 3 overall but became the highest-drafted baseball player in school history when the Seattle Mariners selected him in the first round of the MLB Draft. Also nabbed on the first day of the proceedings was junior left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson, who was chosen No. 31 overall by the Boston Red Sox. Six more Gators – junior shortstop Nolan Fontana (Round 2, Pick 61 by the Houston Astros), junior LHP Steven Rodriguez (Round 2, Pick 82 by the Los Angeles Dodgers), junior right-hander Austin Maddox (Round 3, Pick 118 by the Red Sox), senior right fielder Preston Tucker (Round 7, Pick 219 by the Astros), junior RHP Hudson Randall (Round 7, Pick 244 by the Detroit Tigers) and senior OF Daniel Pigott (Round 9, Pick 292 by the Cincinnati Reds) – were picked on the second day of the draft. None of the six juniors selected eventually decided to return to school.
4 » FLORIDA DOMINATES ALL-SPORTS AWARDS AND CAPITAL ONE CUP
There may have been ups and downs for Florida throughout the year but there was no questioning how dominant the Gators were as a program in 2012. Though these awards were both handed out for on-field excellence, each is also significant in a broader sense for the program as a whole. Florida was named SEC All-Sports champion for the fourth-straight season, sweeping all three titles (overall, men’s, women’s) for the 12th time in school history. UF is the only program to win all three titles in a single season and has done so five times in the last six years and in four-straight seasons. The Gators have now won 22 overall titles, 19 women’s titles and 16 men’s titles. One month later, Florida’s men’s athletic program was officially announced as the winner of the Capital One Cup for the second-straight year. Though the Gators failed to place in the top 10 in any of the program’s fall sports, solid finishes by baseball (sixth), basketball (ninth), indoor track & field (first), outdoor track & field (first) and swimming & diving (eighth) in the winter and spring rallied UF to the win.
3 » HISTORIC ACHIEVEMENTS FOR BASEBALL PLAYERS
Zunino never won a national championship while at Florida but did leave the program this year as the most decorated player in school history. On June 15, he became the first Gators player to be presented with the Dick Howser Trophy, which is awarded annually to the national college baseball player of the year and is considered by many to be the “Heisman Trophy” of collegiate baseball. One week later, Zunino was the first Florida player to be named Baseball America’s College Player of the Year. He captured his third national award in as many weeks when he was given the Johnny Bench Award for top catcher on June 29, becoming the first player in school history to earn the honor. Zunino made it a perfect 4-for-4 on July 6 when he was named as the first Gators star to win the Golden Spikes Award, which is handed out annually to the nation’s premier amateur baseball player. He became only the second person in college baseball history to complete the trifecta of winning the three player of the year awards.
His incredible accomplishments in 2012 were complimented nicely by a Gator Great and a fellow junior. 1998 National Player of the Year and three-time All-American Brad Wilkerson became the first Florida player inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame on June 30. Johnson also became the first player in Gators history to be presented with the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award.
2 » TEBOWMANIA CONTINUES…FOR BETTER AND WORSE
Quarterback Tim Tebow won six of his first seven games as a starter for the Denver Broncos in 2011 and even completed a game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass for an overtime victory as part of a 316-yard, two-touchdown performance but all of that was not enough for executive vice president of football operations John Elway and head coach John Fox, who never supported him and decided to do everything in their power to replace him with free agent Peyton Manning in the offseason. Denver’s acquisition of Manning was successful on March 19 and Tebow’s future immediately became the biggest story in the NFL. [Read: The Silver Lining – Broncos hoping to rid Denver of both Tim Tebow and Tebowmania] At Manning’s introductory press conference the next day, Tebow was obviously a hot topic. Manning was forced to address his likely pushing Tebow out of town, and Elway had to placate fans by praising Tebow despite never believing in him in the first place.
Tebow was out of town on March 21 though it did take almost an entire day for his trade to the New York Jets to become official. New York and Denver had agreed to a deal for Tebow in the early afternoon but a snag in his contract caused the Jets to stall in finalizing the agreement. That is when the Jacksonville Jaguars reentered the picture and matched New York’s offer, reportedly leaving the decision up to Tebow. He soon chose the Jets after some consideration as the organization was said to have promised him an opportunity to play extensively even as a back-up and potentially start down the road. The Broncos then released a pair of lengthy statements from Elway and Fox offering up more kind words about Tebow. He met with the New York media for the first time on March 26 in what is likely the only press conference ever for a back-up quarterback. Tebow spoke at length for more than a half hour while standing alone at a podium, taking questions about football, faith and his future. With the offseason underway, Tebow was brought back into the national conversation when his game-winning overtime touchdown pass won the ESPY award for Best Play on July 11.
After the season began and it was evident that the coaching staff had no idea how to use Tebow properly, anonymous teammates spoke to the New York Daily News and blasted him, calling him “terrible” and nothing but “an athlete” who had no business playing quarterback. Some of his former Denver teammates rallied to support him, and it was also revealed by the organization that he had played with fractured ribs and was active with the injury for consecutive weeks. The Jets then slapped Tebow in the face again by not only replacing Mark Sanchez with Greg McElroy the first time the team decided to bench him all season (Tebow was inactive with the rib injury) but also starting McElroy over Sanchez two games later and not using Tebow during said contest. Now obvious that he would not be returning to New York in 2013, a report from ESPN’s Chris Mortensen on Dec. 23 linked Tebow with Jacksonville, noting that it is a “virtual certainty” that he will wind up with the hometown team he brushed aside last year. With Tebow having one foot out the door, Jets sources tried to paint a horrible picture of him once again, telling ESPNNewYork.com that Tebow “opted out” of participating in the Wildcat package in Week 16. Tebow denied the charges and lashed out at his critics for attacking his character based off of an anonymous, unconfirmed report. Head coach Rex Ryan took the final shot after the team’s Week 17 game, one in which Tebow barely stepped on the field, saying Tebow would have played more if he (Ryan) believed he could have helped the team win.
Twelve months ago, Tebow was getting ready to lead a team into the playoffs in his first season as a NFL starter. One year later he is pondering his NFL future for the second time in the last 10 months.
1 » NAVY-MARINE CORPS CLASSIC (JACKSONVILLE, FL)
2012 was filled with memorable moments for the Gators but none is likely to be longer-lasting than what the Florida basketball team experienced at the 2012 Navy-Marine Corps Classic in Jacksonville, FL on the deck of the USS Bataan.
The City of Jacksonville put on a wonderfully organized event complete with food, drinks and a live concert before the game. The military personnel at Navy Mayport Station appeared thrilled to have so many civilians on base. There were guided tours of tanks, opportunities to take pictures with heavy artillery and even a chance to sit in an old-school fighter jet. The teams understood why they were participating in the unique event – not necessarily to come out victorious but rather to show appreciation to the men and women that protect the United States of America. This was not something ingrained in their heads by their respective universities but rather an innate understanding as evidenced by their actions before, during and after the game.
The main draw of the event was the basketball game between Florida and the Georgetown Hoyas, and the NMCC was certainly not supposed to conclude with the head coaches of the participating schools apologizing for ending the game at halftime due to unsafe condensation having built on the court. Nevertheless, the jam-packed crowd of 3,500+ fans and servicemen and women nodded in agreement as the coaches spoke and left just as happy as if they had watched a full game. In the end, the game did not count in the standings but that does not mean it will not be remembered. The event will remain forever etched in the memories of the players, coaches, staff, fans and, most importantly, the military members in attendance. It was, simply put, a special night filled with plenty of special people.
Photo Credits (in order): Grace White/KAAB FOX 29, Matt DeLancey, Vanity Fair, The News-Press, John Korduner