1996 was an Iconic College Football Season Featuring Seminoles, Gators, & Cornhuskers at War
By Mark Schipper
The timing on Jon Finkel’s new book, 1996: A Biography—Reliving the Legend-Packed, Dynasty-Stacked, Most Iconic Sports Year Ever, was great for 5th Down College Football. I drift frequently back to the 1990s, because it was a fascinating golden era for our favorite sport, and 1996 was a year when the forces and trends of the epoch seemed to converge, rise up, and crash home, leaving behind the decade’s high-water mark and a year of remarkably compelling competition and culture to look back on.
Finkel’s book takes in the entire landscape, looking back not just at college football but almost every major sport and league, and everywhere he looked big, generation-defining things had gone on.
“This book is the culmination of my whole childhood sports nostalgia,” Finkel told 5th Down.
“I graduated high school in 1996, so it’s an important year to me. It’s the last year where you’re allowed to sort of have childhood idols, last year you’re really younger than all the athletes. Once you’ve graduated high-school you’re now a peer with those college athletes and you’re more of an adult rooting for adults.”
About a month ago, without knowing anything about Finkel’s book, I live-tweeted from 5th Down’s Twitter page the complete ABC Sports broadcast of the 1996 Game of the Century from Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida. This was an epic, late November, number-one vs number-two matchup between Steve Spurrier’s (10-0) Florida Gators and Bobby Bowden’s (10-0) Florida State Seminoles. The TV broadcast was covered by Keith Jackson, college football’s Vox Eternal, who at that moment was savoring in his emeritus status as the sport’s greatest ambassador and its undisputed top broadcaster. The vintage on the game, like the attachment to a rare wine, is priceless.
That Twitter thread ended up going forty-tweets strong, reveling in everything from the weather, the crowd, the uniforms, the field paint, the coaches, the players, the context, the Sports Illustrated cover that immortalized the game, and of course the game itself, which was one of the decade’s most ferocious battles, won by Florida State, 24-21, despite a furious 4th-quarter surge from the Gators that came up just short. A Game of the Century, indeed.
And then, like magic, Finkel’s book was brought to my attention, fully vindicating the compulsion to go back to 1996. And, because he is a nice guy, he sent over a media copy just prior to its release so I could chat with him more knowledgeably about why the book was written and what it all meant to him.
“It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of most sports-sports year of modern times,” says Finkel. “Everybody who gets it, gets it. There are millions of us Ninety-Sixers.”
In Finkel’s framing 1996 was both a legendary season in its own right—filled with late glory for some of America’s greatest competitors—and the beginning of the inevitable transition away from a group that had launched American sports into the stratosphere, and toward the next generation of young athletes. In 1996 the new school was graduating out of the amateur ranks and making their own place on the big stage. It was a generation that would, as it turned out, successfully carry the torch of American athletic preeminence into the new century.
In the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys were back on top, winning the last of their three 90’s Super Bowls during the 1995-1996 season. The Cowboys, one of the league’s bellwether franchises, had re-asserted their role as America’s Team (to love or hate) and in the process given the NFL a healthy spark. A new generation of Cowboys fans—from Soda Springs, Idaho to Rainbow Falls, Alabama—were sporting the jerseys worn by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and Deion Sanders as if they had grown up in the Dallas metroplex and counted generations of Cowboys fans in their genealogy.
In the NBA Michael Jordan was back full-time with the Chicago Bulls after having tried to make it as a professional baseball player over the preceding two seasons. The country watched with rapt fascination as the greatest basketball player ever made drove his team to the greatest single-season record in the history of the league, and the first title in a second run of three-peats for the Bulls. In 1996 Jordan once again was a global icon without any real peer.
At the same time Jordan was restoring order to the league, the young assassins Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and a haul of promising stars entered the fray in 1996 as part of a superlative draft class. This group would go on to dominate the NBA for another decade and a half after the Bulls were forced to retire their dynasty following the 1998 Last Dance season.
In college hoops in 1996, Kentucky’s brilliant young coach Rick Pitino fulfilled his early promise, leading the Wildcats back to glory after aggressive NCAA sanctions had spiked the iconic program back in 1989. Pitino’s team, which frequently substituted five players at a time, won the school’s first national championship since 1978, crushing the '96 NCAA Tournament with what turned out to be one of the decade’s most overpowering teams. With Kentucky’s triumph, Duke, North Carolina, and UCLA, most of college-basketball's highest royalty, had each won championships in the 1990s.
The list of sporting incidents that happened or began in 1996 is prodigious, from Tiger Woods joining the PGA Tour after winning multiple amateur titles at Stanford, to Muhammad Ali re-emerging from a long public absence to light the torch in an immortal moment at the Centennial Olympiad in Atlanta. The US women’s gymnastics team would win Gold for the first time at the same games, while American sprinter Michael Johnson, strapped into a set of custom-gold shoes, set blazing-fast world records in the premier track-and-field events that would hold up for a generation.
Finkel’s book chronicles and rhapsodizes on more of the era’s facts and trends, but it gets also at the subtler draws that make the period an attractive time to reminisce on.
“I am one-hundred percent certain that the reason we all have such nostalgia for that era, anyone who was plus-or-minus seven years from high school or college from ninety-six, was because it was the last time technology did not run our entire lives,” says Finkel.
“It was a time where we all relied on our sources of information collectively—really one of the last times—if you were into sports you watched Sportscenter, you read Sports Illustrated and the newspaper and a couple of magazines, and that was how you got your stuff. Everyone was on the same collective homepage—it was kind of the last time where the next day you were talking about stuff without any way to Google anything that happened, or watch it again on YouTube—if you didn’t see it you didn’t see it, so we lived all these things together. It’s not like that anymore.”
Nostalgia, which has been acknowledged by psychologists as a powerful drug, has been monetized to meet the moment, and business with the 1990s has been good. With Finkel’s book the latest addition to a booming marketplace, there is a wide-open, unabashed ‘90s nostalgia movement in full flower across the country.
Starter jackets, for example–a hundred-dollar coat that was so hot in the ‘90s people sometimes shot each other over them—are selling again for $250 dollars or more on secondary markets like eBay. Nearly every iconic, era-defining sneaker from the decade of sneakers is available for purchase as the shoe brands, most notably Nike, have begun re-manufacturing them in bulk to fill a serious demand.
There are t-shirts, jerseys, shorts, posters, and almost everything a sporting kid had from that decade back up for sale in some way, from the ubiquitous Orlando Magic shorts Finkel mentions in his introduction, to The Game-brand collegiate hats every jock kid owned, representing at least three teams or schools from states he had never even seen. The decade had a certain style and like the old axion, everything old has become new again.
None of that is meant to be a denigration, and Finkel’s book is more than just a nostalgia kick for the decade’s best paraphernalia. In 1996 he has hit on a year of competitive excellence, in combination with a contextual narrative, that has held up against time.
His 1996-as-Keystone thesis works nicely in our sport, college football, where it was not just an exquisite year of on-field competition, but also a representative one in terms of defining the decade.
The book in fact opens with Finkel's college football reverie, premising the evaluation on the interwoven dominance of three of the era’s greatest coaches. These were Florida’s Spurrier, who was still at that moment a brash young revolutionary; Florida State’s Bowden, whose teams were absurdly dominant from the decade’s first to last snaps; and Nebraska’s Tom Osborne, who was closing out his nearly thirty years of consistent excellence with a trifecta of national titles that seemed to vindicate all of the crushing championship defeats that had preceded them.
Finkel calls the chapter: Spurrier vs Bowden vs Osborne.
“The coaches of these teams were football gods,” Finkel writes. “Spurrier, with his signature visor; Bowden with the hat and glasses; and Tom Osborne with his seemingly never-ending parade of red windbreakers. For a brief period, they were college football’s single-named superstar singers. The names Steve and Bobby and Tom were totally superfluous. When you were talking college ball, Spurrier and Bowden and Osborne were the only shorthand you needed.”
In an era when teams played 11 or 12 games a year, Bowden in 1996 had led Florida State to ten straight 10-win seasons, and his program was amidst a run of 14 consecutive top-five finishes in both major polls, an absurd stretch of peak performance that ran from the 1987 season through the year 2000. The Seminoles, with their dazzling and devastating athletic savagery, challenged for the national championship in every single season of the 1990s. They would finish the decade with a record of 109-13-1 and two national titles.
Spurrier, a former quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner at Florida, was cocky, whiny, opinionated, and the most exciting coach in American football at any level. The Gators had turned from a mysterious underachiever into one of the sport’s mega-powers in the space of a spring and fall camp after Spurrier returned in 1990. Having christened himself the Head Ball Coach, he forced the program into an overnight metamorphosis, installing his own invention, the so-called Fun ’N Gun offense, that made the Gators instantly elite.
In 1996, his seventh year at Florida, Spurrier’s record was 71-13-1, good for an 84 percent win rate, with the one tie coming in 1994 against Florida State. His revolutionary pass-first offense, deployed in a conference in the SEC that had run the ball and played defense to win from time immemorial, needed only the final validation of a national championship to ensure its place in the heroic annals of the sport.
Osborne by 1996 was a sainted figure in many circles, a simple man from the Great Plains with a strong faith that pointed him always true north. It was kind of a bogus reputation for anyone who knew the frequently-tawdry reality of Nebraska’s not-so-clean or so-righteous football program, but the identity had been built up over time and by the middle nineties it was as durable as a marble monument.
Osborne had become a college-football legend after suffering a hero’s defeat back on New Year’s Day, 1984. In that moment an undefeated Cornhuskers team had trailed the Miami Hurricanes by a single point in the Orange Bowl Classic, with just seconds to play and a national championship on the line. Nebraska had rolled the dice on a two-point conversion, shooting for an outright win rather than kicking an extra point for the tie and a certain title, but came up snake eyes. A Miami defender had batted down the pass and the Hurricanes won in a major upset, 31-30, giving the school its first national championship and denying Nebraska its first since 1971. But Osborne had emerged from that wreckage as a damn-the-torpedoes sportsman for the ages.
It would take his program another eleven seasons worth of close calls and shattering losses before breaking through for their first championship in 1994, Osborne’s twenty-first season in charge of the program. They would win it again in 1995, annihilating Spurrier’s Gators in the Fiesta Bowl, and by 1996 Nebraska’s blunt, brutal, and merciless program was hunting its third straight national championship.
Finkel, in fact, raises the curtain on that January 2, 1996 Fiesta Bowl with Nebraska and Florida squaring up for the '95 national title. He gets out of the gate with a blow-by-blow description of Tommy Frazier’s magnificent touchdown run straight over the top of a daunted and overpowered Gators defense, with the physically imposing quarterback breaking 12 tackles by nine different Gators (some of them got two shots) before sprinting down the sideline 75-yards and into the end zone.
That score had put Nebraska up 49-18 in the third quarter and a route of historic breadth was on. The Huskers would win the game, and their second straight title, by a final score of 62-24, the most lopsided blowout in title-game history. Spurrier’s Fun ’N Gun took a haircut in the marketplace, with some analysts knocking it down to a junk stock or describing it as a type of child’s toy. All you had to do was get rough with them and they could not hold up, they said.
From the climax of that ’95 season in Tempe, Finkel moves quickly through the ’96 campaign and straight to the Game of the Century in Tallahassee. Between 1994 and 1997 Florida and Florida State would meet six times, twice in post-season rematches at the Sugar Bowl, and each one of those battles would rank amongst the decade’s finest games. While Bowden’s Seminoles were perhaps the only program with a winning record against Spurrier’s Gators, during that crucial stretch in the middle-nineties Florida won the exchange: 3-2-1.
But the Seminoles had triumphed in that Game of the Century to even it up at 2-2-1, a game Sports Illustrated immortalized with a cover showing Warrick Dunn, the game’s top star, breaking through the Gators defense on the way to the number-one ranking for Florida State. As the regular season wrapped with the Seminoles at 11-0, it appeared they would meet yet another powerful Nebraska team to decide the national championship.
Despite holding on to that number-one ranking all year, and having played for the national title the year before with almost an identical squad, the Gators three-point loss on the road to the number-two team appeared to have knocked them out of the title picture for good. Finkel’s book touches on how the Gators needed a miracle sequence to occur in the last week of the season, as well as in the bowl games, to have a real crack at the national title.
“But the reality of it happening as of December 1, 1996 was next to zilch,” Finkel writes.
Then, somehow, everything came to fruition. Florida took care of their end of the business in the SEC Championship game, smoking the Alabama Crimson Tide to get to 11-1 and a league crown in hand. But even then their destiny was far beyond their own control.
Next in the series of events, the Cornhuskers suffered a preposterous loss to a middling Texas Longhorns team as 21-point favorites in the Big XII championship game. This saddled Nebraska with a second loss on the season after they had been upset, 19-0, early in the year at Arizona State. The quest for an unprecedented third straight title had been stuffed and Nebraska was out.
The Cornhuskers' loss was enough to get Florida back in the Sugar Bowl for a rematch with Florida State, but undefeated, number-two ranked Arizona State was set to play a formidable, fourth-ranked Ohio State team in the Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils would have a real shot at winning the mythical national championship, or splitting it with Florida State, if they could knock off the Buckeyes and finish 12-0.
But in that mystical, foggy Pasadena twilight on New Years Day, Ohio State went on a late march and scored a devastating touchdown on the game’s final drive, upsetting a magnificent Sun Devils team, and knocking the Pac-10 kings out of championship contention. This wild sequence meant that for all practical purposes the primetime Sugar Bowl rematch between undefeated Florida State and one-loss Florida had become the de-facto national title game.
The Seminoles, as it turned out, could not re-stoke the fires for Florida after burning themselves up in the effort to win at Tallahassee just a few weeks earlier.
“I didn’t want to play them twice,” Dunn, the first-game’s hero, told Finkel. “We were in-state rivals. To get up for that game takes a lot, and you have to get up for it again after you already beat them? I just wasn’t excited for that one.”
The Gators, on the other hand, were out for revenge—both for the Florida State loss to end the season, and the beating at the hands of Nebraska in the title game the year before. Florida made jet fuel out of the motivation and used it to power a potent aerial assault in the second half at the Sugar Bowl. The ultra-fast astroturf track at the Superdome favored the Gators' magnificent wide receivers who, as a group, became difficult to stop or even effectively slow down as they racked up 306 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Florida won the rematch decisively—52-20—by cutting the Seminole’s top-ranked defense to pieces. The triumph on the sport's ultimate stage simultaneously vindicated the Head Ball Coach's Fun 'N Gun philosophy against its critics, and brought the school's first national championship back home to Gainesville.
“Even talking about it now, I have to remind myself it happened,” Wuerffel told Finkel. “It’s like one of those movies like Remember the Titans, where some amazing story comes together.”
Finkel adds a fair summation of what the 1996 championship meant to the decade:
The win was also a lynchpin title when it came the ’90s decade of dominance by Florida, Florida State, and Nebraska. Up until that Sugar Bowl, Florida State won the National Championship in ’93 by defeating Nebraska, then Nebraska won it in ’94 by beating Miami, then Nebraska won it again in ’95 against the Gators. With Florida beating Florida State for the title in ’96, the three most dominant teams each had their seat at the head of the table.
At one point in his college-football musings, Finkel shouts out The Program, a movie that for all its flaws and cheesy storylines is one of the best college-football movies ever made. Not because it is a quality film in any traditional sense, but because the people who made it understood the traditions and rhythms of the college football season. They knew what the big-time sport looked and sounded like, and what it felt like watching it unfold week to week, catching highlights on Sportscenter and reading the recaps in Sports Illustrated, two major cultural touchstones that the movie used to proper effect. They made you feel it, and college football is nothing if not a deeply felt game for those who love it.
Finkel, who went to college at James Madison University but got an interesting early college-football education as a regular at the old Kickoff Classic games in New Jersey, said he has always been a fan of the sport and followed it since he was a kid. He does yeoman’s work pinning down the salients of the 1996 season and fitting them into a bigger picture. With Florida’s national championship he has a convincing argument that all of the decade's major plot threads had been resolved.
As for the book, it appears to be doing wonderfully with its audience. The text is a worthwhile study for anyone interested in American popular culture as it pertains to big-time athletics. No history of the era would be complete without an understanding of 1996.
“There’s millions of us out there, millions of 90s kids,” says Finkel.
“I’m getting hundreds of people who have read the intro or the first couple of chapters or a chapter that spoke to them, and they are just thanking me for taking them back to this. I’m on Twitter and people are writing me: ‘I’m on the way back machine, I don’t want to be interrupted.’ And People telling me, you know, I just read 200 pages and I haven’t read a book since high school. And for me, that’s the most gratifying thing you can say.”