Florida Gators Legend Steve Spurrier Warmly Remembers Hula Bowl as First Time with Black Teammates
By Mark Schipper
Steve Spurrier played three brilliant seasons at the University of Florida in the middle 1960s, quarterbacking the Gators to a 23-10 record and an Orange Bowl triumph to cap his senior season. His career culminated in back-to-back All-American campaigns in 1965 and 1966, and both the SEC Player of the Year award and 1966 Heisman Trophy as the sport’s greatest individual player.
But in a collegiate career that still is fascinating to revisit—remarkable for its steady excellence and heroic playmaking late in big games—one thing Spurrier never had at Florida was a black teammate.
"Here at Florida we were all white, and the SEC, we were all white then, unfortunately," said Spurrier.
His first opportunity to compete with and against black Americans, who for many years had been on college rosters everywhere in the United States except the South, would have to wait for the post-season all-star circuit. Fortunately for him, Spurrier’s career at Florida guaranteed he would be invited to every all-star game the sport played.
Spurrier had been a precision-passing quarterback in the SEC before throwing the ball was considered a reliable weapon. At the top it was a run-the-ball-and-play-defense league to its core, embodied conspicuously by Bear Bryant's rugged teams at Alabama. Because of that running heritage Spurrier set nearly every passing record the Gators had, electrifying crowds with the on-target deep ball and lightning-strike touchdowns from anywhere on the field.
During his three seasons competing in the SEC, Spurrier also earned the reputation of a Magic Man, almost always playing his best football in the Gators’ biggest games. On eight separate Saturdays over the course of his career he would Florida back from behind in the final quarter on the way to victory. If Spurrier had the ball and the Gators were trailing by less than a field goal, the money was on Spurrier to carry the team to the winner’s circle.
"Blindfolded, with his back to the wall, with his hands tied behind him, Steve Spurrier would be a two-point favorite at his own execution," was how newspaper columnist John Logue described it in the Atlanta Constitution.
Evidence of that glory-decked career decorated the walls at Spurrier's new restaurant in Gainesville, Florida, where his 1966 jersey, helmet, and black kicking shoe—the one he laced up after waving off the team’s real kicker in order to boot home a forty-yard, game-winning field goal against Auburn himself—are enshrined in a giant glass case. A photo of the kick hangs from a pillar and captures Spurrier, head down, perfect straight-on form, at the moment he makes contact with the ball.
Last fall I was at the restaurant listening to Spurrier as he expounded on his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and head coach. Spurrier is the only living man entitled to that claim and one of just four in all of history, including Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bobby Dodd, and Bowden Wyatt. No meager names, those.
At that moment I half-jokingly asked if there were any other halls of fame that might want to add his photograph to their walls.
"The Hula Bowl," said Spurrier, laughing. "Somebody called me from the Hula Bowl, if you remember that old game, and said we want you for the Hula Bowl Hall of Fame. I said sure.”
Spurrier’s Hula Bowl, played January 6, 1967, less than a week after he’d led the Gators to a 27-12 Orange Bowl win over eighth ranked Georgia Tech, was the first time he’d ever had opportunity to play with athletes who weren't white. Fifty-four years later it was the first thing he'd remembered about the game.
"What was ironic about it is that it was the first time I ever had some black teammates. Here at Florida we were all white, and the SEC, we were all white then, unfortunately. But I really enjoyed having a bunch of black teammates out there," Spurrier said, before naming a string of sensational athletes he’d shared the field with.
"Mel Farr (of UCLA), Floyd Little (of Syracuse), Bubba Smith (of Michigan State). And then we had other all-star games that summer, so I had those guys as teammates at three different all-star games and it was enjoyable, it really was."
The Hula Bowl is a post-season all-star game for collegiate seniors in the run up to the NFL Draft. The game has great history and several distinct eras of operation based on how they organized their rosters. Its first edition in 1947, for example, matched a group of Southern California All-Stars against the top high-school players in Hawaii.
At its most interesting the Hula Bowl picked a group of NFL players and teamed them with Hawaiian and Pacific Island athletes to compete against the mainland college all-stars. After about a decade of this between 1951 and 1960, the game settled into a more traditional format, with strictly collegiate rosters practicing for a week before closing out with a game against each other.
The event always was staged in Hawaii, either in Honolulu or on the island of Oahu, while the college game's greatest coaches ran practices and many future NFL starters and legends competed in the game. Its practical and cultural importance has faded after going dormant between 2008 and 2018—and the game itself has been moved to Orlando, Florida while the rusted-out hulk of Aloha Stadium is knocked down and rebuilt—but for decades it was one of the biggest all-star games in college football.
"I just enjoyed playing with those guys and being around them. We had a good time. Of course it's completely different now, which is a good thing."
That 1967 Hula Bowl with Spurrier went exactly as it should have, with Spurrier and Purdue's Bob Griese squaring off in a back and forth passing duel during a tight game. With the North trailing the South, 21-16, in the fourth quarter, Griese went to work, hitting the University of Washington's Dave Williams for touchdowns on back-to-back possessions, leaving the North up 28-21 after both extra-point attempts had failed.
Spurrier returned to the field with time winding down, and in the Spurrier style, hit Oklahoma's Ben Hart on a fifty-three yard bomb to set up a return touchdown for the South. But the South's kicker missed his extra point too and the North won, 28-27. Spurrier’s medicine had been strong enough but he should have laced up the kicking shoe one final time to be sure about the extra point.
Griese finished 14 of 21 for 279 yards and two touchdowns. Spurrier went 17 of 32 for 281 yards with a touchdown toss of his own. It was a sensational way for two of the best quarterbacks in the college game to end their amateur careers.
The last quarter of play can be watched in the video here, courtesy of the Hula Bowl archives.