Athlon Sports is celebrating the 50th volume of its inaugural SEC annual this year. Throughout the summer and fall, we’ll look back at some of the players, coaches, teams and images from our early years.
Back then, Florida running back Larry Smith was the SEC’s preseason MVP in that first issue of Southeastern College Football in 1967. We caught up with Smith to talk about his time at Florida, his pro career and his post-football pursuits.
Larry Smith’s most famous play as a Florida football player is a matter of dispute.
In the Sugar Bowl following the 1966 season, Smith managed to steal the spotlight from his quarterback, who was a month removed from winning the Heisman Trophy.
With Florida up 7-6 in the third quarter against Georgia Tech, Smith took a handoff from Steve Spurrier at the 6, scored a few blocks and ran 94 yards for a touchdown. In Florida’s first Orange Bowl and only its second major bowl appearance, Smith ran for 187 yards on 23 carries to beat Georgia Tech 27-12.
The image of that 94-yard run though — or at least the story of it — persisted. According to the legend, Smith made the run with his pants falling down, a fact Smith says was more or less an optical illusion.
“They had those old hip pads back then and they were sliding up, making it look like my pants were falling down,” said Smith from his law office in Tampa, Fla. “I honestly don’t think I could have run that far if my pants were falling down.”
So why did that legend persist? Norm Carlson is a genius, says Smith.
Norm Carlson was Florida’s sports information director at the time, and as Florida’s liaison to the press, he was happy to make the star running back larger than life even if Smith would have nothing to do with such praise.
“His pants did start falling down,” Carlson said. “He had small hips. They didn’t fall down, but they started slipping and you could see his hip pad. It didn’t affect the run, but you could clearly see them slipping. I just reported the truth. It’s all about truth in journalism.”
That run and his MVP performance in the Orange Bowl set up Smith as one of the SEC’s biggest stars going into the 1967 season. With Spurrier — the SEC’s second Heisman winner in seven years — graduating, Smith had big shoes to fill.
Conference coaches felt Smith was up to the task when they voted him the preseason MVP in the inaugural issue of Athlon in 1967.
“He’s the best college back I’ve been around,” then-Florida coach Ray Graves told Athlon.
In Smith’s 1966 sophomore season — his first on the varsity as freshmen were ineligible at the time — he rushed for 742 yards, caught 23 passes and accounted for 12 total touchdowns in 10 games.
Smith rushed for 754 yards as a junior and accounted for eight touchdowns, but Florida struggled to find a quarterback in the absence of Spurrier and finished 6-4 without a bowl game.
The reputation of the Florida running back continued into his senior season when Athlon wrote: “With all due apologies to O.J. Simpson, Larry Smith may be the greatest running back in college football.”
Perhaps there was some provincialism at work in the SEC, but Carlson says this was no hyperbole.
“He was a great football player, proved it in every way on the field,” said Carlson, who is semi-retired but still listed as Florida’s historian and an assistant athletic director. “To take in all the categories of what he did, statistically maybe not the best, but he didn’t care. That’s what made him one of the best.”
Smith finished with 2,186 career rushing yards and 607 receiving yards, leaving school as the program’s all-time leader in rushing and yards from scrimmage. The 6-foot-4, 217-pound running back was also known for completing passes on what started as end sweeps.
Since then, Smith’s notoriety would fade as Emmitt Smith, Errict Rhett and Fred Taylor passed him in the record books, and quarterbacks and receivers became the superstars under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
After Florida, Smith was drafted eighth overall by the Rams in the 1969 NFL Draft. Injuries limited him throughout his career, and he never topped the 599 rushing yards from his rookie season He retired in 1974, but before then he split time living in Los Angeles and Gainesville, Fla.
Smith’s heart was always in Florida, anyhow. His father was a Florida graduate — he still has his season tickets that they first purchased when Smith was eight years old.
After 10 years in Gainesville, Smith worked in the business world in his hometown of Tampa before going to law school in his early 30s. After changing gears in his career, Smith graduated law school at age 34 and has worked in commercial real estate law in Tampa ever since.
Other names in Florida history loom larger, particularly his former quarterback, but in 1967 and 1968 few were better than Athlon’s first SEC MVP.
“All around, he was one of the best we have ever had at Florida,” Carlson said.