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Joe Namath vs. Steve Spurrier: The First Big-Time Alabama vs. Florida Matchup

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Joe Namath vs. Steve Spurrier. It’s not a phrase found in the annals of college football history, but as Alabama and Florida face off in the SEC Championship Game for the ninth time (and second straight season), it is fitting that we look at this brief matchup.

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The two gridiron legends only faced each other for 11 minutes in October 1964, but it was precious time in a game that was monumental for numerous reasons. It was the first time both schools were undefeated and ranked in the top 10 at the time of their meeting. It was a game where Spurrier, then a sophomore, would show Gator fans and the SEC just how special a player he was. For Namath, it was another example of his determination and guts as a player.

Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant had been waiting to play this game since the year before, when a 1-1-1 Florida team upset his No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide 10-6. It was Bryant’s first loss at Alabama’s Denny Stadium and he had been looking for revenge ever since.

Spurrier was on the freshman team at the time, but in 1964 was splitting duty with veteran quarterback Tom Shannon. The setup gave Florida head coach Ray Graves the ability to alternate between his seasoned field general in Shannon and young gunslinger in Spurrier, who also could run and punt.

“We have been very pleased with the quarterbacking thus far,” said Graves. “Shannon’s poise and experience has gotten us off on the right foot in each game and Spurrier’s dash and daring already has enabled to explode us some big plays.”

In addition to the quarterbacks, the 4-0 Gators had numerous weapons, including a strong running game and a murderous pass defense. The week before, the Gators had limited Dan Reeves (yes, that Dan Reeves) to only six completions for 43 yards in a 37-0 shellacking of South Carolina.

Namath was literally limping through his senior year.  Two games earlier, he had cut right in the second quarter against NC State and suffered the famous knee injury that he would struggle with through the remainder of his entire career. While his arm remains the stuff of legend, only those who saw him play during his sophomore and junior seasons at Alabama saw how remarkable a runner he was as well.

Bryant had planned to keep him on the bench during the next week’s game against Tennessee. However, when the Volunteers closed within a touchdown in the third quarter, he put Namath in to guide them through the remainder of the game. Even with a 19-8 win, Bryant was gloomy about his team’s prospects against Florida, even with Namath starting.

“We’re going to have to play over our heads, a whole lot better than we have played against anyone to hope to win,” said Bryant. “I think they are better than we are. They are the best looking team I’ve seen since I came back to Alabama except for our (1961) national champions.”

When the two teams met on Oct. 24, Alabama was a six-point favorite and ranked third in the Associated Press poll, while Florida was ranked ninth. The Tide had the top-ranked total defense in the country and the Gators had the fifth best. For both schools, it was a moment of truth.

“The Alabama game is very much like last season’s game,” said Graves. “There’s just as much electricity in the air as last year. Only this fall we have more to gain by beating Alabama.”

“We’ll learn one way or another how we can complete the season, but no matter how it comes out tomorrow, we’ll be trying to get ready for Mississippi State on Monday just the same,” said Bryant.

The game also was homecoming for Alabama and Alpha Delta Phi’s float of an elephant eating an alligator took top honors at the parade festivities.

A sell-out crowd of 45,000 packed into Denny Stadium for an uneventful first quarter. The only major surprise was that Spurrier started and continued to play the whole game, instead of switching out with Shannon.

“It was just the way the game developed,” said Graves. “We knew we were going to have to pass against ‘em — so we left Spurrier in.”

During the first quarter, Spurrier was unable to move the ball, but made up for it with three exceptional punts, each of which placed Alabama inside its own 11-yard line. Finally, Namath was able to get the offense moving late in the first quarter. He completed passes of 10 and 18 yards to move the Tide up to midfield. Then, he took the snap and ran around the right end, but his knee caved and he fell to the ground, fumbling the ball. Florida’s Dick Kirk pounced on it at the Gators’ 47-yard line. Sadly, Namath was finished for the day as thought turned to his football future.

Spurrier and Florida capitalized with a nine-play drive that was punctuated with a touchdown pass to Randy Jackson three minutes into the second quarter. The Gators led 7-0.

After the kickoff, Namath’s backup, junior Steve Sloan, took over at the Alabama 13-yard line and led the Tide on an 87-yard drive that took almost nine minutes. With 3:20 left in the first half, Alabama fullback Steve Bowman jumped over the plie at the Florida 1-yard line for the touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.

Alabama took the opening kick in the second half, but was unable to move the ball. Spurrier responded with a balanced 15-play, 61-yard drive that ended with a two-yard TD run by John Feiber. Florida’s 14-7 lead carried over into the fourth quarter.

A Spurrier punt early in the final period was fielded by Alabama halfback John Mosley and returned 37 yards to the Florida 34. Spurrier, the last defender in Mosley’s way, brought him down. A few plays later, Bowman broke loose for a 30-yard touchdown run, tying the score at 14-14 with plenty of time remaining.

After another Florida drive sputtered, Sloan took over on his own 20. Several runs by Bowman and running back Leslie Kelly and a 20-yard completion to end Wayne Cook brought the Tide to the Florida 4-yard line, but the drive stalled there.  A short David Ray field goal gave Alabama its first lead at 17-14 with a little more than three minutes to go.

It was here where the Legend of Steve Spurrier was born. He took over on his own 20-yard line and hit Charlie Casey for a 16-yard completion followed by a 19-yard play to get Florida moving. On the next play, another completion to Casey put the Gators on the Alabama 25.

At that point, Alabama’s “Million Dollar Band” began playing furiously, drowning out Spurrier’s signal calls at the line. Yet he still managed to lead the Gators to the Tide’s seven-yard line. Out of timeouts with the clock winding down, kicker Ray Hall raced on to the field and attempted a field goal, but his kick petered to the right of the goal post. The fans in Tuscaloosa exploded in joy and relief.

“Every team has its own individuality and personality,” said Bryant. “This is brought on offense on critical third down plays and on defense when your opposition has the ball on your five-yard line on fourth down.”

The character of Bryant’s team would show throw throughout the year. Alabama won the rest of its regular season games, with Namath playing when his knee allowed it, and the was named national champions by the AP and UPI. The Crimson Tide lost the Orange Bowl to Texas 21-17 in spite of an intense comeback attempt led by Namath.

The Gators did not fare as well, losing two of their next five games. Nevertheless, Graves knew he had something special in Spurrier.

“Steve is one of the best sophomore quarterbacks I have ever seen at this stage of his career,” he said. “I don’t know of an SEC quarterback I would trade him for.”

Spurrier only improved, leading Florida to the Sugar Bowl, the first major bowl game in school history, the next year. In 1966, he led Florida to the Orange Bowl and won the Heisman Trophy.  It is fitting that Spurrier’s rise and the origins of this rivalry were first forged on the field when he and Namath met albeit briefly.

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.