Florida-Tennessee: An oral history of the controversial clash in 2000

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Phil Fulmer (left) and Steve Spurrier engaged in many tense SEC battles.

Mike Zarrilli (WireImage) & Scott Halleran (Allsport)/Getty Images

Dwight Clark has “The Catch.”

Jabar Gaffney has… “The Catch?”

On Sept. 16, 2000, Tennessee faced Florida in Knoxville.  The game is best remembered for one controversial play that sent most of Neyland Stadium into a frenzy of anger and frustration.

So sit back, grab a beverage of choice, and find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start needing a police escort to get out of a stadium.

Unless otherwise noted, positions listed are those held by the interview subjects in September 2000.

Part I: The Rivalry

From 1992 through 2001, Florida and Tennessee were the only teams representing the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship game.  So whenever they met, more than bragging rights was at stake.  In fact, only twice (1992 and 1997) did the loser of this game recover to go on to win the East. These were the peak years of one of college football’s best rivalries. In 2000, the Gators and the Vols were the prohibitive favorites to win the division yet again.

Albert Haynesworth: Tennessee Defensive Tackle

Albert Haynesworth says Florida-Tennessee is an 100 percent war.

Jonathan Daniel Getty Images North America

It was war. One hundred percent war. There was no love lost between Tennessee and Florida. We didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but you just hated these guys. Anytime you say “Gators,” it is hatred.When I was there we literally hated the Gators. Anytime you play the Gators it is full contact practice. The intensity is so high that it could be Tuesday and you are taking it out on teammates because you are so ready to knock the Gators around.

A.J. Suggs: Tennessee quarterback

To me that was the biggest rivalry back then. I know Alabama has always been a big rival (for Tennessee) but at that time they were on probation. They were limited in scholarships and they had some coaching turnover. So Florida was the big one. I know Peyton (Manning) wasn’t able to beat Florida. Tee (Martin) beat them once, so going into that game in 2000 it was pretty intense to say the least, especially with it being my first start.

Josh Roe: Sports photographer/reporter, WBIR-TV in Knoxville

It was such a fun time to be around the team and that rivalry just because of the recent success of the two programs. The coveted 3:30pm CBS kickoff and ESPN College GameDay was there. It was the big game of the day in the country and being around that atmosphere during that time is something I’ll never forget.

Erik Waxler: Sports anchor, WVLT-TV in Knoxville

It was everything you want a college football rivalry to be. Both teams were national contenders. You had great players on both sides. The hype leading up to the games was so much fun to cover. And of course you had the perfect villain in the Head Ball Coach!

Steve Spurrier: Florida head coach. Today, South Carolina head coach

It was a huge game. Back starting in the early ’90s we were the best two teams in the East, maybe in the entire SEC.  That game was always played the second or third week in September.   The winner of that game always got a huge leg up in the divisional race.

Keiwan Ratliff: Florida cornerback

It was always a big deal going against them… you know they were highly rated guys.  I grew up in Ohio watching guys like Peerless Price. You knew that game would be different than other games in SEC.

Jesse Palmer: Florida quarterback. Today, ESPN/SEC Network college football analyst

For Steve Spurrier, the biggest goal was to win the SEC championship. We never said we wanted to win a national championship at the start of the year.  It was more important to win the SEC because if we won the conference, we might have a chance to play for national championship.  Aside from Florida State out of conference, Tennessee was the game every year.

Dave Keylon: Sports photographer, Fox in Chattanooga

That game was just two years removed from Tennessee winning the National Championship and the first time since the goal posts came down (at Neyland Stadium in 1998) so the atmosphere was electric. The Tennessee/Florida game… to anyone who may have come into their own as fan of either team during that time, that was and maybe still is the rivalry just as much as Alabama.

Willie Miles: Tennessee defensive back

Those were the glory days. Those were blood battles with two great teams year to year. The great Phillip Fulmer against my man Steve Spurrier. Those teams were ready to play. The teams didn’t like each other and that made the rivalry impactful. They were two teams that featured great players. We expected to dominate the 2000 game and went into it feeling great.  Fulmer and his staff had us ready to go. It was up to us to execute.

Those were the glory days. Those were blood battles with two great teams year to year.

Part II: The Game

It was a mostly clear day in Knoxville, with temps in the high 60s and light winds from the northeast. A then Neyland Stadium record crowd of 108,768 settled in.  This was what SEC football was all about.  It would be a game to remember, or a game to forget, depending on which team you rooted for. It was fourth- ranked Florida and ninth- ranked Tennessee.

Al Ford: Head referee for 2000 Tennessee-Florida Game

I always wanted one of those big ballgames every week. You wanted big games, important games, ones that people were interested in as opposed to say, going to one of the directional schools and having 15 thousand people there and a ballgame that’s 40-0. You wanted a big game and you wanted the challenge of it, of getting in there and doing it right. That’s what officiating is all about. I hear guys talk about wanting to give back to the game. I don’t think I’m selfish, but I never thought I was giving back to the game. I thought I looked at games as a challenge. It was hard to go out there and do everything right, and we seldom did, if ever. But that’s the challenge that I really liked, the competitive part of it, that you wanted to go do it and you wanted to have the calls to make and you wanted it to be your responsibility and you wanted to get it right.

Ratliff:  Stop (Tennessee running back) Travis Henry. That was the whole game plan on defense. Stop Travis Henry. To this day he is one of hardest running backs I ever had to tackle one on one. He was a guy you didn’t want to be caught on an island with to bring him down on third and short. Henry was the key to that team that year.

Suggs:  Travis was a great running back, one of best I ever played with in college for sure.  Travis had a big day that day.  Our game plan going in was that we went 4 wide for most of the game.  Whether it was a trips formation, or just a normal spread with two wide receivers on each side out of the shotgun, it seemed to spread guys out.  With that 7th guy not in the box we ran a lot of draws and screens because we had numbers in the box.

Led by Henry, the Vols dominated the first half, but only took a 12-7 lead into the locker room.  Time and time again the Gators defense stopped Tennessee short of the end zone.  Alex Walls kicked four of his five field goals in the first half, none longer than 36 yards.  In fact, two of the field goals were chip shots of 19 yards each.

Suggs:  The frustrating part was that we had to settle for field goals.  Had we been able to punch it in even once in the first half, it would have made all the difference in the world. It was very frustrating to move the ball pretty much at will that day against Florida and Spurrier. But not scoring touchdowns gave them an opportunity.

Haynesworth:  It was more of a thing where you hope it doesn’t come back to haunt you. I always hated field goals and not putting it in the end zone.  I experienced a lot of that with Tennessee Titans. You want to put it in the end zone, but no matter what we aren’t gonna let the offense affect us.  We are gonna do our job and shut them down with no points or a field goal, if we bend that far.  The way we feel as a defense is if our offense scores even three points we have a chance to win and can hold them scoreless.  I love to see touchdowns but we had an opportunity to hold them where we could have won.

Ratliff: Any team is successful on defense when they are able to bend but not break.  They may get long drives and successful drives, but if you only get 3 you can stay in the game.  So for us to force them to kick field goals and not score touchdowns, it gave our offense a chance.

Part III: The Final Minutes

Following a John Henderson sack of Palmer, the Gators were forced to punt the football away and with 4:15 remaining, the Vols took over at their own 44, leading 23-20.  A couple of first downs would ice the game away for Tennessee.

Palmer:  There was definitely a sense of urgency at that point. I remember being on the sideline, still very confident because of our offense.  We were playing better and establishing a rhythm, finding some plays. All I felt was that if we could get the ball back, we could send game to overtime at least.

With 2:41 to go, Tennessee had a third and one from the Florida 47. Up to that point Henry had carried the football 36 times for 176 yards.  The odds were pretty good that Henry would get the call one more time at this key point in the game. Florida expected that as well.  The pitch to Henry was blown up by senior defensive tackle Buck Gurley. Redshirt sophomore strong safety Todd Johnson finished the play, knocking Henry back for a one yard loss.  Tennessee would be forced to punt.

Ratliff:  There isn’t one play that wins or loses a game, but in every game there are key plays and key situations that determine the outcome.  Whether there are 10 plays or 6 plays or 8 plays, there are always those plays to look at that have a key role in determining the outcome.  That was huge because if they get that first down and keep the clock rolling, the game is over.

Palmer: I remember thinking at the moment when that happened that we just won the game.  Football is a game of inches and that play got lost in the lore of all this. That was a moment in the game when I thought, ‘We just won. We are gonna get the ball back, and we are about to go down the field and score.’

Jesse Palmer was ready to lead a game-winning drive.

Craig Jones Getty Images North America

Ratliff: One thing I can say is that at Florida, especially under Spurrier… we always had confidence in our offense.  Coach Spurrier, the way he carried himself… it was infectious to the rest of the guys.  He had a swagger about him, a cockiness about him where even if you were down by 10 points in final minute you felt you still had a chance because Spurrier called the plays.  We had all the confidence in Jesse as well.

Russell Smith: Junior at Tennessee. Today, sports radio talk show host at 94.3 Knox Talk Radio in Knoxville.

The team that rushes for the most yards almost always wins this game. Tennessee ran for 203 yards in the game while holding Florida to only 39 yards. And yet Florida was able to hang around and was trailing by only three with the ball and more than two minutes to play.

Part IV: The Play… and the Controversy

Florida took possession at its 9-yard line with 2:14 remaining.  The Gators had two timeouts, and poise.

Palmer: I told the guys (in the huddle), “Let’s make some memories.” We were backed up deep in our own end and it was loud.  (Tennessee defensive coordinator John) Chavis wasn’t attacking. He wasn’t sending pressure and he wasn’t mixing up the looks a lot. They were gonna keep the football in front of them and try to rely on a four man pass rush and see if we could complete some throws, and we were able to do that.

Ford:  Florida hadn’t done anything. Tennessee had stuffed Florida all day. I remember thinking, “Ok, they aren’t going to do anything here.” Well, they went zip zip zip zip right down the field like there was nothing to it.  It may have been that prevent defense that everyone gripes about.  The Gators did nothing all day and then it was easy.  Everything worked.

Over the next eight plays, the Gators marched down the field, and with 28 seconds left believed they had taken the lead on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to Reche Caldwell, but an ineligible man downfield penalty wiped it away.

Palmer: I remember looking to sideline, and those penalties drove Coach Spurrier crazy, but he redialed and got back to the next play call, which was a swing pass to Bo Carroll to get those yards back.  Spurrier was calm and that had a trickle-down effect.  I was calm. I wasn’t freaking out.  I knew we had to find a way to get another score and there was lots of time left.

The Gators were facing second and goal from the Tennessee 3  with 20 seconds remaining.  Spurrier wanted to call a play that the Vols hadn’t seen on game film.

Palmer:  It was a new play that we had just put in that week, an idea Spurrier had and I thought it was brilliant. When you get into that area of the field it is tight. The (throwing) windows are tight. It’s like throwing in a closet. The way Tennessee’s corners played … they were a little soft. They didn’t dig their heels in and defend the goal line so there would be some give. It was Spurrier’s idea to have Jabar Gaffney run to the goal line and turn around. Like a basketball player he would box out his defender, and I would throw it to the spot. And it is gonna be a bang bang play. Take a 1.5-step drop like Dan Marino, time it out and zip it in there.  It was the first time we had ever run that play.

It looks simple enough in the box score.

00:14 UF –€“ Jabar Gaffney 3 yd pass from Jesse Palmer (Jeff Chandler kick)

That play gave Florida a 27-23 win over Tennessee, and brought with it a boatload of controversy.

Ratliff: I remember when the play happened, we couldn’t see if he caught or dropped it.  All we knew is that the ref (Line Judge Al Matthews) put up the touchdown signal.

Palmer:  The referee’s hands went up really quickly.  Everything about that play happened so fast, including the touchdown signal.  It was like it happened in the blink of an eye.

Haynesworth:  I rushed the passer but didn’t get there in time. I looked back, and saw the ball drop. He didn’t catch it but they gave it to them.

Roe:  I was on the field in the Northwest corner of the field. I was standing on the side of the end zone a couple of yards past the pylon. So I had a great shot of the play. I could see everything. I couldn’t believe they called it a touchdown. It happened right in front of me. I had a clear view of the whole thing.

Keylon: I was standing on the sideline maybe a yard into the end zone so I was in the perfect spot. The play came right in front of me and it was clear, even in black and white with one eye through the view finder, that it was an incomplete pass. It hit Gaffney right in the numbers, went through his arms, and hit the ground. It was so plain I was shooting with one hand and signaling incomplete with the other. That’s not a lifelong Tennessee fan talking either, that’s just the rules. There were bad calls before, but this one may have been the worst.

Miles:  The ref made that call and we had to live with it, even though I had one of the best games of my career against the Gators, but we came up short. I probably should have played tighter and knocked the ball out of his hands or jumped the route and took it for six points. That would have been greater and we wouldn’t be talking about this right now, but at the same time I use it as a coaching tool for my son. He is a sophomore free safety at one of top Class 5A high schools in Texas.

Palmer:  I tell this to people all the time, and I don’t mean to anger Tennessee fans … but even if that pass was called incomplete, I have zero doubt in my mind we would have scored again. We had the touchdown called back two plays prior, and then we had the play to Jabar, and knowing Spurrier?  He might have called the same play again. The way we were rolling on that drive? I was in the zone. I was putting the football exactly where I wanted to put it the entire drive.  With the quality of receivers we had, and as good as pass protection as we had on that drive … even if it was called incomplete, in my opinion, and you know quarterbacks are supposed to be confident, I have zero doubt we would have scored a touchdown.

Spurrier: Back then you could storm the field, and all those Tennessee students were jammed up, ready to sprint onto the field. Then it was bang bang bang and next thing you know we won the game. All those students were looking at each other wondering, ‘What do we do now? Guess we’ll just go to the next party or something.’

Roe:  I didn’t realize that the network feed didn’t have a low angle shot of the play until I got back to the TV station. Everybody asked as soon as I walked in the newsroom if I had a good shot of it. So not only were they surprised by the call, people watching the game on TV really didn’t have a very good look at what happened either.

Part V: The Ruling and the Reaction

This game took place in 2000, and replay didn’t come to college football until 2005. So, had officials been able to go to the monitor, would the play have been overturned? Al Ford, the head referee, explains what went into this decision.

Al Matthews, the line judge that made the call, declined interview requests.

Jabar Gaffney made the catch … or didn’t he?

Ford:  Al Matthews. I’m looking at him and he immediately goes up with the touchdown signal, then jerks his hands down quick, and then goes up again, and I thought “Uh oh.” I went straight to him, I asked him, “Are you saying he caught it and it is a touchdown?” he said, “Yeah, that’s what I got.”

About that time Tom Szymanski (the field judge) came in, and he was deep guy on that side. He said, “Yeah, he caught it.” Both agreed that he caught it and I signaled touchdown.

I come to find out… that’s how Matthews signaled touchdowns every time.  He would go straight up, bring down his hands, and then go up again. That’s what he did. Most referees go up, hold them up, and leave them up. But Al, that’s what he did all the time. That’s what made me think uh oh, and why I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a hiccup and he was changing his mind. If so, we’d need some help. But Szymanski said he caught it and Al said he caught it so I said ok, it is a touchdown.

There has been a lot of discussion in the National Football League about exactly how to define a “catch.” In recent years look no further than Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant. The evolution of that rule has taken place in college football as well. In the case of the Gaffney catch, his positioning on the field was a key part of the ruling. It’s also possible that a different crew might have seen the play another way.

Ford: At that time if you were in the end zone, beyond the goal line, you had to be touching the ground. This guy had both feet on the ground and possessed the ball… a majority of us considered that possession in the end zone and the ball was dead, no matter what happens after that, and it is a catch. That was the way Al was looking at it and I agreed at that time and that’s how we did it.

We were different on plays in the end zone as opposed to plays in the field of play. All of us would have agreed that if in field of play, it would have been an incomplete pass. But the fact it was in the end zone, once the ball crosses the goal line and is possessed in the end zone, there was no time limit on how long you had to have it back at that time.

We have more definite definitions of a catch now than we did back then. I would be first to tell you that under the new definitions of a catch? That would not be considered a catch nowadays.

Keylon:  UT fans booed for five minutes straight until the teams were off the field. (It was) maybe the loudest I have ever heard a stadium of angry fans.

Al Matthews. I’m looking at him and he immediately goes up with the touchdown signal, then jerks his hands down quick, and then goes up again, and I thought “Uh oh.” I went straight to him, I asked him, “Are you saying he caught it and it is a touchdown?” he said, “Yeah, that’s what I got.

Roe:  I don’t think fans could believe what just happened. A lot of booing and confusion over what just happened, but you are also so close to the people in their seats when you are in the end zones.  A lot of other people were just stunned. Silent. On the sidelines among the photographers there was a lot of “Did you get the shot? Did you see it?” going on.

Smith:  As the game ended, frustration boiled over for UT fans in the stands. I heard glass break and looked over to where the noise had come from. Some outraged Vol fan had thrown a glass liquor bottle at the Florida section to our left. The bottle hit a metal divider and shattered, peppering several unfortunate Florida fans with shards of broken glass. As I made the descent into the concourse, I thought to myself how messed up that was. It’s just a game right? No reason to randomly assault people you don’t know and who you’ll never see again. As I made my way down the exit ramp on the east side of Neyland Stadium, I looked up and saw a group of young Florida fans taunting us as we dejectedly filed out of the stadium. Pointing at us! Laughing at us! Telling us to get out of our own stadium! Suddenly the perspective I had only a moment ago vanished and I found myself filled with unspeakable rage and wishing I had a bottle of my own or some other blunt object to hurl at these scoundrels. Yep…that’s what this rivalry does to people.

Waxler: I was outside Neyland when it ended, so I got caught in the wave of livid fans coming out. I remember everyone yelling profanity. I interviewed a Vol fan live on the air about the Gaffney play. He held it together, but then circled back around and caught me off guard yelling, “These refs f@#*@!& suck!” It was the first and only time in my career someone did that to me. Thankfully it was before the age of DVR’s and YouTube.

Ford:  (After the game) there were two or three guys there in the tunnel, which never happens. It’s never happened before up there or since. They were a little irritable at that point at the van and they were hollering and screaming. We had security get them back. We had a riotous trip out of the stadium at the beginning but that was it. It would be scary if you didn’t have anyone there but anyone in it for 40 years like me had one or two incidents like that where you wish you had help. Once at a high school game we had to have a police car pick us up at midfield. But the SEC has always had good security, very few incidents where people got close in threatening you or had any little twinge of danger. But I do remember those guys screaming at us.

Part VI: The Aftermath

The sting of this loss seemed to stick around Tennessee in their next two SEC games. The Vols lost in overtime at LSU, and then fell at Georgia to a Bulldogs team they had beaten 9 straight times. Their chances to win the conference title for the third time in four years were gone. Tennessee eventually rebounded, winning their final six regular season games with freshman quarterback Casey Clausen inserted into the starting lineup.

Florida on the other hand would lose only one SEC game in 2000. They beat Auburn 28-6 in the conference title game, for what would end up being Steve Spurrier’s sixth and final SEC championship with the Gators.

But even 15 years later, representatives from both sides do wonder what might have been… had the Gaffney catch been the Gaffney drop.

Haynesworth:  It was funny because we came out of college at the same time and he (Gaffney) told me he didn’t catch it. It was when we were going through the NFL Draft. He said, “You had us on the ropes the whole game. You shoulda won. I didn’t catch that ball.”  We know you didn’t catch the ball and the refs gave it to you!

Jabar Gaffney did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Palmer:  In college football momentum is so big.  There was so much attention surrounding that game I know that for us, had we lost there is no telling what it could have done to our momentum and how it would have shaped our season.

Spurrier:  That play, that game, really helped us win the SEC Championship. We lost the next week at Mississippi State but then regrouped. Somehow we beat everyone the rest of the way, and then beat Auburn for the second time in the SEC championship game.

Suggs:  Looking back sometimes… I’ve thought if we won that game, what does it do for us that season? We lost a lot of close games early that season.  We lost at LSU in overtime in a night game and everyone knows how tough it is to play there. If we could have snuck that Florida game out at the end, I think it would have been a great momentum builder for us moving into the rest of the season, but that’s hindsight. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to play in Knoxville and the opportunity given to me there. Finishing at Georgia Tech was a great thing for me and my career.

It was a wild finish to a wild game.

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Keylon:  I remember going to the Cotton Bowl and Tennessee playing Kansas State. It was a week of temperatures in the teens and four inches of snow before the game. I started thinking if the right call had been made that day I would be in Orlando wearing shorts, instead of Dallas with four layers on trying to stay warm.

Palmer: It was the most memorable game of my life, without a doubt.  It was most important because it was a huge win for our team.  The significance of the rivalry and how important that game was for our season, and we went on to win the SEC championship that year. And it was the fashion in which the game ended, with a two minute drill on the road. John Elway was my favorite quarterback as a kid, and one of the great two minute drill quarterbacks of all time. I used to watch him as a kid in Ottawa growing up. That situation was really the first ever when I had something similar to that, like 1986 against the Cleveland Browns. On the road and backed up.  Playing at Florida, all that hard work, being a senior, a captain… to get that opportunity as a quarterback is a dream. A lot about that game I remember, but I’d be lying if I told you the final drive isn’t what I remember most.

Ford: What we heard from the conference office was that we got (the call) right. They agreed with us. The commissioner and others were involved. We would have heard about it if they didn’t agree. It was a close enough call that there were enough variances in how we looked at a catch at that time, to where lot of people thought it was exactly right. I was in that same frame (of mind) at the time that we got it exactly right. We didn’t get much criticism except people saying that Al (Matthews) would never ref at Tennessee again, which he did. He did go back and officiate other times. Al is as good as an official as we have had in the SEC. I would have taken him anytime, anywhere with me.

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

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Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.