Don Gaffney just wanted to play quarterback at Florida.
Doug Dickey just wanted to win football games.
The goal was straightforward yet anything but simple in 1973 in the Deep South. The outcome was historic. The connection between the two principles remains strong decades later.
Gaffney was a Black former high school star from Jacksonville; Dickey was a 41-year-old white head coach with Midwestern roots who had returned to his alma mater in 1970 after seven seasons at Tennessee. The Gators were on a four-game losing streak entering a late October bye week.
To get the Gators on track, Dickey changed Florida’s offense to showcase Gaffney’s considerable dual-threat talents.
At the time, Black quarterbacks were stigmatized. It was assumed they lacked the mental acuity and leadership skills the position demanded. Often coaches moved them to skill postions such as wide receiver or defensive back.
On Nov. 3, 1973, that changed in Gainesville when a wide-eyed 19-year-old stepped under center as the program’s first Black starting quarterback. Gaffney said he received the official nod just minutes prior to kickoff and then led UF to a first-ever win at Auburn to spur a five-game winning streak dubbed “The November to Remember.”
The timely switch 50 years ago represented a significant step during a period when the integration of Florida football, spearheaded by Dickey, was accelerating faster than any SEC program.
“The key to that is having the right leadership,” Gaffney told the Orlando Sentinel. “And Doug Dickey was the right man at that time.”
Gaffney, 69, was in the right place at the right time, too.
“He played the hand he was dealt, and he did not complain,” former All-SEC tailback Jimmy DuBose told the Sentinel. “He was a leader.”
Two men, one goal
Gaffney and Dickey did not set out to make a statement or begin a social movement. Each simply sought championship success, even though it never materialized during their three seasons in Gainesville.
Along the way, Gaffney and his fellow Black players encountered racism, and Dickey received pushback at a time when Vietnam War protests, the fight for equal rights and political and economic unrest consumed the nation.
On the field, Gaffney would become an All-SEC performer in 1975, the Gators reached the 1974 Sugar Bowl and Florida won 22 of 30 games after the quarterback change. But UF would suffer one too many heart-breaking defeats among the eight, including four by three points or fewer.
“We did not win the key game we needed to a couple of times,” Dickey, now 91, told the Sentinel. “We didn’t win a bowl game, and we didn’t win a championship. That would have made a whole lot of difference to a whole lot of people.
“It just just didn’t quite work out.”
Yet Dickey’s impact went beyond wins and losses. Success stories flourished as he ushered in a new era of Florida football.
“What he did at Florida took a lot of courage,” Gaffney said. “Coach was out looking for the best players — period. He protected his players. That’s one of the things we respected and loved him for.”
Ready for the moment
Gaffney’s historic start was a logical progression for Dickey. While head coach at Tennessee, he was at the forefront of integrating SEC football.
The Volunteer State had been among the first to desegregate high schools after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During the 1966 season, Dickey set his sights on Albert Davis, a talented running back from nearby Alcoa, and receiver Lester McClain, a receiver from outside Nashville.
When Davis did not qualify academically, McClain signed in 1967 as Tennessee’s first Black football player when NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from varsity competition. At Kentucky, Nate Northington became the league’s first Black football player, but his Sept. 30, 1967, debut ended after just three minutes because he dislocated his shoulder against Mississippi.
When Dickey left Knoxville in 1970 to replace Ray Graves at Florida, the coach inherited the school’s first two Black players — receiver Willie Jackson Sr. and cornerback Leonard George.
Jackson recalled the advice he offered his new coach.
“Our thing was we needed some more Black people to play with us,” Jackson told the Sentinel. “We said, ‘We think it would be good if you doubled the amount of Black players you have so we can even this thing out and have more representation.’
“Every year, they had a little bit more and a little bit more.”
Gaffney’s 1972 class was the fourth featuring Black players, with 13 joining the fold to give the Gators more than two dozen. While some programs were pushing to keep pace, many SEC teams had only a few Black players.
One of those programs was Ole Miss, where Confederate flags flew, and the Black workers were restricted from the stands and sat at the end of the field. Florida arrived in two buses, one filled with the team’s many Black players.
“At that time, we realized how many African-American players we had,” recalled Wayne Fields, a future All-SEC safety. “He did that to make a statement that the University of Florida would recruit more African-Americans. Their help … looked at us, and they were astounded.
“They could not believe that there were as many African-American players on the team as we had — and they gave us a standing ovation.”
While he applauds Dickey’s integrity, George said his former coach, above all, was practical.
“He made a commitment that he was going to make sure we were able to be treated fairly and try to get the best athletes — no matter what color they are,” George told the Sentinel.
A necessary but unpopular quest
A far-flung state with Florida’s vast population was a hotbed of talented Black athletes Dickey planned to mine.
Jacksonville’s north side was a particularly fertile recruiting ground. Gaffney starred at Raines High School playing for a pair of legendary coaches — Earl Kitchings as a freshman and sophomore and Jimmie Johnson during Gaffney’s final two seasons when he threw for nearly 60 touchdowns.
Kitchings coached the 11-0 1958 Matthew Gilbert Panthers to winning Florida’s first Black state championship led by Bob Hayes, a future Olympic gold medalist and NFL Hall of Famer. As a senior in 1971, Gaffney helped begin Johnson’s 42-game regular-season winning streak that ended in 1975.
“I was ready to be a college quarterback,” Gaffney recalled. “Coming out of Raines, I was ready.”
Before he became a local hero, Gaffney drew inspiration from some of the best athletic talent North Florida would ever produce. Future NFL star receivers Ken Burrough and Harold Carmichael and future NBA rebounding leader James “Truck” Robinson quarterbacked Raines when Gaffney was a kid.
Future Hall of Fame cornerback Ken Riley, a standout at Florida A&M, did an internship at Raines. West Palm Beach native Lemar Parrish, Riley’s future teammate at Cincinnati and an eight-time Pro Bowler, would come to town to train in the park.
Dickey became a First Coast regular, integrating himself into the community and other minority enclaves around the Sunshine State.
“They had no idea the things he had to deal with … different communities, different individuals, providing opportunities for them,” Gaffney said. “I’m sure other coaches had to deal with them, too, but I know for fact he did.”
Dickey experienced some culture shock but quickly fit in. More than 50 years later, he still fondly recalls Gaffney’s mother, Louise, cooking barbecued neck bones for him, his wife JoAnne, and the family.
The Dickeys’ delight with the meal made an impression.
Don, the oldest of five sons of Louise and George Gaffney, was one of four to play for the Gators. Derrick Gaffney went on to a long NFL career, and Warren lettered three years at UF.
“Ten straight years one of his boys was in Gators locker room,” Don Gaffney said. “Dickey recruited all of us.”
A controversial choice
Don Gaffney was the trailblazer of the clan. But at Florida, the course was set by Jackson and George.
“They broke the ground for the others to follow,” DuBose said of Jackson and George. “Because they did what they needed to do, it made it easier for us.
“Don just did what he do.”
When the Gators’ attack stalled under David Bowden, Gaffney offered Dickey options.
Standing a modest 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Gaffney was a playmaker — a confident thrower, elusive runner, fierce competitor and strong leader. A strong defense, however, led the way during Florida’s turnaround.
The Gators beat Auburn 12-8 for their first-ever win on their rival’s home field, slipped by Georgia 11-10 and edged Miami 14-7 during the five-victory run.
“Nasty football,” Gaffney said of the playing style. “Real nasty football.”
At times, the treatment of Gaffney and his fellow Black players was uglier.
Gaffney received death threats, his car was vandalized and booing was a given on the road, even in a Gator-friendly town such as Tampa. During a game there, his grandmother, Annie Madison, hit a fan across the head with her purse after the man directed disparaging comments at Gaffney.
“He apologized,” Gaffney said. “He said, ‘I was drinking and didn’t mean it. I was just talking.’ ”
Gaffney still remembers the Rebel flags flapping at Ole Miss. Fields, also a freshman, recalled racial epithets flying as the Gators ruined the Rebels’ homecoming with a 16-0 win.
“In that game, the word n—– was said so much,” he said. “When we confronted the referee, the referee turned and said, ‘N—–, get back in the huddle and play ball.’ That’s what the attitude was like.”
The Gators’ trip to Alabama a week earlier featured a moment that still haunts Gaffney. The bus ride to the stadium in Tuscaloosa passed a field where Black workers picked cotton.
“It was a really eerie scene,” Gaffney recalled. “We had more than 20 Black players. Nobody said anything. You’re saying, ‘Whoa.’ I’m like, ‘Good grief, people are picking cotton, and I’m going into this stadium to play?’
“Even the white players, I could see the look on their faces. But things were changing.”
QB and coach under fire
The transition was slow, and headwinds could be strong.
Gaffney said the Gators’ locker room, however, was collegial, and the student body was supportive.
“I loved being there,” he said. “I was treated with tremendous respect the entire time I was at the University of Florida.”
There were, of course, exceptions.
During Florida’s 24-7 loss to third-ranked Alabama, Gaffney experienced his first college action and tension among the ranks as the game got away.
Following a completion to future All-SEC pass catcher Lee McGriff, Gaffney said Hollis Boardman, a white receiver, claimed he was open and demanded the football. Going against his instincts, Gaffney went Boardman’s way on the next play. Alabama linebacker Woodrow Lowe intercepted the pass and returned it for the only pick-six of Gaffney’s career dating to Pop Warner.
A three-time All-American, Lowe was the non-white star for Bear Bryant’s integrating program, which had been embarrassed just two years earlier 41-21 at Birmingham’s Legion Field by USC and Black tailback Sam “Bam” Cunningham.
Bryant assistant Jerry Claiborne famously quipped, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in 20 years.”
Similar to King’s movement, resistance met integration of SEC football, even in the Florida huddle, as Gaffney learned.
“Black players had a meeting after that game,” he said. “They heard about what happened with Hollis Boardman. They’ll all be behind me, but if I’m going to be the leader, be the leader. If you want us to follow you, we’ll follow you.
“We’re not going to support somebody who is afraid to take command.”
Dickey faced different forms of hostility.
“I got some letters from Ku Klux Klan folks in West Florida,” he said. “I got some ripple back in the Jacksonville area — nothing threatening, but just, ‘What are you doing? Stop this nonsense.’
“I had a couple of former teammates that were not happy about it: ‘How many are you going to take?’”
Similar concerns came even from some assistants.
“People in the coaching room would say, ‘People out there asking questions,’” Dickey said. “I finally said, ‘I’m not gonna worry about this. Let’s get the best players we need to win.’”
Falling short, yet rising high
The Gators suffered too many close calls to win a title at a school that ultimately won multiple SEC and national championships.
While his teams rarely won the key game, Dickey — a quarterback at UF in the early 1950s — himself could boast he helped the school to its first bowl: a 14-13 victory over Tulsa in the 1953 Gator Bowl.
Those Gaffney teams still produced their share of success, accolades and exciting football.
The 1974 switch to a wishbone scheme soon highlighted Gaffney’s skills, DuBose’s power, Tony Green’s speed and the pass-catching prowess of McGriff and Wes Chandler. Playing on the carpet at Florida Field, the Gators were their own Greatest Show of Turf, going 18-0-1 from 1973 until a 1977 loss to Kentucky.
DuBose, known as “Big Train,” rushed for a school-record 1,307 yards in 1975 — which stood until Emmitt Smith broke it 12 years later — to become the SEC’s first Black Player of the Year. Linebacker Sammy Green’s 202 tackles that same season remain Florida’s gold standard and made him the Gators’ first Black All-American.
In 1973, senior Vince Kendrick became Florida’s first Black captain during a season when Black students staged a sit-in at UF president Stephen O’Connell’s office and threatened to leave school.
“Vince came into my office, and he said, ‘Coach, you don’t have to worry about any football players going anywhere,’” Dickey recalled. “Vince is from a very large family from Miami. He and [brother] Preston were getting three meals a day, and life was a whole lot better for them.
“That was a great relief.”
Pioneers are never forgotten
Dickey takes pride in the opportunities he provided young men from challenging backgrounds during a turbulent time.
“It was a plus experience for the integration,” he said. “It’s worked really well for a lot of them. It uplifted a whole lot of people.”
Dickey does not assume credit, either.
“It was a transitional time in American history,” he said. “That’s the roles we played in it. We just happened to be there.”
Gaffney, too, was as much a participant in history as a change agent. While he was keenly aware of his role at Florida, football practice, school and his high school sweetheart and wife, now of 48 years, Tracy, consumed him.
“You’re not thinking about it at the time. All you’re thinking about is survival,” he said. “It’s day to day. It’s hard work. It’s frustrating.
“You got school, you have teammates that you love and worry about.”
Leaving his teammates was difficult for Gaffney, but a number of those relationships remain. Meanwhile, the rigors of the game exacted their lifelong toll, including four back surgeries.
Still living in the same Jacksonville neighborhood where he grew up, Gaffney carries no bitterness and shares few regrets. He does, however, wonder whether the “November to Remember” 50 years ago truly remains for much of Gator Nation.
“What happens when you’re a pioneer? Sometimes people don’t remember you,” he said. “Or the contribution that you made isn’t as big. It certainly wasn’t easy.”