The stories behind the 1971 Gator Flop
I'd heard about it plenty of times throughout the years. If you're a college football fan -- and especially if you're from South Florida -- you probably have, too.
The Gator Flop.
In case you don't know the story, here's the short version: Miami and Florida were both having miserable seasons when they squared off at the Orange Bowl for the final game of the 1971 season. But the game still had plenty of juice -- in part because of the schools' longtime rivalry and in part because Florida quarterback John Reaves needed 343 passing yards to break Jim Plunkett's NCAA career passing record of 7,544 yards.
With time winding down and Florida winning by a lopsided score of 45-8, Reaves was still 10 yards shy of the record. Miami had the ball and was slowly driving for a meaningless touchdown -- too slowly for Florida's taste. Fearing that time might expire before Reaves could get the ball back, the Florida defense repeatedly called timeout. But Miami kept creeping down the field.
That's when the Florida defense played its trump card: As Miami snapped the ball from the Florida 8-yard line, the Gators players fell down on the job -- literally. They simply flopped to the ground, giving Miami quarterback John Hornibrook an uncontested touchdown.
A few minutes later, Reaves got his record by completing a pass to Carlos Alvarez as time expired. But the Miami players were incensed, and so was Canes coach Fran Curci, who called the incident "the worst thing I have ever seen in football."
I'd read about the Gator Flop before, but I'd never seen the play until a clip of it recently showed up on YouTube. I was curious about how the principals involved felt about it at the time and how they feel about it now, nearly 40 years later.
The first thing I wanted to know was whether the record had been on the players' minds in the week leading up to the game and how prominently it figured in their thinking as the game unfolded. Nowadays, media coverage would lead to endless discussion about a passing record that was within reach, but was that the case back in 1971?
HARVIN CLARK, former Florida defensive player: "Frankly, we weren't even aware of it. We knew John was doing pretty well that season, but we didn't know he was so close to the record until that day. It wasn't something we thought was going to be achievable for him under normal circumstances anyway. Personally, I don't think I realized how close he was until the third quarter, and then I started making everyone aware of it in the huddle, so we could get him the ball back. Of course, then we all started goofing with John on the sidelines. 'How much would you pay us if we got the ball back for you?' and that kind of thing. So we were having some fun with it."
BEHIND THE HIGHLIGHTS
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JOHN REAVES, former Florida quarterback: "There was a little bit of publicity before the game, saying I was about 350 yards from the record. So we had a shot, but I didn't know if we had that good a chance, because we hadn't thrown the ball much that year under Coach [Doug] Dickey. But we threw the ball 50 times that day! I think at halftime it became evident that I had a shot. And I guess during the middle of the fourth quarter or so, the fans started chanting, 'Let them score!' [so Florida could get the ball back]. That was kind of neat."
CARLOS ALVAREZ, former Florida receiver: "Our focus was to win, not on the record. I went to high school in Miami, and I didn't want to lose in the Orange Bowl. As I recall, the yardage John needed was in the mid-300s, so we didn't necessarily think that was possible. Not because of John, who was quite capable of doing that, but because we had become a much more run-oriented team. I was aware of the crowd yelling, 'Let them score!' but I didn't think that was going to happen.
CHUCK FOREMAN, former Miami running back: "I wasn't even aware of John Reaves' record. You say people were yelling 'Let them score'? I never heard that. If you say it happened, well, I'm not saying it didn't happen, but as a player, I'm focused on the game, not the crowd. We knew nothing of the sort."
BURGESS OWENS, former Miami defensive back: "We were aware he was within striking distance of the record, even before the game. Given the competitive nature of those teams at that time, I'd imagine one of our goals was to make sure he didn't get the record. Of course, it wasn't our top goal -- that was to win the game -- but it was probably part of our thinking."
The Gator Flop might never have been necessary if not for a special-teams play earlier in the fourth quarter, when Florida's Harvin Clark fielded a Miami punt and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown. If he'd signaled for a fair catch or simply had a typical 10- or 15-yard return, Reaves probably would have set the record on the ensuing possession. Instead, Florida had to give the ball right back to Miami.
DOUG DICKEY, former Florida coach: "Harvin Clark, he caused me all kinds of misery over the years by running back that punt for a touchdown. If he hadn't done that, we wouldn't be talking about this today. That's the real mistake I made, not having him fair catch that punt."
HARVIN CLARK: "Returning the punt, that was my job! What was interesting was that Chuck Foreman had leveled me a few times in the first quarter, so I really wanted to get a little redemption. And we weren't thinking about the record -- if we were, we never would have set up a return. We would've just downed the ball. But after I crossed the goal line, I thought, 'Aw, hell.' And I went over to John and I said, 'John, I think I screwed this thing up for you.' And he said, 'Aw, don't worry about it.'"
JOHN REAVES: "Yeah, I remember that. He apologized, and I told him, 'That's ridiculous -- that's one of the best run-backs I've ever seen.'"
But Clark wasn't just Florida's punt returner. He was also the captain of the Gators' defense, and now he felt somewhat responsible for getting the ball back into Reaves' hands -- especially because he felt Miami was playing keep-away.
HARVIN CLARK: "I felt I needed to do something to at least give him a chance. And when Miami had the ball on that last drive, they wouldn't pass -- they were just trying to run the clock out instead of trying to advance the ball. So I started calling timeouts."
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CARLOS ALVAREZ: "The only criticism that should come out of that game should be leveled at Miami, because they weren't trying to score. They were trying to keep the record away from John. So they're the ones who threw down the gauntlet, saying, 'You're not gonna get the record, and we don't care if we lose.' They basically gave up on the game, just to keep John Reaves from setting the record in the Orange Bowl. That's not the way you play the game."
CHUCK FOREMAN: "Running out the clock? I think that's total crap. That never entered my mind. I was there playing football. They're shootin' you a bunch of B.S."
HARVIN CLARK: "I called timeout, went to Coach Dickey, and said, 'These guys are just trying to burn the clock, so why not let 'em score?' He said, 'No, no, we don't wanna do that.' So after another play, I called timeout again and said, 'I really think we should do this, to get John back in the game.' He still said no. And after another play, I called timeout again. And at that point, I think he realized I was gonna do it anyway. So he said, 'All right.' And then he said -- and to this day, I don't know why he said this -- 'But at least try to block the extra point.'"
DOUG DICKEY: "I didn't say to lay down, but I said to let 'em score. When Harvin Clark went back in the huddle, I guess he's the one who told 'em to lay down. And of course that was a little bit embarrassing to everyone. I was very surprised and a little disappointed. I figured they would snap the ball, we would mill around and they would score. What I should've said was, 'Full speed, no tackling.' That's what I should've said. But at the same time, it was just kids having fun."
JOHN REAVES: "I was watching the whole thing, but I wasn't saying anything. I wasn't gonna lobby for it or anything like that. I was just gonna see how it played out."
HARVIN CLARK: "So I went back in the huddle and said, 'Here's what we need to do. We have to get John back in the game. So when they hike the ball, I just want everyone to fall on the ground.' And I remember John Clifford, our free safety, saying, 'What? We have to play these guys next year.' And I said, 'Come on now, John. I'm the captain, and this is what we're gonna do.'"
JOHN CLIFFORD, former Florida defensive back: "Harvin said we were gonna lay down, and I said, 'No we're not!' And everyone turned and looked at me like they wanted to kill me. So I went, 'OK, well ' I didn't have any problem with us trying to break the record. The problem I had was that there were three guys on the field at the time -- two of 'em on the other team -- who I'd played with at Coral Gables High School. And my parents were there, and everything else. That had more to do with it than anything else. I was prepared to unbuckle my chin strap and get run over and have my helmet fly off to make it look good, but that's different than standing still or laying down."
That set the stage for the infamous play, which remains one of the most unusual plays in football history. Clifford, as it turned out, did not lie down (neither did another defensive back on the other side of the field), which gave him an unusually good view of the proceedings as Hornibrook ran by with the ball.
JOHN CLIFFORD: "The play came right at me, so I could have made the tackle, but I didn't. I took the gratuitous Catholic genuflect. So I can't be considered any better than anyone else out there. And when John Hornibrook ran past me, he had the most disgusting look on his face I had ever seen. He was definitely not happy. And I was embarrassed. I was."
HARVIN CLARK: "I laid on my back instead of my chest, because I hurt my neck and I couldn't lift it up enough to see what was goin' on. I saw the quarterback as he ran by -- he kinda looked at the back judge, and the back judge kinda shrugged, like, 'I don't know what they're doin'.' And he went on into the end zone."
FRAN CURCI, former Miami head coach: "I was appalled. I just couldn't believe it. I thought this was so much against the spirit of the game that I came back out later and said it was a tainted record. I was very, very angry. My players, they were just incensed. A couple of 'em were crying."
CHUCK FOREMAN: "When they all fell down, we were all just, 'What the heck is this?' At the moment, I was in shock, because I didn't even understand what was going on, to be honest with you. But once it set in, I'm like, 'Man, this is the worst thing I've ever heard of or seen in a football game.'"
BURGESS OWENS: "I can still remember seeing it, and how upset I was. I was on the sidelines, and I got so emotionally upset when I saw what happened. From that point until I got back to the locker room, I was very angry. I was actually crying as I went into the locker room. That's how upset I was, and how humiliated I felt. I wasn't a guy who cursed a lot, but I remember cursing in front of my dad, for the first time ever, afterward."
JOHN REAVES: "That play was down near the goal line. So from where I was standing, back near the 50-yard line, it was actually hard to see what had happened. I didn't even fully understand it at first."
CARLOS ALVAREZ: "I saw the play, and it was amazing. It was like all the defensive players fell down in slow motion. And once the Miami players saw what was happening, they moved in slow motion, too. It was surreal."
Of course, getting the ball back gave Reaves only the chance to set the record. He still had to deliver. With 1:06 left on the clock, and with all of these machinations being put in place just for his benefit, did he feel any added pressure?
JOHN REAVES: "Yeah, you feel a bit uncomfortable, because the focus is on you. But I didn't feel much pressure because we'd been pretty successful throwing the ball that night. I felt we had a pretty good chance to get it as long as we could get back on the field."
HARVIN CLARK: "John Reaves was one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history, and I knew damn good and well he wasn't going to let that opportunity escape."
CARLOS ALVAREZ: "I'd been open most of the night. I'd caught five passes and had a couple of deep routes where Miami was called for pass interference. If not for those penalties, if I hadn't been interfered with, we probably would have broken the record already by that point. So I figured we'd get it."
JOHN REAVES: "On first down, I threw an incompletion -- a screen to a back that was almost picked off by Burgess Owens."
BURGESS OWENS: "A near interception? I don't remember that, honestly. What I do remember is being so upset that my goal on that play -- and this wasn't the way I normally played -- was to drive the receiver into that hard AstroTurf. But my shoulder got in between him and the turf, and I actually broke my clavicle on that play. It affected me for the next two years."
On second down, Reaves threw a 15-yard pass to Alvarez, sealing the record for Reaves and ensuring that the Gator Flop would live on in college football history -- and in the minds of the players and coaches who were there.
CARLOS ALVAREZ: "It was a simple pass pattern. Caught it, ran a little bit, was tackled, and that was it. I didn't realize it would be the record breaker or anything like that. I just thought it would be another step toward the record. So there was no particular pressure on that pass. Then I saw everyone jumping up and down. It's the last play of my career. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would live on for so many years."
THE MISSING CANE
As I tracked down the various people involved in the Gator Flop game, one key figure remained tantalizingly beyond my reach: Miami quarterback John Hornibrook, who scored the uncontested touchdown on the flop play (and who Florida safety John Clifford described as having "the most disgusting look on his face I had ever seen" as he ran by).
I really wanted to hear Hornibrook's account of the game, but nobody knew where to find him and all my efforts to locate him came up empty. But although I didn't find Hornibrook in time for this story's publication, I didn't want to give up, so the original version of the story included a small "Help us find John Hornibrook!" note.
That effort paid off when one of Hornibrook's former housemates saw the note, got in touch with me, and then had Hornibrook call me. You can read his account of the game in this follow-up story.
-- Paul Lukas
CHUCK FOREMAN: "To get a record like that, you couldn't be proud of it. It taints the record. If you beat me 78-0, OK, your team's better than mine, your coaches are better. But don't humiliate me just to set a record when you've got the game won. It's supposed to be about the team, not individual stats or records."
FRAN CURCI: "As for Doug Dickey, I wouldn't say we're friends, but we certainly aren't enemies. It's not like I won't talk to him. In fact, we've played golf together, things like that. But we've never discussed that game. Never have, ever, ever. And I don't want to. To me, it's history, it's over."
DOUG DICKEY: "We have [talked about it] a few times, I think. It's one of those things that went down in history. But the ironic thing is that it really didn't make much difference to either team in the long run. It's not like we were playing for a bowl game or something. Both teams had losing records that year."
[Editor's note: Both the Gators and Hurricanes finished 4-7 in 1971.]
CARLOS ALVAREZ: "Afterward, Fran Curci just went ballistic. And all I could think of was -- probably not in these words -- lighten up. It's college football. It wasn't done to malign or embarrass him or the Miami players. He just took it so personally, and to this day I don't understand it. And like I said, Miami hadn't been trying to score. That's the real shame of the game."
CHUCK FOREMAN: "As far as my whole football career is concerned, that was the most humiliating, low-down thing that's ever happened. And from that point on, I never respected the University of Florida, its program or its players. I don't mean today, and I want to make that clear -- I mean back in that era."
BURGESS OWENS: "By the time we played them again the following year, I still wanted to beat 'em, but it wasn't the same kind of feeling I'd had at the time. And by now, it's over. It's been over for a long, long time. John got his record, I got my injury and we've all moved on. But it's amazing how people still remember it, still talk about it."
HARVIN CLARK: "Even after 40 years, it still gets under everybody's skin. So if I did my part to help this rivalry, then great -- I did my part. I hope people never stop talking about it."
JOHN REAVES: "I still hear about it a lot. I even have a friend here in town who calls me Flop."
Fran Curci coached Miami for one more year after the Gator Flop game, then coached at Kentucky from 1973 through 1981. Today he's retired. Doug Dickey is retired as well after a career that included a longtime stint as the athletic director at Tennessee. Harvin Clark works in real estate permitting in Florida. John Clifford, after coaching high school football for 34 years, is now the athletic director at P.K. Yonge High School in Gainesville, Fla. Carlos Alvarez practices law in Tallahassee, Fla. Chuck Foreman, after an eight-year NFL career highlighted by five Pro Bowl selections, now owns a commercial cleaning business in Minneapolis. Burgess Owens played for the Jets and Raiders before moving into corporate sales and is now an online broker for environmentally oriented products. John Reaves, after a 15-year career in the NFL and USFL, along with several well-publicized personal problems, is working in commercial real estate in Tampa, Fla., and has been sober for 15 months.
Reaves' NCAA career record of 7,549 passing yards was broken by Jack Thompson of Washington State in 1978 and now seems almost quaint compared to today's modern passing numbers. The current record, held by Timmy Chang of Hawaii, is 17,072 yards. According to the NCAA record book, 61 different major college quarterbacks had thrown for career totals of more than 10,000 yards through the 2009 season.
Miami and Florida last played each other in 2008. They do not play each other this season. The teams are next scheduled to meet in 2013.
Special thanks to Thomas Neumann, Mike Lynch, Jared Wheeler, Steve McClain, Tony Neely, Chris Freet and Gerald Ensley for research assistance.
Paul Lukas is a Page 2 columnist.