Two years ago, Charley Pell was being hailed a hero by Clemson University. In two seasons, he had turned the football team from a 3-6-2 loser into an 11-1 Atlantic Coast Conference champion.
Then Pell did the unthinkable. He left for Florida. His decision stunned and angered the Clemson people. Today much of the bitterness remains.
"He hurt the people here a lot," one Clemson official said recently. "One minute he was here, saying we were about to break into the big time consistently, the next minute he was running off to Florida. A lot of people hate him for that.
"But even people who will tell you Charley Pell's the biggest s.o.b. that ever lived will tell you he's a winner. One way or the other, he's going to get it done wherever he goes."
He is getting it done at Florida. The Gators will take a 7-4 record into Saturday's Tangerine Bowl against Maryland. Last year, they finished 0-10-1. This year they became the first team in NCAA history to follow a winless season with a bowl berth. And, with a team dominated by freshman and sophomores, people are talking about a Southeast Conference title next season.
"We don't make timetables like that," Pell said today as he watched his team during a 90-minute workout. "Winning the conference is certainly our goal, but we're not setting a specific time on it. I know Florida people get tired of hearing we have a young team, but this year it happens to be the truth."
Florida people are tired of many things: false hopes, near misses. Losing. That is why Pell is here. That is why he has a complete commitment from the school -- much like basketball coach Norman Sloan -- and the freedom to do whatever it takes to win.
The Reign of Pell has been anything but a Cinderella story, however. His decision to leave Clemson was so controversial that he had to leave the school before the Tigers played in the Gator Bowl game that December.
Shortly after he arrived at Florida, the wrestling team at the school was phased out and the wrestling room was turned into a football weight room. Florida officials say the decision to abandon wrestling was made before Pell arrived. Others say not so.
In January, 1979, shortly after Pell's arrival, an NCAA investigator, casually running on the Florida track while on a routine visit to the school, was surprised to look up and see the Gators apparently practicing -- two months before spring practice.
Although the players weren't in full gear, they were practicing with their respective position coaches. Pell said it was part of Florida's offseason program. It had been going on for four days. Fine, the NCAA said, those were your first four days of spring practice, you have 16 more days to finish. (Spring practice must be held on 20 consecutive days.)
Then came the winless season, filled with injuries and frustration.But now Pell is in complete command and the Gators came within 89 seconds of beating top-ranked Georgia and going to the Sugar Bowl this season.
"If you're going to turn a program around, you have to make a commitment, both in terms of money and to the men you bring in," said Assistant Athletic Director Richard Giannini. "We've spent a lot of money to make this transition because we think Charley and Norman can turn things around."
At 39, Pell's rise to a spot close to the top of his chosen profession has been meteoric. Four years ago he was ready to quit coaching.
After graduating from Alabama in 1964, Pell had moved through the ranks to his first head job at Jacksonville State in 1969. Five years at the Division II school produced a 33-13-1 record and a tenured position on the faculty of the small Alabama school.
But Pell wanted a shot at the big time and accepted an offer from fellow Alabama alumnus Jimmy Sharpe to join Sharpe's staff at Virginia Tech in 1974. Two years later, he moved to Clemson under Red Parker.
"That 1976 season was unbelievable," Pell said, remembering a divided coaching staff, dissension and one defeat after another. "Words can't describe how bad I felt. I remember thinking, 'Well, you blew it, you made the wrong move, now you're just going to have to get out of coaching and start over.'"
Before he could resign, Parker was fired and Pell found himself sitting across from Athletic Director Bill McLellan, who offered him the head coaching job. "I was completely surprised," Pell said. "The thought I might get it never crossed my mind."
In two years he had Clemson in the top 10 and on its way to a second consecutive bowl game. But it wrankled Pell that he had only been given a two-year contract. When Florida began beckoning, he was intrigued.
"It was nothing against Clemson, really," he said. "But we can do 95 percent of our recruiting in state here and get all the players we need. That just wasn't true at Clemson."
And so, on Dec. 4, 1978, Pell announced he was leaving Clemson for Florida. The reaction at Clemson, the ACC's one truly football-crazed school, was violent. Pell's fall from grace was so swift that he had to resign before the Tigers played Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, later known as the Woody Hayes bowl.
"That hurt," he said. "It was a situation where I understood why the feelings were there but didn't think they were right."
Then came the wrestling and offseason practice controversies.
"I didn't know a thing about the wrassling situation," Pell said, drawing out the word in his Alabama drawl to make his disgust with the question obvious. "That was strictly something built up by the media. The school made the decision, not me.
"The offseason practice happened while I was out of town but from what I heard the problem was that our players were grouped by position, which isn't allowed. A lot of my coaching freinds who called to ask me what happened were shocked because they were doing the same things."
In the meantime, Pell was on the move constantly. He was trying to rekindle interest in a football program that had peaked midway through Doug Dickey's nine-year (1970-78) tenure, but then fell rapidly. Pell took over a 4-7 team at a school with outdated facilities in a state where Florida State had taken over the sport.
The problems of 1979 were survived, though. Pell is likely to wear down any opponent he may come up against. He has been described as a young Bear Bryant, a big man with graying hair, a constant smoker with a sometimes gruff manner and a sharp wit.
And, like Bryant, he is a self described disciplinarian who drives himself, his coaches and his players. He also is bright enough to know that no head coach gets it done by himself and he delegates a good deal of authority to his assistants. He hired Mike Shanahan, a 28-year-old whiz kid, as his offensive coordinator this season. The Gators, even with freshman Wayne Peace forced to take over at quarterback in the fourth game of the season, averaged 20.6 points a game, more than double their output in 1979.
Already, the Gators have signed 25 players for next season (Maryland has signed four), all from Florida.
"We have to do four things here," Pell said. "Recruit, work hard, unite our fans in the state and make winning a way of life. We've done the first three."
And, Charley Pell's friends and enemies will tell you, No. 4 is only a matter of time.