The Martin Chronicles: Remembering Ray Graves

Posted at 1:19 pm on 06/25/2015 by Buddy Martin

By Buddy Martin April 11, 2015

Ray Graves, the legendary Florida coach who forever changed the Gator program, passed away Thursday at the age of 96.

On my last trip to Tampa to visit Ray Graves more than 10 years ago, while walking through the garage of his Carrollwood townhouse, I couldn’t help but notice a famous picture, puzzled as to why something so epic didn’t occupy a more prominent spot in his home. The rare photo of his defining moment at Florida captured the historic decision that will always retain a place of honor in the hearts of older Gator fans.

Graves saw that photo -- a black-and-white postcard from his past, and an epic passage in his coaching career -- almost every day as he got in his car before finally moving to assisted living with his wife Opal.

I’m not sure where that photo is archived now, but upon the news of Graves' death this week, I thought back to it. And it got me to thinking about the game which I attended that day as a student reporter. And the fact that without Ray Graves there would have been no Steve Spurrier. And without Steve Spurrier, who knows?

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When Spurrier was able reach the Graves family Thursday in the Tampa hospice, it was already too late for him to have any meaningful conversation with his old coach. In his final moments, Spurrier talked to Ray’s daughters Becky and Katherine. They told him even though Ray couldn’t respond, “he would love to hear your voice.”

And so the final words were spoken in a one-way conversation.

“I told him I loved him,” Spurrier said. “Thanked him for bringing me to Florida – and all the wonderful things that happened in my life because I went to the University of Florida. And said, ‘I’ll see you someday.’ It was sort of neat, being able to say goodbye. He had a wonderful life. Ninety-six years. If I could go ninety-six, we’d all be happy with that.”

Spurrier’s voice cracked as he told the story.

There was closeness between Spurrier and Graves that many people probably didn’t realize – a sort of a second father. With the passing of his parents, Spurrier said Coach Graves was like a pseudo parent.

Graves, in fact, had a bond with his players that lasted over a half century, as evidenced by the “Silver Sixties” group which still meets annually in Crystal River, now several more generations deep.

“The Silver Sixties,” said former captain Wayne McCall (1967), “is indicative of how close we all remain. And the fact that we had such a high graduation rate (93 pct.) and so many successful professionals, business men, etc. tells you what a high priority coach Graves put on education.”

All-American quarterback John Reaves of the famed “SuperSophs” team in 1969, also had fond memories.

“He was a wonderful coach and a father to us all,” said Reaves, who lives in Tampa. “It was like Camelot, those days at Florida. He gave me an opportunity to play and we had a great team. I'll never forget him. We loved him and he treated us like his sons. He had a long, good life."

Ray Graves’ winning legacy started with a bold history-making decision as captured in that “Go For Two” photo. Snapped late in the afternoon at Florida Field on Oct. 1, 1960, the moment served notice that the next 10 years were going to be different.

During the final seconds of the game that day against Georgia Tech -- in his first season as Gator coach – Graves was about to emancipate Gator fans from a decade of dull, unimaginative, give-up football.

Graves’ white shirt is tucked, unwrinkled, cufflinks intact. His jaw juts defiantly, a testimony to his bold resolve. His left arm is raised, two fingers skyward. An unidentified Gator player, No. 83, gazes in awe at the new man with two raised fingers and new ideas. Indeed Graves’ gesture represents a whole new day in Florida football.

Actually, Graves is holding up four fingers -- two on each hand. The left hand is forming a “2” with the index and middle finger, unwittingly flashing a “V” for victory as well. His right hand is lower, waist high, duplicating the other “2,” almost as a backup to support this daring maneuver.

In that photo of him holding up to fingers, you can detect that Graves had already made the choice. Even before Lindy Infante returned to the bench after scoring the touchdown to pull Florida within a point of mighty Georgia Tech, he knew he was going for two.

I remember asking him what he saw in that photo.  “I see a chance to make football history as a winner or a loser,” Graves said. “It was such a big play, and it helped our program so many ways. We were all energized with that one win.”

Perhaps equally as important, they had buried the ghost of their archaic, stone-age football past.

Though Florida and Graves never won a conference championship in the 1960s, the Gators moved up in the college football neighborhood. They developed more big-name players who produced more big wins on more big plays than any period in previous history. For it, they were rewarded with big-time bowl appearances and a big-time quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy.

The previous year, Florida coach Bob Woodruff had elected to run out the clock at midfield to preserve a 10-10 tie against Rice.

So much of Florida’s football heritage had stemmed from Tennessee roots, including Graves.

World War II was only months away when Graves became captain of the 1941 Vols team under Coach Robert Neyland, one of the true Godfathers of college football. But before Ray went off to the Navy, he was able to help retain a measure of redemption for his coach. The Vols beat Boston College, 14-7, in 1941 to gain revenge for losing the Sugar Bowl, 19-13, to Frank Leahy’s Eagles the previous January.

Eventually signed by the Philadelphia Eagles to play for Earle “Greasy” Neale, Graves discovered that his mentoring at Tennessee would be useful. “I knew so much more football than some of those All-Americans,” said Graves. “In group meetings at Tennessee, you had to go the board and call every play we had and tell what every player did on it—the weakness or strength of that play. If you didn’t do that, you didn’t get to play too much.

“That was our toughest course at the University of Tennessee. You [had to] know Tennessee football!”

Because of his football intelligence, Graves earned invitations to strategy meetings with the Eagles coaches. Later he became captain and then an assistant on Neale’s staff. Graves soon realized football would be his livelihood. So he took another part-time job scouting colleges. Bobby Dodd called his friend, Herman Hickman, at Yale. Hickman said he’d give Dodd a good candidate’s name in exchange for a country ham from Kingsport, Tennessee. “Ray Graves,” said Hickman, passing on his secret name.

Dodd hired Graves, and Hickman got his country ham. “Bobby always said, ‘You came cheap, Graves—for a country ham.’ But that started out 13 of the happiest years of our life, at Georgia Tech, where football was fun.”

Unlike Neyland, Bobby Dodd didn’t use an iron-fisted coaching technique -- maybe that’s why Dodd turned down a chance to become a member of Neyland’s staff and went to work at Tech instead where life was easier.

“His philosophy was, ‘Let’s win about seven games, go to a bowl game, and play somebody we can beat,’” Graves said of his late friend and former boss at Tech. The plan worked well, because Dodd had a 57-year association with Tech and compiled a record of 165-64-8 (.713), with a perfect 12-0 record in 1952 and a national championship. As for bowl games, Dodd was 9-4 in postseason. One of the four losses was an Orange Bowl game against his former pupil, Graves.

“He just made it fun. But one thing he insisted on was that you graduate and get your degree. Bobby never got his degree,” Graves said.

Graves said that Dodd could never have survived as a coach today.

“There’s no way he would win today, because he just felt like it ought to be fun,” Graves said. “Today, players may be on a football scholarship, but the schools are minor leagues for the athletes. Fifty percent of them are in school to get drafted and go to the pros. I think the last report was that 52 percent graduated. It has evolved into a business, like a lot of things have.

“You build bigger stadiums, more skyboxes; you’ve got debt service; you’ve got to make money. You’ve got a booster club that has to raise millions of dollars. And it’s a big business.”

The Tennessee connection paid off big for Florida because it brought them a player who someday would have a statue on front of the stadium.

Dodd had encouraged Graves to take the Florida job. Discussions began at the NCAA coaches meeting in New York. Once they left New York, a meeting was set up between Graves and President J. Waye Reitz at the Holiday Inn in Gainesville.

“He told me, ‘I want you to be concerned about the student interests of these players as well as coaching them.’ I told him I was familiar with that. We had a nice lunch, we shook hands, and he said, ‘You’re going to make $19,000 a year. That’s what I make. And you’re never going to make more money than I make. You’ll get a car, but you don’t get a house.’ So that was all right, even though it was less money than I was making at Tech.”

The five-year deal was done. The 40-year-old Graves became the 14th head coach of the Florida Gators and immediately went about putting a staff together.

The first call he made was to Gene Ellenson, a former Miami assistant. Graves told Ellenson he’d been offered the Florida job. “But I told him I wasn’t going to take it unless he went with me. ‘We’ll have some fun,’” said Graves. “And Gene said, ‘You’ve got me, Coach.’”

Of main concern was appeasing the alumni who were tired of Tennessee style football under Bob Woodruff. To run his offense, he hired the imaginative former Georgia Tech quarterback Pepper Rodgers, then at Air Force.

“I said, ‘Pepper, come back -- we’re going to put in a wide-open offense. We’re going to make the defense cover the entire width of the field. We’re going to have motion. We’re going to make the defense change responsibilities before the ball is snapped.’” Rodgers and Graves began to go to work on a motion offense that would require shifts by the Oklahoma-style defenses the Gators would be facing.

Meanwhile, another savvy coach the defense staff, and Jack Green was hired as co-offensive coach. Graves retained John Mauer, Jim Powell, John Eibner, Dave Fuller, Earl Scarborough, and a young graduate assistant named Jimmy Dunn as holdovers from Woodruff ’s staff.

The new coach reported to Florida in January. Graves would be working his way around the state and pulled his car up in front of a Fort Lauderdale hotel when the valet asked, “Are you Coach Graves?”

“That’s right,” Graves said.

“Well, I’m your tailback next year. I’m Lindy Infante, and I’ve got a job here parking cars.”

“All right, Lindy … well, I’ll see you in spring practice.”

Little did either of them know that Infante would play a major role in perhaps the most famous game Graves ever coached at Florida Field.

On Oct. 1, Bobby Dodd’s Tech team came to Gainesville. Bobby Dodd Jr. was dressed out as the Gator quarterback and would share the duties with Larry Libertore.

Dodd Jr. was the passer, Libertore the elusive option quarterback.

Florida Field was at capacity with 44,000 spectators. Up in the stands,

Dodd’s wife made her rooting intentions known right away. “I know where my paycheck comes from,” Alice Dodd told the media. But she would be cheering for her son to do well.

The Gators went into the game a touchdown underdog against the 10th ranked Yellow Jackets. “It meant so much to me, having a chance to play against him [Dodd]. But we were ready for him,” said Graves.

That evenly matched game would come down to the final ticks. Florida trailed 17-10 with five minutes to play when Dodd Jr., trying to beat his own father, came in the game and completed a 33-yard pass to Don Deal. The Gators ran it to the Jackets’ one-foot line, where Dodd Jr. fumbled the snap and recovered at the four-yard line. Fourth down. Under a minute, trailing 17-10, it was the cue for the Fort Lauderdale parking valet.

Lindy Infante’s No. 33 jersey and the Florida Field clock were locked in momentary irony, and the photo shows that 33 seconds remained as he crossed a chalky line that marked new promise in the wide-open philosophy.

He was surprised to have wound up with the football in such a critical situation. Quarterback Libertore had one last chance to score and most likely, as he took the snap and headed East toward the sideline, he would dart into daylight as soon as he saw it. At least that’s what Infante thought. It didn’t happen as expected. Before he knew it, Infante had taken the pitchout and barely scored as his knee came down near the boundary.

With the naked eye from the press box above, you couldn’t tell -- you could only see Infante going down with his knees inches off the ground, his right shoe almost touching the boundary as he fell forward toward the white goal line, a Tech player holding Infante’s right leg, trying to wrangle him from behind.

There were no pylons in those days, just red flags attached to a long spring. You couldn’t tell from above until the official signaled touchdown. Then there was an explosion of jubilance, which quickly calmed into trepidation and curiosity. What would the head coach do? They knew what Woodruff would have done: play for the tie. After all, even that would have been an impressive accomplishment against vaunted Georgia Tech.

What to do?

Infante remembers the exhortations of the crowd. “They were certainly cheering for us to go for it,” he said of the pending conversation attempt. “I don’t know what happened. I assume he had already made his decision, but it didn’t take long.”

Ray Graves showed zero hesitation. He was about to pass his first test with Gator fans, who still rankled over the terrible decision by Woodruff a year earlier to run out the clock for a tie with Rice. “Here we were up against a nationally ranked team with a chance to win,” recalled Graves. “I couldn’t face the players or the Florida fans if I didn’t give them a chance to go for two and win the ball game. I knew that, and I held up two fingers right away.”

Libertore sprints out right and lofts an easy pass to fullback Jon MacBeth for the winning deuce. Seismic crowd noise rocks Florida Field.

The Gators beat Georgia Tech, 18-17, earning national respect in only the third game under their brand-new coach from -- of all places -- Georgia Tech.

Along with the huge 10-6 upset of Bear Bryant’s Alabama team in Tuscaloosa that would come three years later, it would rank as one his two greatest coaching victories.

The Gators had come to play and could win against anybody. The fans knew that Woodruff would have gone for one and the tie.

Thus Ray Graves began a successful reign of 10 years, winning 70 games, losing 31 and tying four.

“But going for two meant the most to me because it established my career,” said Graves.

And in then end, Graves’ Tennessee bloodlines led to the kid from Johnson City, which proved to be a championship genealogy. 

(Some of the material from this story came from the book “Boys From Old Florida,” which was written by Buddy Martin and is available on

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