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Star Quarterbacks and Student Bonfires Among the Legends of the 1963 Florida-Alabama Matchup

Brother Tom Shannon, Quarterback for the Florida Gators during 1963 Upset Win Over AlabamaAcross the southern swath of the country, where the Southeastern Conference (SEC) reigns supreme, autumn means college football and campus tailgates.

And when your team goes up against Alabama, clear your calendar and reschedule the wedding.

For the Epsilon Zeta Chapter at the University of Florida, the 100-year-old rivalry has special significance. While Alabama holds the advantage, winning 24 of the 40 games played since 1916, the University of Florida and the Brothers of Sigma Nu have serious bragging rights.

The October 12, 1963, Florida-Alabama matchup remains one of the biggest upsets in Florida football history and is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.

Alabama's 10-6 loss to the Gators on their home turf in Tuscaloosa was the first for legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant (Alabama). It also stunned the crowd of 44,000 Alabama fans who packed the stands for Homecoming Weekend.

The Florida team that brought home the win included several Fraternity brothers who played pivotal roles in derailing Alabama's plans for a conference championship that year.

Starting quarterback Tom Shannon, who pledged Sigma Nu in 1962, recalls the hype surrounding the game primarily focused on Alabama's star quarterback Joe Namath.

"It is probably one of the greatest wins the University of Florida ever had, particularly on the road, playing a Bear Bryant-coached team, and especially against a team that had one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks," Shannon said. "That's the highlight reel right there."

Sigma Nu members who were also among the backbone of the Florida team included receivers Hagood Clarke and Jerry Newcomer and lineman Jack Katz who played both offense and defense.

“They were my brothers and teammates at the same time,” said Katz, who founded the Panama Jack clothing company in 1974 and still resides in Florida. “Wow…that was such a wonderful thing to have.”

Additionally, both coaches – Bryant and Florida's coach Ray Graves (Tennessee) were members of Sigma Nu.

A 'Favor' Between Coaches

Alabama was on a roll in the early '60s under Bryant's leadership. They were national champions in 1961 and eyeing a repeat in 1963.

Florida was working to regain success it had not seen since the 1930s. Under Coach Graves' direction, it was steadily earning respect and attention.

The 1963 Florida-Alabama matchup was initiated by Graves, who knew a big game would put Florida football on the map.

"Coach Graves asked Bear Bryant if he would put us on their schedule because we weren't getting any national recognition," said Shannon, a two-sport athlete who also played baseball at Florida.

To Graves' surprise, Bryant agreed to play Florida in both 1963 and 1964 with one stipulation: the games would be played on Alabama turf.

"Apparently, Coach Bryant said, 'I'm doing you the favor…so I'm not coming to Gainesville," said Shannon, laughing at the deal which committed Florida to back-to-back road trips for the next two years.

'Keep the Ball Away from Namath'

In the fall of 1963, Alabama was undefeated and had the nation's best defense. Florida was playing solid football despite its 1-1-1 record going into Tuscaloosa.

Being a 17-point underdog only motivated Florida.

"You never go into a ballgame thinking you can't win," said Shannon, who played four varsity years under Coach Graves. "We were underdogs…but we've been there before…and we went onto the field with the idea that we would win."

He had reason to be confident. In the 1962 Gator Bowl, Florida upset heavily favored Penn State by a score of 17-7. Shannon, who completed two touchdown passes, including one to Hagood Clarke, was named the Most Valuable Player.

A year later, the energy was intense in Tuscaloosa before the game. Lineman Jack Katz was reportedly so amped up he smashed a blackboard with his helmet [see sidebar]. That pre-game enthusiasm would carry onto the field, where Florida's defense effectively shut down the Crimson Tide.

Florida's game plan was designed around one goal: keep the clock ticking and the ball out of Namath's hands. The strategy worked.

"We had three drives down the field where we didn't score, but it took five or six minutes off the clock each time," Shannon said. "We kept the ball…and kept Joe Namath off the field."

A first-quarter field goal and a touchdown in the fourth quarter put Florida up 10-0. The Gator defense held until the final two minutes of the game when Alabama scored its first and only touchdown, only to miss the extra point.

An onside kick by Alabama failed, Florida recovered the ball, and ran the remaining two minutes off the clock to win 10-6.

A Post-Game to Remember

Coach Ray Graves (Tennessee) Gets Carried Off the Field After Upset VictoryA flood of memories about the game run through Shannon's mind, but a few, in particular, stand out. Coach Graves being carried off the field on the shoulders of his players, the locker room celebration, and a visit from Namath.

"We’re sitting on the bus waiting to head to the airport when Joe Namath steps onto the bus and says, ‘hey guys…great ballgame’,” Shannon recalls of the gesture of sportsmanship.

On the plane headed back to Gainesville, the reality of what the win meant to Gator nation became evident as they approached the airport.

“We couldn't land for about 45 minutes because of the 10,000 students on the runway,” Shannon said of the crowd that gathered. “We were in a holding pattern about 1000 feet up in the air.”

From the plane, the team could see a giant bonfire blazing at the intersection of University Avenue and 13th street, fueled in part by furniture hauled out of surrounding fraternity houses.

“Traffic was backed up in all directions…students were standing on their cars…music is blasting, and there’s this bonfire in the middle of the street,” said Shannon, laughing at a memory that remains a part of Florida football lore.

Up on the plane, players were getting air sick from the circling. When the plane finally landed, the doors opened to the roar of thousands of students on the tarmac.

“It was unbelievable…coming out and shaking hands…hugs from everyone in such a spontaneous celebration,” said Shannon.

Decades later, new generations of Sigma Nu brothers would know the story of the 1963 football team and the role its members played.

“That Sigma Nus played a part in some of the proudest moments in Gator history has always been a source of pride for our chapter,” said brother Stefan Gleason, who graduated from Florida in 1996. “ The legacy of Epsilon Zeta chapter…its social reputation, outstanding leaders and athletes… helped land our chapter on the cover of Time Magazine during the Greek system's golden years of the early 1960s.”

The Bond of Brothers

Epsilon Zeta Brothers and Guests Gather for the Chapter's 100th Anniversary Celebration

The 100th anniversary of the Epsilon Zeta chapter was celebrated in April 2022, with more than 200 Sigma Nu brothers traveling from across the globe to gather again in Gainesville.

Among those in attendance were several alums from the 1963 game, including Shannon, Clarke, and Katz who hosted the celebration reunion at his company’s headquarters.

Stories were shared, memories rebooted, and Shannon says the turnout reflects the bond between brothers forged through Sigma Nu.

He was drawn to Sigma Nu not just because the older Brothers on the team were his “heroes,” which they were, but mainly because of the ideals of the Fraternity.

Brother Tom Shannon Delivers a Speech at the Epsilon Zeta Chapter's 100th Anniversary Celebration“The Creed of Sigma Nu…to believe in the Life of Love, to walk in the Way of Honor, to serve in the Light of Truth…’ meant a lot to me,” said Shannon, who is a member of the University of Florida’s Hall of Fame in both baseball and football. “The principles of the Fraternity impressed me and are part of my life today.”

And in true fairy-tale fashion, the college football quarterback married the school’s homecoming queen. Shannon and his wife, Kathy, have been married since 1967. They founded a family foundation with their three children to support initiatives at the University of Florida and civic groups helping youth.

For Katz, his fondest memories are not just the years he played college football and the awards and accolades he received in later business ventures. It was living in the Sigma Nu House and being a part of the brotherhood.                       

Sigma Nu was known as “the fraternity of ballplayers,” recalls Katz. But within the house, the athletes and “civilians,” he said, were simply brothers sharing meals and friendships.

Katz served as Commander of the chapter for two years and said the experience of being elected by his brothers was the “Spartacus” moment of his life.

“Nothing else compared to that before…and nothing ever compared later,” Katz said. “I don’t know how to explain it…it was just wonderful.”

 

Side Bar - Katz Recalls Biggest ‘Off Field’ Play of the Game              

Linebacker Jack Katz knew the odds were stacked against the University of Florida football team as they prepared to play Alabama in October 1963.

“We were the mutts,” Katz said, coming in as 17-point underdogs. “We weren’t best of show... but that was the beauty of it.”

Four quarters later, Florida’s Coach Ray Graves was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players. Alabama’s undefeated season was over.

Media reports were vague but hinted at a locker room incident involving Katz and an unfortunate blackboard that got in the way of his helmet.

“Yes, it happened,” said Katz, laughing aloud at a memory from decades ago.

He said during the pre-game preparation, coaches were at the board writing “x’s” and “o’s” and plays and runs. Chomping at the bit and ready to play, Katz had had enough.

“Here we are getting ready to play Alabama…the biggest game we’ve ever played, and [the coaches] are at the chalkboard.”

So Katz did what comes naturally to an all-conference defensive lineman.

“I jumped up and said ‘enough talk…enough chalk… let’s just go play and beat those guys,” said Katz, who proceeded to take his helmet and shatter the board…while [Coach Pepper] Rodgers stood there holding the chalk.

The instinct of self-preservation immediately kicked in.

“So then I yelled ‘let’s go,’ because I knew I had to get out of the locker room,” Katz said. “I was afraid I was going to get kicked off the team right there and not be able to play.”

After the game and the celebrations died down, he apologized to the coaches, particularly Coach Graves, who Katz describes as the “father figure of all,” for the problems he caused with the helmet stunt.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Katz, we had enough preparation…maybe we needed a little passion.’”

The Delta

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