Eric Dickerson, who gained notoriety in college for his mysterious “Trans A&M”, has accused multiple major programs of cheating, saying “if you ain’t cheating you ain’t trying.” Dickerson, of course, played for a Southern Methodist University team that would receive the NCAA’s death penalty in 1987.
Miami Hurricanes players received impermissible benefits throughout their dynasty years in the 1980s and early 1990s as part of the Pell Grant scandal. USC had to vacate wins and a national championship because of similar circumstances regarding Reggie Bush.
The scandal that many Gators fans likely forget about is the one surrounding Charley Pell, who coached Florida’s football team from 1979-84. No one in school history had more of an impact — both good and bad — on University of Florida athletics than the coach brought in to replace Doug Dickey.
When Pell and his family arrived in Gainesville after leaving the head coaching position at Clemson, the athletic department’s finances were a mess. The campus and athletic facilities were awful. Ward Noel Pell, Charley’s wife, described it as “in shambles.”
“There was an orange vinyl sofa with duct tape holding the springs in. Wallpaper was curling up at the corners.,” she told 78Mag.com in 2015. “I thought, ‘what are we doin’?’ We go over to the dorm and the carpet is threadbare and urinals are pulled off the wall. The kids were sleeping in old Army cots. It was a nightmare.”
So Pell went to work. He was used to doing that.
Charley Pell’s Career
Charles Byron Pell began his first job at 7 years old growing up in Albertville, Alabama, where he waited until his senior year of high school to play football. Despite that, and his undersized stature as an offensive lineman and defensive tackle, he attracted the attention of University of Alabama coach Bear Bryant and played on the Crimson Tide’s national championship team in 1961.
Pell spent a year as a graduate assistant under Bryant in 1964 then used his Alabama connections to propel his coaching career. He joined former UA assistant coach Charlie Bradshaw at the University of Kentucky in 1965, became the head coach of the Jacksonville State Gamecocks in 1969 and linked up with former UA assistant Jimmy Sharpe at Virginia Tech in 1974.
In 1976, Pell joined the Clemson Tigers, who he helped guide to a Gator Bowl in ’77 and an ACC Championship in ’78, when he was named ACC Coach of the Year.
But Pell was more than a football coach. He was a meticulous architect. He wanted to build something from the ground up, literally. So the University of Florida football program became his project.
Florida’s stadium’s capacity became 72,000 with the addition of a south end zone expansion under Pell’s watch. Yon Hall, the dorm where male athletes lived, received a major facelift. So did the training table and weight room. Florida’s facilities could finally compete with those around the Southeastern Conference.
To finance these improvements, Pell had to raise the necessary funds himself. He went on a speaking tour throughout the Sunshine State and received check after check from boosters. Among the donors were Ben Hill Griffin, who put forward $22 million, and fast-food chain Wendy’s chairman Dave Thomas, who gave $50,000.
On the field, Pell inherited a downright terrible Gators team. Florida finished 0-10-1 in 1979, still the most losses in program history (although the 1946 team finished 0-9).
Pell turned things around quickly. UF went 8-4 in 1980 and by 1983, the Gators finished 9-2-1 and ranked sixth at season’s end. It marked Florida’s first ever top-10 finish in the Associated Press final poll. All-Americans like Cris Collinsworth, Wilber Marshall and David Little helped guide the team’s turnaround.
Pell did arguably more for the University of Florida than Tim Tebow or Steve Spurrier did and yet won’t ever receive a bronze statue or get a field renamed in his honor because of an NCAA investigation featuring bombshell implications uncovered in 1984.
On Sept. 16, 1984, the NCAA announced that Florida had committed 107 infractions during Pell’s tenure. They included spying on other teams’s practices, handing out cash and loans to athletes, and letting walk-on players stay in athlete dorms.
Pell, who had resigned but wanted to finish the season, was fired immediately and replaced by offensive coordinator Galen Hall. The Gators that year won their first ever SEC Championship, but the conference denied them a berth in the Sugar Bowl. LSU went instead.
The rest of Florida’s penalties followed in 1985. UF’s final infractions total equaled 59 and resulted in two years’ probation, a two-year ban from bowl games and live TV and a reduction of 20 scholarships over a span of three years.
As a result, Florida didn’t win more than seven games from 1986 to 1989. While it ultimately didn’t hurt them all that much — the successful Spurrier era followed in the 1990s — it put a stain on Florida’s athletics program.
Pell took the fall for everyone, even though he said he trusted some people at Florida that he shouldn’t have.
“I took the blame for everything to exonerate every other coach on the staff,” he told the New York Times. “I always believed I did too good a job of that. All it did was cause a lot of grief. I made mistakes. They were my mistakes; I was the leader. I trusted some people I shouldn’t have. The mistakes and errors I made did not make the difference in the football program. Those mistakes and errors disgust and embarrass me.”
Attempted Suicide and Post-Florida Career
Pell struggled to find work in the college coaching sector following his abrupt departure at Florida. He wound up selling real estate and insurance, as well as processing oil sludge in his post-coaching career.
He attempted suicide in 1994 and was diagnosed with clinical depression. After spending three weeks in a Georgia depression clinic, he began traveling around the country speaking out about his dark times. Pell even appeared on Oprah and Dateline NBC.
Pell briefly coached a high school in Lakeland, Florida, in 1995 and died from lung cancer in Gadsden, Alabama, in 2001 at 60 years old.