NEW ORLEANS -- "Florida's greatest quarterback ever," that's how the Gators' band announcer described Danny Wuerffel in a pre-game salute.
Fellow Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier certainly won't object, now that Wuerffel has led the Gators to their first national championship.
"I think he's the best quarterback that ever played college football," Spurrier said last night after Florida's 52-20 victory in the Sugar Bowl.
Evidently, Wuerffel survived all those devastating late hits he endured in the Gators' earlier loss to Florida State.
He completed 18 of 34 passes for 306 yards in the rematch, throwing for three touchdowns and running for another.
Make no mistake, the Gators are No. 1.
Their only loss was at FSU, while Rose Bowl winner Ohio State lost at home to Michigan. Even more important, Florida beat -- no, make that crushed -- the only remaining undefeated team.
The Gators scored 28 unanswered points after Florida State pulled within 24-20 in the third quarter. Despite drawing 15 penalties -- a Sugar Bowl record -- they proved vastly superior to their in-state rivals.
Their offensive line provided far better protection than it did in the first meeting, when Wuerffel was sacked six times in a loss that knocked Florida out of the No. 1 spot.
And their defense held arch-nemesis Warrick Dunn to 28 yards on nine carries before Dunn departed his final collegiate game with leg cramps in the third quarter.
Wuerffel also was playing his final game. But unlike Dunn, he might not be headed to the NFL. Scouts project him as only a fifth- to seventh-round pick. No matter. He'll always have this season. And he'll always have last night.
He threw for 246 yards against the nation's third-ranked defense JTC in the first half, helping Florida build leads of 17-3 and 24-10. And his 16-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter put the game out of reach.
Spurrier out-coached Bobby Bowden, wisely making extensive use of the shotgun, a formation he once resisted. But it was Wuerffel who had to regroup after FSU mounted its comeback, Wuerffel who made sure Florida held the lead.
"Wuerffel's the guy, man," Bowden said. "Wuerffel's something."
"Absolutely sensational," Spurrier said.
He was sacked five times by the ferocious, swarming FSU defense, knocked down on numerous other occasions. But just as in the previous meeting, he kept rising off the canvas, and was voted the game's MVP.
What was it Bowden had said? "He'll hold the ball till the last second. He's got courage." Courage and class. While Spurrier repeatedly complained about FSU's late hits in the first meeting, Wuerffel never said a word.
His lack of arm strength and awkward release are the reasons he's only a borderline NFL prospect, but Wuerffel is undaunted. If he makes it as a pro, fine. If he doesn't, that's OK, too.
The Gators were 33-5-1 in games he started, 24-2 the past two seasons. Wuerffel won a national championship. There are worse ways to end a career.
"If I never play a down in the NFL, my life will not be affected at all," Wuerffel said this week. "There are other opportunities in other areas where I'm sure I'd be just as happy.
"If money was the only thing I was looking out for, then that would be a big disappointment because there's so much money in the NFL. But life to me is much more than money."
Wuerffel said he will consider graduate school, full-time work or possibly even the ministry if he doesn't make it in the NFL. Everyone respects him, everyone likes him -- even the parents of his biggest rivals.
Ernie Green Sr., the father of FSU receiver E.G. Green, is the assistant principal at Wuerffel's alma mater, Fort Walton Beach (Fla.) H.S. Wuerffel no longer is his son's teammate, but he remains a family favorite.
"He's just a super guy," said Green, whose son was a year behind Wuerffel at Fort Walton Beach. "You can't help but like him. That's how everyone sees him here.
"I don't think there's a teacher or student at school that would actually pull against Danny. They might not like the University of Florida. They might be Auburn, Alabama or FSU fans. But Danny's the All-American guy."
And Spurrier, at least, insists he can make it in the NFL.
"If one of those NFL teams wants to win a Super Bowl, they ought to get Danny Wuerffel on their team," Spurrier said.
That's just a coach supporting his player -- Wuerffel is likely to follow the same path as previous Heisman winners Charlie Ward, Gino Torretta and Andre Ware, none of whom succeeded in the NFL.
College football occupies its own special place in the sports galaxy, and Wuerffel is the kind of player who helps keep it unique.
As he put it, "This is the thing you dream about growing up."
He's Danny Wuerffel.
He's Danny Wonderful.
He's the quarterback of a national championship team.
Pub Date: 1/03/97