Bob Woodruff isn’t exactly the sexiest name in UF sports. He’s not talked about as one of the program’s great coaches, his legacy is only revered deep in the annals of Florida history, and he’s only the fourth result when you search for Bob Woodruff on Wikipedia.
When compared to UF’s more venerated coaches like Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier and Ray Graves, he’s an afterthought. To me, this is a tragic outcome for someone I consider the most important coach in the school's history and integral in creating today’s football juggernaut.
This is not a widely held belief and to defend my case, I present the state of the team before his hiring. 1949 was a strange time for college football. The nation's best offenses struggled to throw for 100 yards a game, Tulane and Georgia Tech were competing at the top of the SEC, and Florida was really bad at football.
This was the year in which the “Two Bits” tradition began as George Edmondson won over the boo birds at Florida Field with his iconic chant. These grouchy Gators did have a reason to be pessimistic. Since the release of the first AP Poll in 1936, not only had UF never been ranked, but it managed just one winning season during a war-shortened 1944 campaign. For reference, over the last 14 years, no FBS team has posted a losing record in each of those seasons.
Bob Woodruff was hired the following season and displayed immediate progress. The Gators were 5-5 in 1950 and rose as high as 17th in the polls after a strong start. Over the next decade, Woodruff cemented the team as a force in the SEC. Florida put together five winning seasons, was nationally ranked 8 times and managed a 6-4 record against Georgia.
All of this success begs the question: What if UF never hired Woodruff?
I’d argue that the consequences would extend far beyond the win and loss columns for Florida football, though, as he was immense in developing the program.
Woodruff served as an assistant under Tennessee coaching legend Robert Neyland and imparted Neyland’s strong defensive principles onto his UF teams. And, while this led to many single-digit score lines at Florida Field, it served to create an identity for the team.
Over the 60 years since Woodruff left the university this identity has evolved and taken different forms, but UF has always had a reputation as a strong defensive team.
Woodruff enjoyed the unique privilege of serving as the athletic director throughout his head coaching tenure at Florida. This status granted him increased control of how resources would be allocated towards the football team. He managed to get lights installed at the stadium in his first year and add 11,000 seats.
He also played a pivotal role in restructuring the boosters and donors to UF. A lot of Florida’s continued success has been due to the resources granted to them by the school and the alumni base. Woodruff deserves much of the credit for creating the infrastructure that brought cash flow into the football team.
Lastly, it’s important to consider the timing of his hiring. Through the 1940s, college football remained more popular and successful at universities in the North. This was still a formative period for football in the South, with the only storied programs being Alabama, Tennessee and John Heisman’s Georgia Tech.
During the ‘50s and ‘60s, however, much of the old guard fell by the wayside, and college football’s contemporary blue bloods began to dominate. Righting the ship during this period was important, as another decade of failure may have seen UF slip further behind its peers during a period of massive expansion and growth for the sport.
These are characteristics of the UF program that many take for granted, but for years the team was deprived of these defining traits. Many harken back to the tenures that brought about national championships and Heisman Trophies, but none of that would have been possible without the groundwork laid by Bob Woodruff.
Follow Declan on Twitter @dawalsh_UF.