Robert Gillespie was a part of some of the most memorable, thrilling and tightly contested games in the Tennessee-Florida football rivalry.
As of March 1st, he’s on a different side.
The former Florida running back was hired as the new running backs coach at Tennessee after stints at South Carolina, Oklahoma State and, most recently, West Virginia.
He was on the field last Saturday when the Vols opened spring practice under new coach Butch Jones. And he was wearing a different shade of orange.
Such is life in the coaching profession.
“You never know where life is going to take you,” Gillespie said. “I played some of my most competitive games, competitive moments against this university.”
Gillespie isn’t exaggerating. In four games against UT from 1998-2001, Gillespie was 2-2. None of the four games were decided by more than four points. The total points scored in those four seasons: Florida 99, Tennessee 98.
Although all four games were memorable and significant in their own way, two stand out for Tennessee — the 1998 showdown at Neyland Stadium when Gillespie was a Florida freshman, and the 2001 game at the Swamp during his senior year.
In 1998, Tennessee beat the Gators 20-17 at Neyland Stadium, snapping a five-game losing streak in the series and — although it wasn’t clear in Week 2 — paving the way for a national championship run.
Gillespie got only one carry, but his teammates
fumbled four times, which would help push the freshman up the depth chart later in the season.
“Coach Jones was in my office the other day and I told him that story (about the 1998 game),” Gillespie said. “That stays with me. That is something that you never forget. I am a true freshman, playing Al Wilson, and you guys (Tennessee) go on to win the national championship.”
In addition to his one carry, Gillespie caught one pass, which was described this way in the Jacksonville (Fla.) Times-Union: “Gillespie caught a swing pass and ran 36 yards toward what looked like an apparent touchdown. But he inexplicably tried to cut back at the 3 and was tackled, when all he had to do was make a move and walk into the end zone. The Gators settled for a field goal.”
Fifteen years later, Gillespie still remembers it.
“I’m a freshmen and I get thrown into the game and I had a chance to make a play,” he said. “On the next play, I came out, the staff put in a senior and he fumbles on the next play. I’ll never forget it. When I had a chance to make a play and score, I did not. Those are just things you never forget.”
Then he added with a smile, “Hopefully that is the last time we will talk about it.”
The 2001 game was rescheduled because of the Sept. 11 attacks and played on Dec. 1 in Gainesville. The Gators were seen as a juggernaut at that point and were favored by an incredible 18 points, even though the Vols were in the midst of a very strong season as well.
Gillespie carried nine times for only 21 yards, but he caught a team-high 10 passes for 76 yards in the game. He also converted a critical third down on the Gators’ final drive. Florida scored a touchdown a few moments later, but failed to make a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. The Vols’ 34-32 win likely cost the Gators a shot at the national title.
In comments since his hiring, Gillespie made light of the fact that he had never reached the checkerboard end zone at Neyland Stadium. He could have pointed out the Gators victories in 1999 and 2000, but the Hattiesburg, Miss., native is sharp enough to understand SEC diplomacy.
“I played against some really good (Tennessee) defenses,” Gillespie said. “I know Coach (Jones) is going to get these guys fired up to get them back to where they should be.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat and take an in-depth look at all four of Gillespie's games against UT on his blog.