I wanted to wait a few days before writing about Charley Pell. Sometimes when people die, everybody’s coming out of the woodwork to say something about that person, good or bad.
I first met Charley in 1978 in a back stairwell in Charleston, South Carolina. He was just getting his feet wet as the Head Coach at Clemson, I was a new reporter. I waited for him after a Tiger booster club speech. He had seen me before the meeting, and knew I’d been waiting.
“You’re a hell of a man,” Pell said as he slapped me on the shoulder. At the time it seemed to me like something he said a lot. But it wasn’t offensive. There was a certain appeal to Pell, he had charisma in a very “old school” way.
He was one of the original throwbacks. A man’s man. He even smoked like that, with a determination that he was going to get the best out of this cigarette, consequences be damned. He talked about his players as “that ‘ole boy” naming their “momma’s and daddy’s” and referred to their hometowns and their high school coaches like old friends. When he spoke, he always acted as if he was letting you in on a secret.
I don’t know if I broke the story or not, but I was one of the first to report Charley was headed to Florida. His friends confirmed it for me, saying Pell thought it was the quickest way back to Alabama. Not a lot is ever made about Pell’s similarity to Bear Bryant, but everything about him said “The Bear.”
He referred to himself in conversation as “we.” He had a self-depreciating style and created a very tight inner circle. He never thought of himself as smart, so he made up for it with dedication, hard work and loyalty. If you were inside, you were set, if you were outside, somehow you were always the enemy. Charley followed Bear’s rules, but they changed the rules along the way, and it got him, and the Gators into trouble.
I helped Charley in some of his early private business ventures, and we played golf a few times while he lived here in town. I went to see him in the hospital the night he tried to kill himself, only to be turned away because security recognized me as media, and not somebody who knew Charley and wanted to help.
As the years passed, I was saddened by the fact that nobody would let Pell do what he wanted to do: coach. Charley was really wrong in how he went about things at Florida, but in a way, he didn’t see it as wrong. It was just how things were done. He was just 20 years too late, because they changed the rules.
Pell’s accusers never saw it as wrong to effectively end his career, and in a way, his life as he wanted it. It was a feeding frenzy when the NCAA sanctions came out. Both in Gainesville and Birmingham, where the sanctions were announced, the media had its hands on a juicy story and wasn’t letting go. For many reporters, it was their first post-Watergate experience, and they were going to prove themselves worthy of it.
Charley’s legacy as a coach is one of success and shame, the person who laid the groundwork for the current Gator success, but branded them as a renegade program for years. He galvanized the alumni, raised money, got the football team out of debt and created an esprit de corps among Gator fans never seen before. He banished the old “wait ‘till next year” philosophy, trading it for winning now. If he seems like much more of a sympathetic figure now, he should be. He wasn’t defiant in the end, admitting wrong doing, but saying taking all of the blame was his biggest mistake.
When he was alive, there was never any public forgiveness, no public acknowledgement of the positive things he accomplished, the people’s lives he touched. Now that he’s gone, I don’t think it’s too late.