NEW ORLEANS — Muhammad Ali returns to the scene of one of his greatest triumphs Wednesday.
The former heavyweight champion will represent his hometown school, Louisville, in the coin toss before the Sugar Bowl between the Cardinals and Florida.
Ali, who defeated Leon Spinks in the Superdome in 1978 to win the world heavyweight title for the third time, will be accompanied by former Louisville linebacker (and current ESPN analyst) Tom Jackson.
Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel, who quarterbacked the Gators past Florida State in the 1997 Sugar Bowl for the national championship, and ex-Gator running back Emmitt Smith also will be on the field for the toss.
When Florida last played in the Sugar Bowl, Tim Tebow threw for a BCS-record 482 yards to lead the Gators to a 51-24 win against Cincinnati in 2010.
With the exception of last year’s playoff victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers, things haven’t gone as well for Tebow since. He was benched in the New York Jets’ season-ending loss to Buffalo on Sunday and is expected to be released soon.
Florida senior nose guard Omar Hunter was a teammate of Tebow’s for two years and can’t figure out why one of college football’s most prolific quarterbacks is struggling to find his niche in the pros.
“They’ve got to let my boy on the field,” Hunter said. “Tim Tebow is a winner. He’s going to outwork everyone. Once he gets his opportunity, I know he’s going to make the most of it, and I can’t wait to see it.”
Hunter said Jacksonville would be a good place for Tebow.
“Being back near his hometown would help,” Hunter said. “There’d be a lot of pressure, too, but I think he can handle it.”
Recently fired Kentucky coach Joker Phillips was hired as Florida’s wide receivers coach, but he’s acting mainly as an observer this week.
He replaces Bush Hamden, who is headed to Arkansas State; he had been promoted from graduate assistant in August when former aide Aubrey Hill left amid an NCAA investigation.
Phillips’ Wildcats were the only common opponent for Louisville and Florida: Kentucky lost to Florida 38-0 and to Louisville 32-14.
As the No. 3 team in the BCS standings, Florida was an automatic qualifier for a BCS bowl. But it’s doubtful that the Gators would have finished so high had Loucheiz Purifoy not blocked a Louisiana-Lafayette punt that Jelani Jenkins returned for a touchdown in the final seconds of the Gators’ 27-20 victory in November.
“That was maybe the biggest play of the year,” Florida senior receiver Frankie Hammond said. “It would have been pretty embarrassing if we’d lost that one.”
Louisville coach Charlie Strong is the first black head coach in the 79-year history of the Sugar Bowl. And with the success of Strong, Kevin Sumlin of Texas A&M, David Shaw of Stanford and James Franklin of Vanderbilt, Strong said race is becoming less of a factor in the hiring process.
“You look at what has happened in the last couple of years, and race isn’t an issue,” he said. “And now that we’ve had a chance to go out and be successful, I think you’re going to see more guys get their shot.”
LSU fans decry having to play Florida every year, but the annual matchup is just fine with the Gators.
“LSU-Florida is a great national matchup for our league,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “It’s going to create a lot of national attention, as opposed to some other matchups. But I also understand both sides of it, such as our not seeing a team like Auburn for another six years. I want to do what’s best for our league.”
Muschamp said he’s opposed to the SEC going to nine conference games since the Gators yearly play a traditionally strong nonconference foe in Florida State. Florida also faces Miami next season and has Arkansas as its other opponent from the SEC West.
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