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Former Florida coach, athletic director Ray Graves dies at 96

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A true Gator great has passed.

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Ray Graves, who served as Florida's football coach from 1960 to 1969 and Florida's athletic director from 1960 to 1979, died Friday in Tampa. He was 96.

Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, whom Graves recruited to Florida, and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, who arrived at Florida in the 17th of Graves's 20 years working as athletic director, paid Graves tribute in a release.

"A tremendous influence on my life," Spurrier said Friday. "After my mother and dad, Coach Graves had the biggest influence on my life. I am so thankful for him. I had a chance yesterday to tell him I love him and I sincerely thank him for the influence he had on me."

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"We are truly saddened to hear of the passing of Ray Graves," Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said. "You can't put into words what he has meant to the Gator Nation and the countless lives he has touched from his players, coaches, friends and family. Like many others I was fortunate to have a personal relationship with him and will be forever grateful for our time together. God bless him and his family."

Graves went 70-31-4 as head man of the Gators, and was notably responsible for leading Florida to its first Sugar and Orange Bowls, and recruiting both Spurrier, the Gators' first Heisman Trophy winner, and Jack Youngblood, Florida's first NFL Hall of Famer. When he gave up coaching duties after a 9-1-1 season in 1969, it was as the winningest coach in Gators history — and after Florida's first-ever one-loss campaign over a schedule consisting of at least 10 games. Graves posted just one losing season in his 10 years, which were bookended by nine-win efforts, and his teams made five bowls, more than doubling Florida's tally of postseason appearances.

And while Graves getting Spurrier's commitment is obviously one of the best things to ever happen to Florida sports — for inking a Heisman Trophy winner alone, it would be, even without Spurrier's triumphant return to Gainesville as coach — it arguably isn't even the signature masterstroke of Graves's time as head coach. Graves was instrumental in the research into and adoption of Gatorade as Florida's performance drink of choice, and it was his connection to Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram that helped bring Gatorade to the NFL.

Graves stepped down to allow a beloved former Florida quarterback to become the Gators' head coach in 1970 — that idea was just 20 years too premature for Doug Dickey, of course — and continued as Florida's athletic director for another decade. Florida won its first national championship in any sport with the NCAA championship in men's golf in 1968, then another one in the same sport in 1973. The Gators' first women's national title came at the end of Graves's final year as athletic director, as Florida won the AIAW's women's swimming national championship in 1979, but did so after his departure in January of that year.

After leaving Florida, Graves worked for George Steinbrenner, then retired in 1989. In retirement, he resided in Tampa with his wife, Opal — whom he married in 1942. And in 1990, Graves, by then already long a member of the Florida Sports Hall of Fame and the University of Florida Hall of Fame, was inducted as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

"This is simply wonderful," Graves said of the honor. "I never expected this. In my own mind, I do not deserve this, to be put in the same hall with the coaches that have been elected. But I accept it with great humility and gratitude."

With respect, I think Graves was wrong about deserving his enshrinement.

Very few people have done more for the University of Florida's athletic programs than Graves did. He will be missed dearly by his family and friends — and by Gator Nation.