Tim Tebow doesn’t just have a claim to having the greatest college football career by a Florida Gator, but one to the greatest college football career ever.
He won a national title as a freshman, a Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, a national title as a starting quarterback as a junior, and 12 games for the third time as a senior. If Florida had beaten Alabama in that 2009 SEC Championship Game, I have little doubt that the Gators would have also beaten Texas, and Tebow would’ve had three titles in four years, two in consecutive seasons as a starter.
There could be arguments about whether Tebow were the best or most talented player in college football history — or on his own teams, thanks to Percy Harvin — at that point, but I firmly believe there would not have been a credible argument against Tebow as the greatest, most accomplished player in the history of the sport.
And I still don’t think Florida would have — or should have — retired his No. 15.
Tebow’s immortalized with that number in both bronze and steel, outside and atop The Swamp, as part of Florida’s Heisman statue display and the Gators’ Ring of Honor. His jersey has been worn with and without his name by countless fans — though the number is likely in the millions. The list of American athletes this century who are associated with the number they wore while playing sports more closely than Tebow is with No. 15 is short, and two of the human beings on it — Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — wore multiple numbers.
Fewer than five years after Tebow left Gainesville, Florida had Loucheiz Purifoy, of all people, making plays in No. 15.
This fall, Anthony Richardson — freighted with much of the potential and promise that Tebow had, but still only a fraction of his hype — will wear the number, perhaps as much for the easy marketing tie in to the obvious nickname of AR-15 as to inherit a bit of Tebow’s legacy. And no Gator I know seems upset about this — maybe in part because Kyle Trask spent last fall wearing Steve Spurrier’s No. 11 on his way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Retiring a number just doesn’t seem to be in Florida’s plans as an athletic department, as doing so for Tebow given his accomplishments or for the late Eraste Autin in deference to the tragedy that befell him under Florida’s watch would have been done by now. The Gators have, likewise, made no moves toward retiring the numbers of Joakim Noah or Al Horford, for example, despite their arguably equal achievements.
And so the history of Florida Gators athletes gets to be one of legacies upheld or let down, of succession and success or following to failure. Richardson will obviously not be Tebow — but he’ll conjure up the memories and maybe emerge from the shadows. Every player wearing No. 1 might become the next Harvin or the evolutionary Keiwan Ratliff — or his own different legend, one who writes a new chapter for a familiar number.
I think I like it like that.