Joining Fred Biletnikoff as honorary captains on Saturday will be fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks and Walter Jones.
By Zach Stipe
Assistant Sports Information Director
Florida State football’s recent success puts a smile on the face and a Seminole hat on the head of FSU’s first-ever consensus All-American across the country in Northern California.
“I always wear my Florida State hat around town and every place I go,” said Fred Biletnikoff, a star for the Garnet and Gold in the early-1960s and later for the Oakland Raiders.
Despite a career that has kept him on the West Coast for the better part of his adult life, Biletnikoff has always remained a fan and a supporter of the Seminoles despite being unable to attend a game in over 35 years.
That changes on Saturday when the wide receiver who put Florida State on the national map returns to Doak Campbell Stadium to be honored along with fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks and Walter Jones.
“I’m looking forward to being part of everything down there and seeing a lot of friends I haven’t seen in a while…a lot of the guys that are coming back to be there and be part of the program for the weekend,” Biletnikoff said. “It’ll be a lot of fun for me even though I’ll be the older guy. Years ago it wasn’t that way, I was the younger guy, now I’m the older guy.
“It’s exciting to be part of everything for the weekend and being able to actually go to the game and see everybody and think about how small the stadium used to be years ago to what it’s grown to now, and especially with the team doing great.”
Biletnikoff is undoubtedly one of the greatest receivers in football history. He played 14 years with the Oakland Raiders from 1965-1978, totaling 589 receptions for 8,974 yards and 76 touchdowns, while leading the Silver and Black to a pair of Super Bowls. He was named MVP of Super Bowl XI. He later spent 18 seasons as an assistant coach with the Raiders and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
While he has become synonymous throughout the country with Oakland and the Raiders, Biletnikoff first made his mark when he put Florida State into the national spotlight as college football’s first great pass catcher.
Florida State head coach Bill Peterson and assistant coach Ken Meyer recruited Biletnikoff out of Erie, Pa., and he became the centerpiece of Peterson’s innovative offensive attack.
Peterson was from Ohio, while Meyer had actually lived in Erie – so the pair sold Biletnikoff on how a Midwest kid could thrive out of the cold and into the warmth on the Florida panhandle.
It wasn’t a hard sell.
“When I came down to visit, I said heck I’m getting out of Pennsylvania and coming down here,” Biletnikoff remembered. “It wasn’t tough because everyone down in Tallahassee was so nice and so hospitable. The southern hospitality was phenomenal. It was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to come down and leave the snow and come down to a different part of the country and really experience that in my lifetime.”
Peterson studied under San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman and brought a pro-style passing offense to Florida State, which was unheard of for the college ranks at the time – especially in the South where the wishbone and the option still reigned supreme.
“The whole team was a good mix to have a professional style offense and defense. And with Bill’s influence with Sid Gillman, we took a lot of the Chargers’ offense and implemented it at Florida State,” Biletnikoff said. “We were a team that could run the football, pass the football and play defense.”
Freshman could not play when Biletnikoff entered FSU in 1961 and he was limited by injuries to five games as a sophomore in 1962.
As a junior in 1963, Biletnikoff started on offense and defense, leading FSU in receptions and interceptions, while scoring five touchdowns, including a 99-yard pick-six return that stood as the FSU record until Deion Sanders came along.
“It was a long haul to get to my senior year,” he said. “I went through my periods of some injuries and that type of thing and just making it through my first couple of years, that period of time. Then all of a sudden we’re able to have an outstanding team in that era playing college football.”
The Seminoles really took off in Biletnikoff’s senior year in 1964. The combination of a 6-1, 190-pound receiver out Pennsylvania and a Cincinnati, Ohio-bred quarterback named Steve Tensi led Florida State to a 9-1-1 record and its first-ever Top 10 ranking during the season.
“Teams weren’t throwing the ball at all back then,” Biletnikoff said. “We really had a big advantage over teams because we were throwing the football. People hadn’t really seen that.”
Biletnikoff caught 57 passes for 987 yards and 11 touchdowns en route to being named Florida State’s first-ever consensus All-American. His total shattered all of the Florida State receiving marks and that was before his magnificent Gator Bowl performance to cap his career.
Bowl game statistics did not count back then, but Biletnikoff’s incredible 13-reception, 192-yard, four-touchdown masterpiece in FSU’s 36-19 win over traditional power Oklahoma in Jacksonville on Jan. 2, 1965 still resonates in FSU history. Biletnikoff and Tensi, who had the first 300-yard passing game ever by a Nole, were named Co-MVPs.
It’s a moment Biletnikoff ranks up there with his Super Bowl triumph.
“We went into the game throwing the football against them and we hammered them,” he said. “We were pretty fortunate to have the players we had on the team. It was great to win that game, and get catapulted to national attention throughout the country. We beat Oklahoma. The Gator Bowl was a big-time bowl then. It was a great feeling. It’s something I will never forget.
“Winning that as such a young guy and being nationally recognized…I had great success in my college years and then I was able to go play professional football for a number of years and win the Super Bowl. I was MVP of the Gator Bowl, along with Steve, and the Super Bowl. Those are two highlights of my life. I love it. I was fortunate enough to have that success in two of the biggest games I ever played – the one in college and winning the Super Bowl with the Raiders.”
The Gator Bowl is also where his Raiders career started. Al Davis was at the game and signed Biletnikoff, with the American Football League team’s coveted second round pick, the minute the clock hit zeros.
“I never got to the locker room,” Biletnikoff said with a laugh. “I signed right after the game. Al Davis was right there.”
In the 1960s, the NFL had a rival start-up league in the AFL and the dueling organizations often fought over player’s draft rights.
Biletnikoff was also drafted by the Detroit Lions, but opted for the Raiders in the start-up league that encouraged more wide-open, pass-oriented offenses.
“They were throwing the football all over the place,” Biletnikoff said. “That was the best fit for me. Obviously, having Al Davis’ influence, too. It was just another part of the journey I took. Going from Erie all the way down to Tallahassee and then all the way out to Oakland. I liked that excitement of going all the way out to California and playing football with the Raiders – especially that style of football the AFL was playing.”
After his Hall of Fame career in Oakland, Biletnikoff made several coaching stops before settling in as assistant coach with the Raiders in 1989. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991.
In 1994, his career inspired the first-ever outstanding college football wide receiver honor when the Tallahassee Quarterback Club Foundation began the Biletnikoff Award.
“They had been watching all of the awards on TV for the various positions and they thought a wide receiver award was missing,” Biletnikoff said. “They wanted to know if I would be interested. Of course, I said.”
“It’s turned out to be phenomenal. It’s been terrific.”
The Biletnikoff Award remains one of college football’s premier awards and is featured on ESPN’s annual College Football Awards Show in Orlando. The now-71-year-old Biletnikoff makes those yearly trips to Orlando and to Tallahassee for the spring banquet whenever he can, but it can be tough living on the West Coast and with his schedule full of charity events and speaking engagements.
Still, he remains an avid fan of the Seminoles and has fond memories of Tallahassee, including the circus and his football dorm.
He continues to watch every Florida State game he can and has been impressed with the current Jimbo Fisher-led teams, especially fellow record-breaking wide receiver Rashad Greene.
“These guys look like a professional football team out there,” Biletnikoff said of the current Noles. “These guys are amazing. That caught my eye. Not only the whole team, but how Rashad plays. You can see that professional side already in him. He looks more like a professional player than a college player out there.”
On Saturday, Biletnikoff will be able to watch Greene and the rest of the Seminoles live and in person at Doak Campbell Stadium.
He may not have a hat on his head, but he’ll have a smile on his face and everybody will know he’s rooting for the Noles.
It will be great to have him back.