Athlon Archive: Steve Spurrier is not Darth Vader

In 1995, Steve Spurrier already irked his enemies. He was just getting started

When Steve Spurrier retired abruptly from college football coaching this week, the South Carolina coach was the subject of dozens of complimentary columns and retrospectives. Indeed, there has never been another like Spurrier, the all-time wins leader at Florida and South Carolina who redefined the SEC with his offensive brilliance.

 

At the same time, he was outspoken and — some would say — arrogant, needling rivals along the way. Even in 1995, even some Florida stalwarts were skeptical.

 

By the end of the 1994, he had won three SEC titles and reached four bowl games. The 1995 season would be his best at Florida despite humiliation in the Fiesta Bowl against national champion Nebraska. The 1996 season would bring Florida’s national title and a Heisman winner.

 

In this 1995 Athlon Sports feature, reporter Buddy Martin describes Spurrier’s ascent and why the coach continued to lock horns with rivals.

 

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Trash Steve Spurrier if you must. Call him arrogant or insensitive or petulant. But give him credit for perhaps the quickest and most profound rehabilitation of a program in the history of intercollegiate athletics.

 

Rodney Dangerfield doesn’t live in Gainesville, Fla., anymore. Gator bashers better go looking for new booty because they don’t have Florida football to kick around anymore.

 

The greatest player in Florida history has now become the greatest football coach in Florida history: 49 wins, 12 losses and one tie (.798), three Southeastern Conference titles and four bowl games. And there is no letup in sight.

 

If you have that kind of success so quickly and defeat your opponents by such large margins as Spurrier, it doesn’t take long until they want to make you out to be Darth Vader.

 

How unlikely of a role for Florida’s football coach, once deemed the All-American boy, to become The Villain in some quarters. Suddenly, they want to start keeping score on some minor indiscretions when what they should be keeping score on is the meteoric ascent of Gator football under Spurrier.

 

Bedraggled and beaten down by so many lashes from the NCAA’s whip, Florida’s football program has come off probation with a vengeance since Spurrier took over in 1990. It is true, however, that Spurrier’s abrasive style alienates some of his own people on hi sway to the penthouse.

 

Though usually compliant and cooperative with the media, he has been known to call sports writers at home and challenge their facts or points of view. He carries on feuds with two columnists at major newspapers in Florida.

 

Yet Spurrier also is honest to a fault. Sometimes he says more than he should. Usually he can be counted on for at least a couple of juicy headlines a season. Sensitive alumni might call him mouthy. The press prefers to think of him as candidate.

 

For the most part, Gator fans are happy with Spurrier’s return. It’s his enemies, namely opposing coaches and hostile media, who like to take potshots at him. Just try to get somebody to say something critical about him for the record. Not many will do that.

 

The father of a starter on the 1994 Gator team told me: “You can’t say bad things about Steve Spurrier. He’s too big in the state. And he wins.” Behind Spurrier’s back, however, even some of his own faithful will rip him — off the record.

 

He slams his golf visor to the ground too much.

 

He’s always running his mouth.

 

He always blames somebody else when he loses.

 

He doesn’t sign enough autographs.

 

He’d better win, he’s so arrogant.

 

He keeps his quarterbacks on a short leash.

 

His players don’t like him.

 

He just cain’t beat them Bowden boys.

 

And so it goes – the bashing of Steve Spurrier, who, paradoxically, is one of the hottest coaching properties in all of football, college or pro.

 

As for those few disgruntled Florida fans: That only proves the critics right who say they don’t know prosperity when they see it.

 

For 50 years Gator fans have been trying to find a coach who could win an SEC title that the school would be allowed to keep. Along comes Spurrier and wins three in five years. They ought to build a statue of him on top of the Century Tower instead of harping at him for his volatile sideline demeanor.

 

“I wonder how the fans of Tennessee or Georgia or one of those SEC schools would feel if their school — somebody besides Alabama and Florida — played in the championship game,” Spurrier mused in an interview last spring. Good point. Since they started playing the SEC title game three years ago, only the Tide and the Gator have made it there. Florida has won two. Spoiled Gator fans now wonder what’s taking him so long to win a national championship. After all, Miami and Florida State have their trophies on the mantle already.

 

Bellyachers forget the fact that in five short years, Spurrier took a college football program out of the City Dump and put it on the front counter of Tiffany’s. On April 28, Florida’s ex-wonder boy turned 50. Friends hope age will mellow him some. Diehard Gator fans hope he will develop an even nastier side to his personality. His enemies hope he’ll retire.

 

To know Spurrier well is to now of his fierce competitive spirit at anything he does. And that his playful sense of humor is to poke fun at both friends and foes alike. Where he gets in trouble is when he mixes the high-spirited competition with the humor.

 

Example: At several Gator Club meetings in 1994, Spurrier suggested FSU was an acronym for “Free Shoes University.” That was after several Florida State football players had been charged with taking $6,000 shopping sprees at a Foot Locker store, courtesy of an unscrupulous agent.

 

Yet, Spurrier expresses respect for Florida State. Interestingly enough, during his press conference on the day he was hired, Dec. 31, 1989, Spurrier called Bobby Bowden “probably the best coach in college football today.”

 

And while he was not directly implicating Bowden with his remarks about “Free Shoes University,” he was certainly casting aspersions on Bowden’s Florida State program.

 

Trying to keep a sense of humor about to Bowden chortled, “The shoes may have been free, but we’ve paid dearly for everything else.”

 

There really was no grand plan for Spurrier to become a coach of any kind, let alone Florida’s savior. After almost a decade of knocking around the San Francisco 49ers as a reserve quarterback and punter, and eventually winding up as the starter for the ill-fated Tampa Bay Bucs in their inaugural season, Spurrier returned home to Gainesville to ponder his future in the late ‘70s.

 

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Spurrier says. “Maybe get into some kind of public relations job, play some golf.”

 

At that point, coaching was not paramount to him. Then one day he decided to start attending Florida games, sitting in the stands for the first time in his life. That’s where the idea first occurred to Spurrier that he might coach. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as then-coach Doug Dickey’s assistant to instruct the quarterbacks. From there, Spurrier went to Georgia Tech to work for his old coach, Pepper Rogers, and then on to Duke as Red Wilson’s offensive coordinator.

 

A few years later, Spurrier, at 37, would become the youngest head coach in college football as he took over the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League.

 

All the while, the fate of Gator football was riding a roller coaster in the 80s, from championships to NCAA probation. Spurrier told friends he didn’t think he’d ever be the head coach for the Gators because “I don’t think the job will ever be open while I’m coaching.” That’s what he told me one January night in 1985 in Mobile, Ala., The USFL had just lost its court battle with the National Football League, and Spurrier’s career was very much in doubt.

“I think Galen Hall will do a good job for them, and he’ll be there for a long time,” Spurrier said.

After losing his opener to Ole Miss, Hall’s ’89 team won four straight and it appeared as Spurrier had said, that Galen was solidified in that job. Two days later, hall resigned, and the hunt was on for the next Florida coach. All eyes turned to Durham, N.C., where Spurrier’s Blue Devils were about to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and go to their first bowl in two decades.

 

Unbelievably, however, there was an undercurrent of resistance about Spurrier, not least of which came from athletic director Bill Arnsparger, although he later denied it. Spurrier became the overwhelming choice.

 

As the 1994 season unfolded, I observed Spurrier up close on a regular weekly basis and was surprised to discover the intense pressure he faced on a daily basis. In today’s world of conflict between coach and athlete, Spurrier’s willingness to make swift and decisive measures in meting out punishment is down right admirable and refreshing.

 

I asked Spurrier about all that pressure. He told a story about a friend of his, a former player at Georgia now coaching at a small college, who was feeling overwhelmed.

 

Spurrier: “If you think you’ve got pressure at small school, what do you think it’s like for me at Florida?”

 

Friend: “The big difference is that when you go to the bank an deposit your check every week, the pressure is alleviated quite a bit.”

 

Spurrier makes in excess of $700,000 a year. The price of everything has gone up.

 

***

 

Auburn-Florida week in 1994: Perhaps the biggest game ever to be played at Florida Field. Both teams undefeated and nationally ranked, the Gators at No.1  and the Tigers at No. 6 in the Associated press poll. A heated rivalry. And Spurrier against Terry Bowden, son of Bobby, that hated Bowden clan.

 

A big weekend in the life of all gators, but none more than terry Dean, who was two weeks from his 23rd birthday and himself in position to reap more glory than he ever deemed possible in his football life.

 

Dean was now the starting quarterback on the nation’s No. 1 team, and with 18 touchdowns in five games, he was on track to perhaps being recognized as the greatest football player in the land. If he was feeling good about himself, little wonder.

 

Instead of strutting with confidence, however, Terry Dean was beginning to feel the heat more than ever now. Despite his torrid, seven-touchdown first half in the opener against New Mexico State and near-flawless game against Kentucky and first half against Tennessee, he was starting to leak oil: The interceptions mounted against Ole Miss and LSU as Florida continued unbeaten.

 

After Dean’s poor outing against LSU, Spurrier knew he had to change his coaching strategy. Thus, he would revert to a hardball role with Dean. It was not a language Dean would be able to translate into results on the field. Yet expectations of Terry Dean were never higher. Expectations of Florida football were never higher. The stress impacted everybody.

 

What was a coach to do? His team was ranked No. 1in the country, his 1uarterback was leading the Heisman race, and yet there was a problem with the offense, which he could only correct through Dean, either by eliminating interceptions or benching him.

 

On Monday morning after the LSU game, as Dean stepped off the elevator into the athletic office, Spurrier summoned his fifth-year senior quarterback to his office where he would deliver the bad news.

 

Dean knew the conversation was going to be serious when Spurrier closed the door. Dean says he got the worst chewing out of his career. “My knees were shaking,” he said. On the following Saturday, Dean went out and threw four interceptions to Auburn by early in the third period, was benched and never played another significant down at Florida.

 

Spurrier sees nothing wrong with benching a player, but many would call that more of a “burial” than a benching.

 

“Look, I’m not going to criticize Terry Dean,” Spurrier said. “I’ve said all along I did a lousy job of coaching him. If Terry goes on to have a great career in the BNFL, then I guess he’ll prove I was wrong. He said I was putting too much pressure on him, and I certainly don’t want to do that to any player. So I made a change.”

 

That’s now exactly how Dean said it, but clearly, in the press conference following the 36-33 loss to Auburn when Dean revealed he received two mandates from his coach that week to play better or face demotion, that was considered an act of treason. Dean played twice more in mop-up roles.

 

In the national press, Spurrier took the heat. In a season when a national championship was being talked about, winning your third SEC title seems a bit of a compromise to some. Spurrier says he understands that fans’ expectations of Florida football have been raised considerably.

 

Fact is, Spurrier only might have been two plays from his chance for a national championship trophy: 1) when Floidia failed to stop Auburn on fourth and 10 in the final minutes of the game, and 2) any one of a dozen plays to stop Florida state in the fourth period after taking a 31-3 lead with 13 minutes left to play in what Seminole fans called “The Choke at Doak.”

 

The best scenario: Florida beats Auburn, remains ranked No. 1, beats the Seminoles and doesn’t have to face them again, playing a team like Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. As it was, the season ended ignominiously with a 23-17 loss against the Gators’ bitterest rival. Florida State found a way to pressure quarterback Danny Wuerffel and put a crimp in Florida’s offense.

 

Spurrier’s nemesis, Bobby Bowden, thinks the Gator coach will improve with time. “I think you are more impatient when you’re young,” Bowden says, without mentioning Spurrier’s name. I know I certainly was. And I’m a lot more tolerant now than I was 10 years ago.”

 

However, Bowden is remembering less and less what it’s like to lose to Florida because the Seminoles have dominated the series the last nine years.

 

“We haven’t actually dominated,” says Bowden. “We‘ve won, but it’s been darn close in most cases. You get back to the bowls, and people ask us why we’ve won them: Probably because we’ve got better players than the people we’re playing. I’m not saying we’ve got better players than them (Florida), we’ve just got a few more better players. But that thing will roll the other way.”

 

Spurrier’s long-term future at Florida appears to be what he wants to make it. Despite rumors that he had conversations with the Carolina Panthers of the NFL, Spurrier says he has no intentions of leaving his alma mater. With a contract through the year 20000, it would appear that only if and when he’s ready to leave will the Spurrier era end.

 

That may not happen until he can finally delver on that greatest moment ever for Gator fans, a national championship. First, though, Spurrier’s got to beat Bowden and win the state title.

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