Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Ball Coach

First allow me to say that I can not stand the Florida Gators. This is because their fans -- in particular, the legions who didn't go to school at UF and couldn't find Gainesville on a map -- are the most obnoxious on Earth, and it has been that way since time immemorial.

Even when the Gators were going through the 84-year run of mediocrity and irrelevance that preceded Steve Spurrier being named their coach, it was impossible to find a Gator fan who was capable of admitting that they ever lost a game. Whenever Florida wound up on the wrong side of the final score, it was always because the other team cheated or the officials had it out for them.

What about the fact that the football program started in 1906 and did not experience an SEC championship until 1991? Obviously, that was because the SEC's powers-that-be conspired against it!

Florida fans (again, I am referring mostly to their "sidewalk alumi") are the most obnoxious on Earth. They make Texas fans seem dispassionate and Bama fans seem like choir boys. Heck, when the Gators play the Tide I usually find myself hoping Bama wins because Bama's partisans are more pleasant to deal with -- and as you know, I graduated from Auburn.

I say all this to point out that I was not happy when Stephen Orr Spurrier took the coaching helm at UF and put actual wind beneath the fans' wings. He transformed that program from middle of the pack to a genuine national power, delivering six SEC crowns and the 1996 national championship.

In other words, I am not predisposed to like Spurrier.

But that doesn't mean I don't respect him, and I have to admit that his presence on the sidelines made college football better and more fun than it was before. I think his decision to hang up his whistle represents a loss for the sporting world, and therefore it's worth taking a look back.

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Florida fans regarded him worshipfully even before he became Florida's coach, and they were right to do so. In the midst of what I semi-accurately called an "84-year run of mediocrity and irrelevance," he provided a bright period of success during his playing career, which saw him spend three seasons as Florida's starting QB and win the Heisman Trophy in 1966. In his senior season he led the Gators to a 9-2 record (their best ever up to then) and capped it off with a 27-12 Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.

And it has to count in his favor that during that senior year he got married to his girlfriend and fellow UF student Jerri Starr. Today, 49 years later, he remains married to her and they have four children and twelve grandchildren

But as much as Spurrier is associated with the University of Florida, and by extension with the state of Florida, his contributions reach far beyond those limited confines.

After graduating, he went on to play for ten years in the NFL (nine with the 49'ers, followed by one with the Buccaneers in their inaugural season).

Then he served as Florida's quarterbacks coach in 1978, Georgia Tech's quarterbacks coach in 1979, and Duke's offensive coordinator from 1980 to 1982.

When the USFL started up in 1983, Spurrier was named head coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits. He guided them to the playoffs in each of the three years that league existed, compiling an overall record of 35-19. The Bandits had the best attendance of any USFL franchise; and notably, they had better attendance than the NFL's Buccaneers.

In 1987 he became head coach at perennially hapless Duke and turned it into a conference champion. Yes, in 1989 he produced an ACC championship at Duke.

In 1990 Spurrier came home, as it were, as head coach of Florida. One year later, Florida won its first-ever SEC championship and went on to dominate the SEC for the entire decade of the 1990's. He coached there for twelve seasons, winning ten or more games in nine of those seasons and never finishing a season with fewer than nine victories. And remember, that was when there were only eleven games in the college football regular season.

After an unremarkable two-year stint coaching the NFL's Washington Redskins, plus one year out of the game altogether, Spurrier made what proved to be a triumphant return to coaching in 2005 when he took over as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. He wound up leading them to an unprecedented level of success, and over the ensuing decade earned just as much love in Columbia, SC as he had previously earned in Gainesville, FL.

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South Carolina is a major university in the South. It has always had tons of fervid fan support and a significant amount of resources from which to draw. It is the only school in the Carolinas ever to play football in the SEC, which it has been doing since 1992. But prior to Spurrier, it found football success to be elusive.

Back when they were in the ACC, the 'Cocks managed a conference championship in 1968 -- but did so with an overall losing record of 4-6 and unimpressive conference record of 4-3.

George Rogers won the 1980 Heisman Trophy while playing for them, and that year's team went 8-3 during the regular season -- but the season ended with a 21-point loss to hated Clemson followed by a 28-point loss to Pitt in the Gator Bowl.

The 1984 team went 10-1 in the regular season, but is mostly remembered for the season's inglorious ending. Going into the next-to-last week, the 'Cocks were 9-0, ranked #2, and appeared destined to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the national title -- only to lose by 17 points to Navy, which had entered the game 3-5-1. The loss prompted head coach Joe Morrison to lash out in the locker room by telling his players "you just blew a chance at a national championship, you're not going to be #1, we're not going to the Orange Bowl, and you just lost your university two million dollars!"

They beat Ohio State in back-to-back New Year's Day bowls during Lou Holtz's six-season run from 1999 to 2004 -- but that run did not feel like it had the promise of long-term success, seeing as how it started with an 0-11 campaign, ended with a 6-5 campaign, and the NCAA was investigating the program when Holtz departed.

South Carolina played football for 113 years before Spurrier arrived, and over the course of those 113 years it lost more games than it won -- but during the decade since, it has won 37 more than it lost, which is enough to give it an overall winning record since the program started up in the 1890's.

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Record-wise, at first glance, Spurrier's first year with South Carolina might not seem like anything to write home about. The 'Cocks went 7-5 in the regular season and lost to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. But they defeated his alma mater by knocking off the #12 Gators, and they defeated another hated foe by upsetting #23 Tennessee on the road.

In 2010 he coached South Carolina to its first ever victory over a top-ranked team, defeating Alabama by a convincing 35-21. That year's squad went on to win the SEC East and appear in the SEC Championship Game for the first time ever.

From 2011 through 2013 he coached South Carolina to three consecutive 11-win seasons -- although the school had never before had even one 11-win season.

Although not every South Carolina season under Spurrier has been stellar -- the 'Cocks are 2-4 so far this year -- he has made them a fixture in the national conversation and made them a team that everyone is skittish to play against. There is something big to say about that.

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When many people think of Steve Spurrier, they think of swaggering arrogance, and that impression is accurate.

When other people think of him, they think of loyalty, and that impression is accurate too.

When others think of him, they think of rebelliousness, and that impression is accurate too.

When others think of him, they think of dedication, and that impression is accurate too.

But maybe the main thing we should think of is this: Fun.

It was not fun to be on the losing end of a game in which he kept calling passing plays in the fourth quarter when his team was ahead by 35 points. But he was having fun. And every time the tables turned, it was extraordinarily fun to watch him twitch when your team beat his cocky ass.

Steve Spurrier was good at what he did because he had fun doing what he did, and it was always fun to watch a game in which he was coaching.

He hated losing, but even when losing he found a way to kindle a weird kind of fun by sticking his thumb in the eye of whoever it was that beat him. He finished his Florida coaching career with a losing record against Florida State, but that didn't stop him from fire-poking his rivals by saying FSU stands for "Free Shoes University" when FSU was under investigation for players receiving outlawed benefits from a sporting goods store.

Whether on the losing or winning end of a rivalry, he was always happy to cement the rivalry status by shit-talking opposing schools. After he was falsely quoted as criticizing the Clemson program, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney reacted with histrionic anger -- to which Spurrier, having already said the quotes were false, replied by remarking: "Smart people don't believe everything they read, and they don't believe hearsay. I guess Dabo believed it."

Reveling in the fact that Peyton Manning never beat Florida and never won an SEC title, Spurrier said this about Manning opting to return to Tennessee for his senior year: "He wanted to be a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl."

When a fire at Auburn's football dorm destroyed 20 books, he took a jab at my own alma mater by saying: "The real tragedy was that 15 hadn't been colored yet."

Hate him if you want for saying such things, but wouldn't it be better to respond in kind rather than whining like a stuck pig? Don't colorful phrases like these liven things up in a profession known for stifling sameness? Don't they keep your pulse pumping instead of slowing, your interest piqued instead of stymied?

His greatest quote came during the 1996 national championship season, when he was fuming about a slew of borderline late hits being made by Florida State players against Florida's born-again Christian QB Danny Wuerrfel. Unable to keep his comments limited to Earth's plain, Spurrier went full-on biblical by saying this about Wuerrfel and himself: "He's like a New Testament person. He gets slapped upside the face and turns the other cheek and says, 'Lord, forgive them for they know not what they're doing.' I'm probably more of an Old Testament guy. You spear our guy in the earhole, we think we're supposed to spear you in the earhole. That's kind of where we're a little different."

I remember watching him say that on TV. I remember that I loved it even though I absolutely could not stand him. And in the two decades since, I have used the Old versus New Testament analogy on numerous occasions when making one point or another.

The college football world will be less colorful without Steve Spurrier. And less colorful means less exciting.

Hopefully some other firebrand will show up sooner rather than later.

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