Steve Spurrier hangs up his visor, ball plays
Published on Tuesday, 10/13/15, at 9:36 a.m. Eastern.
Stephen Orr Spurrier owns one of the best resumes a human being could ever want.
He won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Florida. He married the Homecoming Queen. He made the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits a winner. He even won the ACC title at Duke.
When his alma mater had to deal with its second round of trouble with the NCAA in the late 1980s, Spurrier came to the rescue. The Gators had never won an SEC title that counted, as the 1984 and ’85 championships were stripped due to NCAA violations.
At his opening presser, Spurrier promised to rip up the AstroTurf, bring back the blue jerseys and get Miami back on the schedule. He delivered on the first two promises, but the SEC’s addition of Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992 prevented UM from becoming a regular on the schedule again because UF had to add an eighth conference game.
Florida won seven SECs during his 12-year tenure. The SEC only recognizes six of those, but Spurrier never fails to mention the 1990 team that was banned from the postseason because of NCAA infractions committed by Galen Hall in 1986 before any of those players stepped on campus. The Head Ball Coach felt that was unfair and insisted the ’90 team be recognized along the walls inside The Swamp throughout his run at UF.
In his first three seasons, he turned fifth-string QB Shane Matthews into one of the best signal callers in SEC history. In 1995, UF went unbeaten in the regular season for the first time, one of only two times it has ever happened to this day. The Gators faced Nebraska for the national title in Temple, getting destroyed by Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips in a 62-24 beatdown.
One year later, however, UF went to Tallahassee to meet FSU with both teams sporting 10-0 records. The Seminoles blocked a punt early and raced out to a 17-0 lead in the first half. The Gators would rally, only to come up on the short end of a 24-21 decision.
Seven days later in the first Big 12 Championship Game, Texas faced Nebraska as a 21-point underdog. I was watching the game solo at my house on Eighth Avenue in Gainesville. I knew a miracle was highly unlikely, but I tuned in nonetheless.
It was clear that if Texas pulled a stunner and UF beat Alabama later that night to win the SEC at the Ga. Dome in Atlanta, the Gators would almost certainly get a rematch against FSU at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. UF had the best resume of the one-loss teams, while Arizona St., the lone remaining unbeaten team led by Jake Plummer, was locked into a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Texas led 30-27 and had the ball deep in its own territory with less than three minutes remaining. Facing a fourth-and-two play from his own 28, former Longhorns coach John Mackovic decided to go for it. I was not happy with the decision — momentarily, that is.
James Brown rolled to his left off of play-action looking to run. He appeared to have a decent shot at getting the first down, only to pull up and pass to the tight end who had leaked out and got separation from the defense. Brown hit him in stride and the tight end raced down the sidelines. He wasn’t caught until he had Texas lined up for a first-and-goal play inside the Nebraska five. The Longhorns would punch it in and win by a 37-27 score.
Hours later, Danny Wuerffel would throw six TD passes in a 45-30 win over Alabama, earning UF its fourth consecutive SEC championship and another shot at “a national.” The victory set up a rematch with the Seminoles in the Big Easy.
In the month leading up to the game, Spurrier went on the attack against FSU head coach Bobby Bowden and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. He assembled a tape of late hits on Wuerffel in Tallahassee for the media boys to watch. Spurrier told any camera or media member that would listen that Bowden was a dirty coach and one that encouraged his players to take cheap shots at opposing QBs.
Many felt Spurrier took it to far. In reality, he was just taking heat off his players, putting the spotlight and pressure on him while motivating his offensive line to protect Wuerffel in the rematch. This premediated ploy was another example of Spurrier’s genius. He’s always been hailed as a great offensive mind, but much of his success can be credited to his ability to motivate teams, especially in the biggest of pressure-packed games.
(When Phil Fulmer’s teams would play tight, UF would be loose. When Fulmer would punt, Spurrier would go for it on fourth and 10.)
Spurrier had never used the shotgun in his coaching career. But on Jan. 2 of 1997, he came out five wide with Wuerffel in the shotgun, giving him an extra split second to look down the field before FSU’s vaunted pass rush led by Peter Boulware could put helmets him.
After FSU pulled to within 24-20 with a field goal on the opening drive of the second half, it was all Florida. The Gators scored 28 unanswered points and cruised to a 52-20 win to win the school’s first national title.
The next season was a struggle. Ranked No. 1 and unbeaten going into LSU in October, Doug Johson was intercepted four times and Herb Tyler and Kevin Faulk led LSU to a 28-21 upset win. Several weeks later, Robert Edwards ran for four TDs and Georgia beat Spurrier for the only time in 12 seasons. It was the first time Florida didn’t win the SEC East.
In the regular-season finale, Florida would host unbeaten and top-ranked FSU. The Seminoles had beaten nine of their first 10 opponents by double-digit margins, while UF had to battle for 60 minutes to beat winless South Carolina the week before.
Spurrier wasn’t happy with his quarterbacks, so he decided to use an unusual, if not unprecedented, strategy. He rotated QBs Noah Brindise and Johnson in and out of the game every play, coaching ’em up in between.
Fred Taylor ran for four TDs and Johnson hit Jacquez Green on a long pass to set up Taylor’s game-winning score. To this day, this is the greatest college football game I’ve ever attended. It was a pride game for the Gators, who denied FSU a shot at winning the national title.
Spurrier only went 5-8-1 against FSU, but he won the big one for all the marbles in N’awlins. He went 11-1 vs. Georgia and 8-4 against Tennessee, but Fulmer and the Vols won the big one in Gainesville in 2001. It was Spurrier’s last game at The Swamp on the home sidelines.
Travis Stephens wouldn’t allow himself to be tackled on that night, leading UT to a 34-32 win and denying the Gators a chance to face Miami in the Rose Bowl. Other than The Choke at Doak in 1994 (a 31-31 tie when UF led 31-3 to start the fourth quarter in ’94), it was the biggest gut-wrenching loss of Spurrier’s tenure.
After that same UF team blasted Maryland at the Orange Bowl by a 56-23 score, the Gators finished 11-2, winners of a BCS game and ranked third in the country, yet Gator Nation was immensely disappointed.
Two days after the win over the Terps on Jan. 4 of 2002, Spurrier announced his resignation as the head coach at the University of Florida. It was a punch to the gut, one you knew would come eventually.
Spurrier, at the age of 56, decided to give the NFL a go. It didn’t work out. His two years with the Redskins were a disaster, prompting his resignation and a year off from coaching.
After Ron Zook was fired, speculation was through the roof that a Spurrier return to UF was imminent. It wasn’t to be, however. It was clear that Florida AD Jeremy Foley wanted to go in another direction and whether or not SOS wanted to return home remains unclear. One thing is for certain: He sure as hell didn’t want to come back if Foley wasn’t going to make it clear he was wanted.
Foley decided to go after Urban Meyer, while Spurrier landed at South Carolina. Like Florida, it had good facilities and great fans, but had never tasted any form of sustained success.
The HBC put South Carolina on the map, leading it to nine bowl games in his first 10 seasons. The Gamecocks had never won more than 10 games in a season, but Spurrier won 11 three consecutive years from 2011-2013. He won the school’s only SEC East in 2010. He also beat Clemson five times in a row (all by double-digit margins) for the first time in school history.
Spurrier is the all-time leader in victories at both UF and South Carolina. His final career record is 228-89-2. He’s second only to Bear Bryant in every significant category of wins and championships in SEC history.
But nobody did it with the guile and moxy of Spurrier — nobody! Ever.
At the age of 70 after 35 years in the coaching business, SOS has hung up his visor and his ball plays. He is undoubtedly one of the top-five coaches in college football history.
And college football will never be the same without him.