You know those cartoons that show characters with a little angel over one shoulder and a little devil over the other? Well, I’ve always thought those devils should have been drawn to look like Steve Spurrier. See, those devils weren’t evil, exactly. They were just looking to have a little fun.
Yes, the Ol’ Ballcoach is retiring the visor, leaving in his wake a trail of victories, trick plays, complaints, passing schemes, cheers, boos, benched quarterbacks, friends, enemies and what the kids call (or used to call) sick burns. If you could sum up Spurrier in one quote (and you cannot) it might be a quote he offered one of those times that his team ran up the score on some hapless defense. “If you don’t like it,” he said, “stop it.”
Spurrier the quarterback won the Heisman Trophy in the 1960s, back when the award meant everything, back when being heavyweight champion of the world or the world’s fastest human or the Heisman Trophy winner carried with it the undying admiration of the nation. He was generally a flop as an NFL quarterback, though much of that might have been circumstance — the poor guy played in all 14 games in Tampa Bay’s inaugural and legendary 0-14 season in 1976.
Here’s something you might not know: In Spurrier’s last game that year — also the last game of his NFL career — the Patriots’ Steve Grogan called timeout with nine seconds left and New England up 24-14. Grogan then called a quarterback sneak and scored the last touchdown while the few Tampa Bay fans remaining booed angrily and Spurrier watched on, numb. The Patriots’ coach, Chuck Fairbanks, ripped his own quarterback for doing that, but Spurrier admired it. He learned a little something: It is a lot more fun being the guy running up the score.
Anyway, for a force of nature like Spurrier, the NFL struggles didn’t really matter. Spurrier was still the Heisman Trophy winner. That wasn’t just an award for for Spurrier, it was a philosophy, a conviction, a way of life. The battering he took in the NFL did not humble Spurrier. Nothing could do that. He was Stephen Orr Spurrier, son of a Presbyterian minister, star in every sport he ever played, big man on campus, Heisman Trophy winner. He married his college sweetheart and he’s still married to her. He saw himself, always, as a big winner. Spurrier has always had life kicked.
So when he started coaching — first as a quarterbacks coach, then an offensive coordinator, then a head coach — he knew that he was destined for great things. Of course he knew. Nobody out there knew offensive football like he did. The guy dreamed plays. He designed some by moving Cheerios around in his cereal bowl at breakfast. He saw the football field as a dizzying array of angles and arrows and letters. When he was offensive coordinator at Duke in the early 1980s, he used to walk around the athletic offices and ask various secretaries, “OK, what play do you wanna see on Saturday?”
The story goes on like so: When he became head coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits, his secretary said to him one day, “I’d like to see a tight end throw a touchdown pass.” So he made that happen.
When he became head coach at Duke in 1987 he set up a contest for Duke fans to guess what the team’s first play would be. Nobody guessed the reverse flea-flicker Duke ran (it only gained three yards, frustrating Spurrier to no end). Soon, he had Duke averaging 30-plus points a game and winning regularly and running up the score 41-0 on rival North Carolina, coached by one of Spurrier’s lifelong targets, Mack Brown.
“You are one part of a revolution of terrific young coaches,” a radio host once said to him during an interview. “There’s you, and Terry Donahue and Mack Brown along with his brother Watson …”
“Wait a minute now,” Spurrier interrupted. “Those Brown boys need to win a few more games before you start including them in that company.”
He talked fast, and his voice pitched high, and that always added a little extra mockery to his already savage insults. The Tennessee crushing line, “You can’t spell Citrus without UT” is funny on its own (Tennessee was Spurrier’s diabolical focus more than any other school, perhaps because the Volunteers didn’t recruit him out of a Tennessee high school). But to hear Spurrier say it was to hear a master taunter at work. When he went to Florida and won his national championship and a bunch of SEC titles, he also loved beating up on Georgia and, particularly, coach Ray Goff. Georgia in those early days would have great recruiting classes, but they rarely beat Spurrier’s Gators.
“Those boys up at Georgia,” Spurrier would say with that half grimace, half smirk on his face, “sure do win a lot in February.”
Oh, yes, he loved breaking out a new line. He was so proud of that “Free Shoes University,” line about Florida State, and he liked poking fun at Peyton Manning for coming back to Tennessee so that he could go to another Citrus Bowl, and well, like I say, that little devil on the shoulder ruled his world. Spurrier said whatever he wanted to say, cracked whatever joke he wanted to crack, picked on whoever happened to catch his attention. He ran up the score because he could. He went to the NFL, tried to do it his way, and when that didn’t work, he shrugged and went to coach at South Carolina, where the job came with a membership to Augusta National. That was Spurrier. He even lost with style.
He loved it all. Fun ‘N Gun — that was what he called his offense at Florida, and that’s the way he coached and lived. The Ol’ Ballcoach didn’t watch film 20 hours a day or sleep on the couch in his office or obsess over the game. Hell no, he was out playing golf, living life, having dinner with his family. That all-night coaching stuff was for suckers. I remember Bob Stoops telling a story he has often told — Stoops was Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida. He had come from Kansas State where he coached for the ultimate all-night coaching sucker, Bill Snyder, who was so consumed by the minutiae of coaching he once saw a hypnotist of some kind to see if he could go on without sleep.
Working for Snyder had chewed up Stoops, but he assumed that’s what it meant to be a football coach. Then he went to work for Spurrier and one day before a big game against Tennessee found himself out on the water, bodysurfing at Spurrier’s beach house.
“Hey Bobby, you think them Tennessee boys are out bodysurfing now?” he yelled. It was the perfect thing to say, the very antithesis of what other coaches think. Those other coaches would be WORRIED that any time spent away from the office, away from the video, away from the practice field, was time when they were getting outsmarted by the other guys.
Spurrier just didn’t think like that. If there was one thing he knew it was this: Nobody could outsmart him.
He wanted to win, of course, and win badly. I was there in New Orleans when his Gators stomped Florida State, 52-20, with a gameplan so innovative and futuristic that the mind went blurry watching it. In all, his Florida team won six SEC Championships. He coached South Carolina to five bowl victories — more than the Gamecocks won in the century before Spurrier took over — and the only top-10 finish in the school’s history.
There have been losses too — Spurrier’s NFL coaching span was largely a disaster, and he never quite got South Carolina where he wanted to go, and for all his Florida dominance, one of his successors, Urban Meyer, won more national titles for the Gators. He waged war now and again with the media, and he conceded that he sometimes went too far with his devilish comments, and he infuriated some of his players and fellow coaches and friends with the head games he liked to play. Well, what the heck? If you always do what the little devil tells you to do, there will be a few consequences.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Why are you still coaching?’” he said at the SEC Media Day press conference this year. “I said, ‘Well, I forgot to get fired, and I’m not going to cheat.’ That’s about the only way you lose your job. You get fired for losing or you cheat and then they get somebody else. Well I’ve not done any of those to any extent, I guess.”
That’s about right. For more than a quarter-century, the Ol’ Ballcoach wore that visor and designed the plays and won enough on the field and off to get one of the rarest victories in coaching. That victory? He got to say goodbye his own way and without a mob chasing him with pitchforks.