October 5, 1997 in Sports

It’s All About Attitude For Gator Coach Florida’s Spurrier Won’t Give An Inch In His Quest To Be The Best In The Game

Mark Fitzhenry Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat
 

He has run up scores. He’ll irritate an opposing school “out of boredom,” as one close friend said. Without hard evidence he wondered aloud how Florida State players got their “awfully nice cars.” He once had a starting tight end kick an extra point for a 41-0 lead, then ran three gadget plays on the final drive. He has unleashed enough verbal ammo to land his face on dart boards in college football havens throughout the Southeast.

“Steve Spurrier is a great coach,” Tennessee receiver Marcus Nash has said. “He’s just a jerk.”

That’s why you should hate Steve Spurrier.

“He’s the most honest, decent, caring, thoughtful guy I’ve ever worked for,” Florida assistant coach Barry Wilson said. He probably knows Spurrier more than the passionate Steve bashers who waste their energy at booster club meetings and radio call-in shows. Wilson has been on the same staff with Spurrier on four different teams.

“He does not try to coach by someone else’s playbook,” he said. “He is bluntly honest. He does not sit there and try to analyze every word that ever comes out of his mouth, how it’s going to be perceived by the world. He just says what he thinks. He says what is honestly in his heart. From time to time, that may irritate somebody.

“It wouldn’t irritate them so much, except that he’s been so highly successful in beating the competition.”

That’s why you should admire Steve Spurrier.

They hate a winner

Why you should hate Steve Spurrier: Because everyone hates a winner.

Before Spurrier became Florida’s head football coach in 1990, the Gators went 56 years without even winning a Southeastern Conference title despite the benefits of modern facilities and a rich talent pool in their state. With Spurrier, the Gators have earned five SEC titles and their first national championship.

At Duke from 1987-89, Spurrier led the Blue Devils to their first Atlantic Coast Conference title in 27 years and instilled an unprecedented attitude, taking group pictures with the scoreboard in the background after big road victories.

“Every team needs an attitude,” Spurrier said. “Everyone needs it that hasn’t been successful.”

Spurrier has always been a vicious competitor. “We got into a lot of fisticuffs,” said Graham Spurrier III, Steve’s older brother by three years. “It didn’t matter what we played. Ping pong, we’d fight. We were on the table swinging.”

“I raised him to be a competitive person,” says the Rev. Graham Spurrier, who proceeds to talk about the days he coached his son in Little League and Babe Ruth baseball in Johnson City, Tenn. Each year, Rev. Spurrier would gather his players in the dugout and begin his speech with a common refrain: “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

He would pause. Then he would ask, “‘How many of you believe that?”

A sprinkling of hands found their way into the air. Never Steve’s.

“I told them, If you believe that, you might as well go home,” Rev. Spurrier said. “And don’t keep score.”

Steve Spurrier’s competitive fire hasn’t diminished with age.

Ben Bennett, who played quarterback at Duke, once beat Spurrier in racquetball. “He wasn’t happy, and that’s all that’s printable,” Bennett said. “He has as intense a desire to win as anybody I’ve ever seen. He has a natural greatness anyhow, but he’ll try every trick in the book to beat you. Get him on the golf course and he’ll give you an aneurysm. I’ll never play golf against him. I’d be in a mental ward for a month.”

He’s note all bad

Why you should admire Steve Spurrier: Because he has done more for Florida than win football games.

Spurrier, Florida’s starting quarterback from 1964-66, is the first Heisman Trophy winner to turn the award over to his school. When Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman last year, Spurrier made sure Wuerffel was honored by having his jersey painted on the wall at Florida Field. Spurrier said he won’t be honored for the same feat because he didn’t win a national championship.

When Spurrier was hired by Florida in 1990, three of his first acts were to un-retire his No. 11, restore the blue home jerseys and tear out artificial turf in favor of grass. He’s the one who called Florida Field “The Swamp.” Every year since his hiring in 1990, Spurrier has donated $20,000 to Gator women’s athletics - and increased his donation to $50,000 after his raise this year.

It’s no wonder that Florida, with a six-year, $11.77-million contract, has made Spurrier the third-highest-paid coach in all of football, including the NFL.

“The football component alone can justify his compensation,” Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley said. “But he means more to the university. These are feelings he has for the university that are not duplicated by others.”

He does it his way

Why you should hate Steve Spurrier: Because he’s never wrong.

Steve Slayden, Duke’s quarterback in 1987, remembers a 47-45 loss to North Carolina State in which Spurrier called for a screen pass.

On fourth-and-6.

From Duke’s 24.

“I’m on the field telling (Spurrier) to look at the down,” Slayden said. “He’s yelling, throwing his hat. We got the first down, except there was a holding penalty and we had to punt. I came to the sidelines and said, ‘Damn, Coach, you know it was fourth and 6?’ He started screaming, ‘They’re gonna score from our 30 or their 30, so we might as well go for it.’ ”

It’s the innovation

Why you should admire Steve Spurrier: Because … well … he’s never wrong.

Dave Brown, now with the New York Giants, was hours from making his first start for Duke against Wake Forest in 1989. Spurrier approached Brown at the breakfast table and asked what he wanted to run for the first play.

Brown didn’t know, but Spurrier had something in mind. Using corn flakes, he designed a play where Brown would fake a handoff, receiver Clarkson Hines would run a corner or fly route - depending on the coverage - and Brown would throw to him.

Brown’s first pass attempt in his first college start was a 76-yard touchdown pass to Hines. Duke won, 52-35.

Standing up for himself

Why you should hate Steve Spurrier: Because he has called a Gainesville reporter at home the morning of a game and berated him for giving Auburn the edge in coaching. Because he once called a North Carolina writer who had referred to Spurrier as a genius and told him he would rather be called “mastermind.”

His teaching stands out

Why you should admire Steve Spurrier: Because he is a mastermind.

Florida has led the nation in touchdown passes each of the last four seasons. Seven times, a Spurrier-coached quarterback has thrown at least six touchdown passes in a game. Five of Duke’s top eight career passing yardage leaders played under Spurrier at least one season.

ESPN analyst Lee Corso: “He knows more about defenses than all the defensive coordinators put together.”

Bennett, the former Duke quarterback: “Steve can hand out his playbook to everyone in the country and everyone can run it. But I don’t think anyone can teach the things that go along with it the way Steve can.”

Former Florida quarterback Terry Dean: “It’s pretty amazing. He’s got a phenomenal system no one else can seem to duplicate.”

Wuerffel calls Spurrier’s system “a combination of a computer-type mind and a sandlot football mentality.” The best illustration is the 1994 SEC championship game, when Spurrier engineered perhaps the gutsiest, most innovative drive this decade.

The Gators trailed Alabama 23-17 and had the ball on their 20 with 8:56 left. Wuerffel faked an injury and backup Eric Kresser, with Alabama thinking handoff, instead completed a 25-yard pass. Florida converted a fourth-and-1 from the Alabama 33. The Gators twice lined up in the seldom-used Emory and Henry formation, with receiver Chris Doering throwing a complete pass on one play. The drive ended with the winning touchdown.

“You just learn to trust him over time,” Wuerffel said.

A perfect life

Why you should hate Steve Spurrier: Because it’s not fair that Spurrier, 53 going on 30, has lived such a perfect life.

In high school, Spurrier was an all-state athlete in three sports and an All-American in football. He led the baseball team to two state titles and didn’t lose a game he pitched his final three seasons. He could date any girl he wanted.

At Florida, Spurrier completed 16 straight passes (still a school record), threw 104 consecutive passes without being intercepted (third in school history) and punted for an average of 40.3 yards (fifth in school history). He led the Gators to eight fourth-quarter comeback victories in three seasons and won the 1966 Heisman Trophy by what was then the largest margin ever.

He played 10 years in the NFL, nine years as a backup in San Francisco, one as a starter for the worst team in NFL history, the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The headline “Spurrier put on waivers” remains on a bulletin board in Spurrier’s office as “just a reminder of where we all came from.”

There’s no holding back

Why you should admire Steve Spurrier: Because he speaks his mind regardless of consequence.

“For us to try to change him is highly inappropriate because we wouldn’t want to,” said Foley, Florida’s athletics director. “I like what he’s doing and I like who he is.

“His honesty rubs people the wrong way. I understand that. I don’t think people quite understand his competitive nature. Because he’s so competitive, he speaks what’s on his mind, in the eyes of people who don’t know him he’s arrogant or has no class. I see the other side of him, a guy who’s competing like heck to be successful for his university, a guy who does things the right way, a guy who’s represented this university in a first-class manner with everything he’s done.

“Those of us here know who he is, we know what he’s trying to get done, we see how much he loves the university. And obviously we see the result.”


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