Steve Spurrier will always be my favorite SEC coach, the visor-tossing, herky jerky moving, maniacal head coach giving out the shotgun sign to his quarterbacks from the sideline and tossing off cocky one-liners — “You can’t spell Citrus without UT” — that simultaneously made you want to strangle him and yet share a beer with him at the same time.
For my generation of Southern college football fans Steve Spurrier represents the last link to our childhoods, the old coach who would always be there, prowling the sideline. Spurrier arrived at Florida in 1990, when I was 11 years old, a fifth grader in a local Nashville elementary school and by the time he left Florida, in 2001, I was a first year law student at Vanderbilt University. During those 11 years I feel like I grew up — at least partly — and Spurrier was my fall companion for the entire ride.
Just now, when news came that Spurrier was stepping down, I was putting my 7-year-old and 5-year-old boys to bed. And I’ll be honest, I teared up a little bit when I read the news. Because I can’t imagine the SEC without Steve Spurrier. If you aren’t my age and you didn’t grow up in the South watching Steve Spurrier hiking up and down the sideline with the Florida Gator fun-and-gun offense roaring around behind him, you probably won’t understand what he meant to all of us, but if you’re like me then you know exactly what I’m writing about.
And exactly how I feel tonight.
Steve Spurrier was different, man.
At a time when Southern coaches rarely opened their mouth to say anything interesting in public, Spurrier was as provocative with his off-field commentary as he was with his on-field offense. He was brash and opinionated and cocky as all getout. Three yards and a cloud of dust? To hell with that. Spurrier changed SEC football forever with his vertical passing attack. Why run when you could pass?
In his heyday you hoped that your team would only give up a first down to him on fourth-and-15. I lost count of the number of times Spurrier’s Gators dropped back to pass and I’d think to myself, “How is it possible for there to be 22 people on the field and 21 of them are nowhere near this other guy, who is suddenly streaking, all alone, down the sideline for a touchdown?”
Oh, I hated the Florida Gators growing up.
In 1993 when Spurrier’s Gators beat my beloved Volunteers and their quarterback Heath Shuler, I told my dad after the game, “I hate Steve Spurrier, dad.”
And my dad, who was nervous even then about my mouth, said, “You don’t really hate him, Clay.”
And I said, “No, dad, I really do hate him.”
And the hate grew.
In 1996, when Florida scored 35 consecutive points on my beloved Tennessee Volunteers, I let loose with a string of epithets that still upsets my mom nearly 20 years later. I stormed out of my parent’s house, barefoot, stalked down our driveway and walked up and down the street swinging my arms and cursing aloud like a crazy man for 10 minutes or more. A couple of times I even swore that I was going to give up all my other schooling and devote myself to studying defensive football just so I could stop Steve Spurrier from scoring on Tennessee. Seriously, I thought that, as a nearly grown adult.
That’s what Steve Spurrier did to you, he made you crazy.
But a funny thing also happened: Somewhere along the way I also came to love Spurrier too.
It suprised me, the suddenness of this realization that happened sometime around my freshman year of college. As I got ready for the UT-Florida game that year, I realized I’d grown to like Spurrier. He made football more fun. And even though sometimes I wanted to strangle him to death, I couldn’t imagine the SEC without him.
In 1998 when Tennessee finally ended five consecutive years of losses — that was back when Tennessee losing to Florida five years in a row still felt like a long time — I enjoyed watching Spurrier try to make his way to the locker room amid a sea of orange. Three years later the Vols ruined Spurrier’s final SEC game as a Gator, beating Florida in the Swamp 34-32. Both are wins that still bring a smile to my face nearly a generation later. Spurrier made those wins more special, you wanted to vanquish a champ, not an afterthought.
Put it this way, no one remembers what it was like to beat Ron Zook.
Spurrier was just like every Southern family’s crazy uncle. He pissed the hell out of you and somehow while he was pissing the hell out of you, he found a way to make you like him even more. It was uncanny. Sure, Spurrier won the Heisman trophy and revolutionized offensive football in the South on his way to snagging a national championship and becoming the greatest coach in the history of two different SEC schools, but he still managed to climb up on top of a NASCAR double wide and drink Coors Light shirtless. He was your crazy ass uncle on his third wife who also happened to have a degree in nuclear engineering, a Southern man in full who didn’t need to apologize for anything.
Best of all, he was ours.
Spurrier was one of the last football coaches to feel like he was from where he coached.
Listen to Steve Spurrier talk for 10 minutes and you knew exactly where he was from, he was like us, a Southern guy who grew up and became a football coach. That used to be common in the SEC. Nowadays there are a bunch of football mercenaries in the South. Butch Jones, Bret Bielema, Mark Stoops, do any of these guys seem like they grew up on SEC football, whiskey and sundresses?
Spurrier didn’t just live the SEC, he was the SEC.
I mean, Steve Spurrier? That name was made to be said with a Southern accent. If you put 10 different men in a line and someone said, which one of these guys is named Steve Spurrier, every single one of us would pick the cocky-sideways smirking asshole in the visor.
Every single one of us.
Spurrier’s the second greatest coach in the history of the SEC — 1. Bryant 2. Spurrier 3. Neyland 4. Saban is the SEC’s own Mt. Rushmore — and he’s got something even more remarkable on his résumé: He’s the greatest football coach in Florida and South Carolina history. How many other coaches can say they’re the greatest coach in the history of two different schools?
Do you know how many bowl wins South Carolina football had when Steve Spurrier got to Columbia? Three! South Carolina didn’t even win its first bowl game until 1995. Spurrier won five bowl games at South Carolina, two more than the program had ever won in its history before he got there. How many coaches have more bowl wins than their school did before they got there?
Hell, he won 11 games three straight years there. That’s the equivalent of two national championships at Alabama.
And how about Florida, the Gators were atrocious before Spurrier got there. Do you know how many SEC titles Florida had before Spurrier got there?
As in, none.
Mississippi State had a more illustrious football history than Florida did before Spurrier arrived in Gainesville. (Sorry, Mississippi State, but at least y’all had a 1941 SEC title on your résumé.)
Spurrier won six SEC titles at Florida. During the 12 years he coached the Gators, he won more SEC titles than he had home losses at the Swamp. I mean, is this real life?
And he also won an ACC title at Duke.
But to our generation of SEC fans he’ll always be something more, an icon, a mythic figure from our childhoods who came to personify the game that so many of us grew to love, the fast talking smart aleck Southerner with a droll wit, the man who always had a play guaranteed to get you a first down no matter the down and distance, and the guy who always had an insult at the ready. The only thing faster than Spurrier’s wit was his trigger on his quarterbacks. This was a guy so cocky that he switched quarterbacks on every play for an entire game.
I mean, who else would even think to do that?
And while I’d like to see Spurrier go out with a long goodbye for the rest of this season to the SEC and its fans — I’m convinced he’d do the remarkable and receive a standing ovation from a Neyland Stadium crowd — Spurrier leaving without any fan fare is actually the most Spurrier move possible. He didn’t coach for us, he coached for himself. Which, perfectly enough, made us like him that much more. Spurrier’s the anti-Alex Rodriguez, a sports figure who cared so little what we all thought of him, that everyone ended up loving him for it.
I’m incredibly fortunate to get to do what i do for a living and for the rest of my life Steve Spurrier will be the only person in sports that I’ve ever felt like I needed to pinch myself after I asked him a question. Every time I spoke to Spurrier I always thought in the back of my head, “Is this real life, am I really talking to Steve Spurrier?”
The Steve Spurrier? The coach from my boyhood, still coaching now that I was all grown up, the timeless and ageless shadow on a sideline, the coaching icon who always spiked his visor on the field yet never managed to get a grass stain on it.
And if you’re like me at all, no matter who you root for, there will only ever be one head ball coach.
God Bless Steve Spurrier.