Could he coach? Well, Steve Spurrier won an ACC football championship at ever-loving Duke before the Fun ‘N Gun revolution took hold in Gainesville.
Could he cut and slash and dig? The answer here isn’t yes, but rather how deep would you like? Spurrier regularly skewered his rivals with jokes and sarcasm that sprang from the cocky, trash-talking star athlete lifestyle of his youth. It made his enemies hate him, and made sportswriters love him almost as much as Bull Gator boosters did.
Could he last forever? Of course not. Nobody can. Still, when Spurrier told his South Carolina team on Monday night that he was retiring immediately at 70, everybody who follows college football had to take a step back and decide how they felt about that.
It’s fair to say that nobody feels 100 percent great about it, and that includes fellow coaches who gauged Spurrier to be arrogant and mean-spirited at his worst. It also includes fellow coaches embarrassed by Spurrier at his best, when he happily hung “half a hundred” on opponents through a flood of innovative plays that came at defenses from out of nowhere and had officials tossing flags for reasons they couldn’t quite explain.
Characters like this just don’t come along that often, or if they do, they’re not as successful.
Spurrier made a national championship program with real staying power out of a Florida operation that had never produced so much as an SEC title prior to his arrival. Six conference championships eventually came his way, plus a seventh that prior NCAA violations by Galen Hall wiped out.
Spurrier did all of that with a flair that Nick Saban lacks. He did it with a twang that proved he, like Bear Bryant, was born for the SEC and would never be completely happy if he wasn’t dominating the SEC.
He did in the most personal way possible, calling every play from the sidelines and then changing that play right until the last possible second while exasperated quarterbacks asked themselves if there are limits to this genius business. I mean, who acts like that?
We’re not just talking about flinging visors, which actually didn’t happen as much as everyone remembers. Think instead of alternating quarterbacks play after play, which is how Spurrier beat FSU one year. Think of having so many guys going out for passes that Danny Wuerffel was a consistently lonely target in the Florida backfield, taking so much punishment that I’m convinced he won the 1996 Heisman Trophy based on his physical toughness as much as anything else.
Always, you got the impression that Spurrier believed it was child’s play scanning a defense and tossing the ball where the resistance was thinnest. These were his “ballplays,” and no doubt the coach believed he could still run them himself if only his eligibility hadn’t run out in 1966.
This guy was a great multi-sport athlete in his Tennessee high school days. An all-state selection in basketball, among other things. Matter of fact, he behaved more like a hoops coach than a football coach, stomping up and down the sidelines and working officials with dramatic poses and pained facial expressions.
Back in 2001, near the end of his great Florida run, I did a long interview in Spurrier’s office in which my favorite response was to the question of whether he ever had been benched.
“In ninth-grade basketball,” he said, “my coach was the football line coach. I could dribble behind my back, which not everybody did, and I would shoot a fancy hook shot up to the goal every now and then. He thought I was too much of a showboat. That’s the word he used. I was a little upset about getting taken out of the game but after a while he sent me back in.
“I think we won that little old tournament, too.”
Couldn’t leave out that detail, right?
On that same day, I asked Spurrier why he gets under everyone’s skin.
“I’m in the forefront out there, not sitting off to the side with my headsets on, looking like I’m listening. I’m not afraid to put my name on the line every play that’s called.”
It’s an important distinction, one that will come to mind the next time you see a coach at the NFL or college level seemingly off to himself, a spectator set in motion by an occasional flurry of handclapping and nothing more, a robot who can’t even fling a red challenge flag with gusto, much less a clipboard. They’re the ones who give the cliché quotes heading off the field at halftime. They’re the ones that nobody remembers.
Spurrier will be remembered. In fact, we’ll be hearing his voice for decades because of the quirky little phrases he invented. You will hear of somebody being “coached up” and of somebody being “the head ball coach” of this or that team, and few will recall the origins. That’s pure Spurrier, however, and always will be.
So was taking a crack at NFL coaching with the Washington Redskins, which turned into an utter failure, and so was coming back to the SEC to compete with his alma mater, and in the same division no less. South Carolina had never done all that much in football but Spurrier believed he could make an SEC champion out of the Gamecocks just like he did the Gators.
Didn’t quite work. The program enjoyed more success than ever but in the end Spurrier grew tired of falling short, lost the fun in prowling the sidelines. He was the old lion resting over in the corner of its cage, majestic no more.
Was there a time, though, when Spurrier could growl and revel in the danger he represented? Ask anyone who loved him, ask anyone who hated him. Not only when they say yes but, if being honest, they will say that they miss it already.