“Blindfolded, with his back to the wall, with his hands tied behind him, Steve Spurrier would be a two-point favorite at his own execution.”
The previous sentence was famously written by John Logue of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during Steve Spurrier’s Heisman Trophy winning senior season at the University of Florida in 1966.
For as long as anyone can remember, stretching as far back to his prep days as a three-sport letterman at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tennessee, Spurrier was known for the magic he could create in his athletic endeavors.
He was All-State in football, hoops and baseball. As a three-year starting pitcher, he went undefeated while leading the school to back-to-back state titles.
In addition to winning the Heisman at Florida, he was a record-breaking two-time All-American who established himself as one of the best passers in SEC history. Only Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and college legend Tim Tebow can claim to have a better college resume within the Gator family, and this is a school that has produced the likes of Jack Youngblood, Danny Wuerffel, Percy Harvin, Chris Collinsworth, Javon Kearse, Fred Taylor, Wilbur Marshall, Joe Haden, Aaron Hernandez and Rex Grossman, among many others.
Because he’s been so successful as a college football coach, many people forget that Spurrier was the third overall selection in the 1967 NFL draft and played ten years in the league with the San Francisco 49’ers and the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Known as the "Head Ball Coach", Spurrier paid his dues as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator after retiring, working on the staffs at Florida, Georgia Tech and Duke before accepting his first head coaching gig at the age of 37 with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits in 1983.
His offenses in the USFL were notorious for its wide-open passing attack and propensity to score like any Gold Digger within a reasonable proximity of Evander Holyfield, Shawn Kemp and Antonio Cromartie.
After the USFL folded, he took his magic to Duke in 1987, which had been historically as terrible as Mike Myers in The Love Guru.
People will espouse the national championship he later won at Florida in 1996 and the three consecutive 11-win seasons and Top Ten Rankings he achieved at South Carolina from 2011 through 2014.
But for my food stamps, his greatest accomplishment was reviving the Blue Devils program, taking Duke to their first bowl game and winning the school’s first ACC championship since Jerry Butler and Jackie Wilson were doing more begging then Keith Sweat back in the 1960's.
But his legend fully coagulated when he returned to his alma mater in 1990. Spurrier singlehandedly changed the face and technical blueprint of what an SEC offense looked like upon his arrival.
Back then, the powers in the Southeastern Conference played smash-mouth, old-school, bully ball. Spurrier inherited a scandal-plagued program, one that had just been through its second major NCAA investigation in five years.
In 57 years of playing in the SEC, Florida had never won a conference title. But Spurrier brought a swagger and an offense named the Fun ‘n’ Gun that would change the entire face of college football. And he wasted no time in the process.
In his first year, the Gators finished with the SEC’s best record, despite not being bowl eligible due to NCAA sanctions, while averaging over 290 yards passing per game. In his second season, Florida won its first ever SEC title as the passing attack averaged 309 yards a game.
They rolled on to win four of the next five conference championships with his aerial revolution, which was heresy to many old-timers who worshipped at the alter of Bear Bryant.
Championship football in the SEC had previously been all about an offense' s commitment to running the ball down your throat, and your defense’s ability to stop it. By the time he left Florida after the 2001 season, the Gators offense led the nation with a ridiculous 405 yards per game passing average.
He’d won a national championship with the 1996 squad, the school’s first ever, while also becoming the only Heisman winner to ever coach another one in Danny Wuerffel. That team scored more than Wilt Chamberlain at the Playboy Mansion, winning the title by waxing Florida State, 52-20, in the Sugar Bowl.
He won at least nine games in each of his twelve seasons in Gainesville.
As a coach, he was a New Jack Hustler who tossed aside the decaying, mildewed philosophies of the past while opening up and injecting the college game with an excitement that hadn’t been experienced yet.
All of these cutting edge offenses that you see today – the video game-type pyrotechnics at Baylor, the Air Raid at Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma, the tinkering and inventions of passing game architects like Mike Leach, Hal Mumme and David Cutcliffe, all of them were sparked within the agile mind of Spurrier, who gave the SEC’s bland, derivative dependence on the power running game an abrupt perpendicular makeover.
From 1993 through 1998, he coached the only teams in the modern era to surpass 500 points for six consecutive years, while taking his team to two national title games.
At South Carolina, he took that program to heights they’d never achieved before. During his first season, the Gamecocks reeled off its first five-game winning streak since they’d joined the SEC fourteen years prior. They won for the first time in Knoxville against Tennessee and secured a program-defining win against the 12th-ranked Gators, a team they hadn’t beaten since 1939.
Spurrier went on to lead South Carolina to their only 11-win seasons and Top-10 finishes ever in school history.
In 25 years as a college coach, his teams went 228-89-2. In addition to his 1996 national championship, he also won six SEC titles.
No coach at Florida or South Carolina has more wins. The only other coach to be the career leader in wins at two SEC schools is the legendary Bear Bryant, who holds the marks at Texas A&M and Alabama.
Outside of being a coaching giant, Spurrier was also a one-of-a-kind personality, the likes of which the coaching fraternity will likely never see again.
“…He just said what a lot of other people thought,” Texas head coach Charlie Strong, who was an assistant on Spurrier’s Florida staff in the 1990’s, told ESPN. “There won't ever be another one like him because coaches nowadays are too concerned about how it sounds. With him, he just said it.”
And just look at the players that Spurrier recruited and coached. Over the years, his all-time squad is pretty impressive. I mean, my goodness, Wuerffel threw for 10,875 yards and 114 touchdowns in college.
He had Eric Rhett, Fred Taylor and Marcus Lattimore in his backfields. Ike Hilliard, Alshon Jeffery and Duke’s Clarkston Hines were amazing wide receivers. Ace Sanders’ return skills were bananas. On defense, his teams have featured the unique talents of Jadaveon Clowney, Lito Sheppard and Javon Kearse, among many, many others.
He was always colorful, cocky and hilariously antagonistic of his competitors and folks in the media who questioned him. And there was no doubt that the man is one of the best college football coaches ever.
Yesterday’s news that he was retiring immediately was not a complete shock to me. He toyed with walking away last season. This year, he looked worn out and exhausted while coaching a squad that is clearly over-matched.
“The guy's been one of the best coaches for a long, long time and a great personality for the game,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban told ESPN yesterday. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he's accomplished and what he's done. ... It's always sad to see somebody who's meant so much to the game walk away.”
“He's probably the most competitive guy I've ever known, but he's also one of the most genuine guys I've ever known,” Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, another former Florida staff member under Spurrier, told ESPN. “He's special. He really is and one of those guys you come across in life that makes you better just having had a chance to know him.”
He was not only ingeniously competitive and inventive, but took pride in being hilarious, clever and contrary to the accepted coaching norms. He’d leave fake play sheets laying around for his opponents to find.
He once said, among his numerous famous quips that, “I always liked playing [Georgia] that second game [of the season] because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended.”
When a fire in an Auburn football dorm destroyed 20 books, he said, “But the real tragedy was that 15 of them hadn’t been colored yet.”
Steve Spurrier won an ACC championship at Duke and turned Florida and South Carolina into national powers. He was a one of a kind who always remained true to himself. It’s sad to see him walk away.
No one, at least no coach that I ever saw, electrified the game of college football in quite the same way.