It wasn’t so much that Steve Spurrier won 228 games, with a success rate of 71%. What made him a transcendent sports figure was his stage presence, be it on the sidelines, theatrically tossing his visor, or sitting in an interview room, grinning before the cameras and issuing witticisms.
Like when a fire destroyed 20 books in the Auburn University Library: “The real tragedy is that 15 of them hadn’t been colored yet.”
You hardly needed to ask questions to prod Spurrier to regale journalists. Like Mike Ditka, Darrell Royal, John McKay — and few other football coaches – he was an entertaining voice after the game, speaking in hastily but well composed paragraphs sparkling with humor and insight.
Seeing how fit and youthful he is at 70, how quickly and astutely he calls plays from the sidelines, how lucid and clever he is in every interview, there’s reason to think Spurrier will coach again, recalibrating his Fun & Gun offense. As he said upon resigning Tuesday as coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, “I doubt I will ever be a head coach again, but don’t say I’ve retired completely.”
Most likely some wise head coach will hire him as offensive coordinator. He’s a master of play design in the passing game.
Which would surprise those who knew Spurrier in his youth, as a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the Florida Gators and subsequent first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers.
Everyone could see he was bright and creative, but there were complaints that he was unfocused at times and that he was unwilling to work very hard.
Spurrier later said he compromised his talent by his moderate effort as a pro. He said backup quarterback was “the greatest job in the world. The starter would be icing down his arm or getting worked on by the trainer while I’m on the phone lining up dinner.”
The “Head Ball Coach,” as Spurrier liked to call himself, was one of the few football coaches I’ve met who could not be called a workaholic. He’s never been one to spend nights in the film room. He’s always made time for golf and more strenuous physical activities, maintaining his eternal youth with calisthenics and smart dieting.
He’s always been open to new adventure. He could have stayed forever at Florida, where he won the national championship in 1996. But he wanted to take his shot as a coach in the NFL. He couldn’t have chosen a more difficult place to work – Washington under the bungling and meddlesome owner Dan Snyder.
He drew up some beautiful plays for the Redskins, but often there was not enough time for them to unfold. And he wasn’t as acute at evaluating pro talent as he was on the college level.
So after two losing years in Washington he reinvented himself again, as Head Ball Coach at South Carolina.
His Gamecocks had three consecutive 11-2, top-10 finishes. But when they slipped to 7-6 last season, Spurrier considered resigning. He stated publicly that he intended to coach for only two or three years. When they heard of that, several athletes who had committed to South Carolina changed their minds.
Spurrier seethed when his “enemies” used his words against him. But everyone knows players want to be sure of playing for the man who chose them.
So there was little chance of Spurrier turning the program around with the team’s current record being 2-4. “If it starts going south, starts going bad,” he said, “I need to get out. It’s time for me to get out of the way and give someone else a go at it.”
It’s unlikely his successors will do better than the 63.7 winning percentage for his 11 seasons at SC.
He’s been SEC Coach of the Year nine times. Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss tweeted: “Coach Spurrier has impacted & influenced more of us in this business than he will ever know. . . . He will always be the HBC.”
As a strategist and tactician Spurrier was unsurpassed in college football, constantly outcoaching his opponents. And not always shy about saying so.
Of Georgia, he once cracked: “You can always count on them having two or three players suspended.” Another time he said: “Why is it that during the recruiting season they sign all the great players, but when it comes time to play the game, we have all the great players. . . . What happens to them?”
Spurrier’s wit was a sharp recruiting tool. He didn’t mind making a laughing stock of Florida State University, which he called “Free Shoes U.”
On Tennessee never being in the Sugar Bowl: “You can’t spell citrus without U-T.”
He attempted to discount Nick Saban’s record at Alabama by pointing out, “They’ve always won there at Alabama.”
At his going-away press conference, Spurrier said he still believes that “being on a team is fun.” As much as he enjoys golf, it’s hard to imagine him being truly retired. He’s too fit, still too sharp, to not do what he loves to do.