The Martin Chronicles: Spurrier’s Secret to Success
By Buddy Martin
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"Call me arrogant, cocky, crybaby, whiner or whatever names you like. At least they're not calling us losers anymore. If people like you too much, it's probably because they're beating you." – From Steve Spurrier’s resignation speech at Florida, Jan. 4, 2002
ON THE EAST COAST OF FLORIDA:
Bad news for South Carolina opponents: At age 69 in his 30th year as a head coach, Steve Spurrier has no intentions of retiring yet and, in fact, says it would also be premature to write off the Gamecocks or speak of them in past tense.
Spurrier doesn’t have a year in mind for retirement -- says he thinks he has three years left on his contract and appears highly motivated to achieve at least one major goal that has eluded his Gamecocks: Winning an SEC title.
“When I quit calling plays and start forgetting people’s names,” Spurrier said last fall, “then I’ll quit.”
Refreshed and eager to build on a four-year run of 42 wins, inspired about building his own version of the Pyramids in Columbia, Spurrier departed his beloved Florida East Coast beach house on his way to the Southeastern Conference meeting in Destin. Eager for Year Ten of Gamecock Nation-building to begin, he has that elusive SEC title is still in his crosshairs.
"That's something we haven't done yet," he recently told the media, “but we'll try and see if we can get that done."
We were sitting at the Florida beach on a tranquil cotton-candy spring afternoon recently, talking careers and playing “what if?” with the First Lady of South Carolina football, when the question came up about her husband. “I don’t know what Steve would have done if he hadn’t coached football,” Jerri Spurrier said. “We talk about that among our family all the time.”
I suggested Steve would have likely succeeded in some other field because of his high level of intelligence, ability to motivate people and his combustible, competitive spirit. Jerry semi-agreed, but also pointed out that working the toaster was probably testing the limits of his technological acumen.
Perhaps he could never have been a good investment banker, astronaut or Wall Street trader, but college football not yet being a video game, Spurrier will always have a chance to excel in moving bodies around on the football field like it was a human chessboard. And he does it masterfully, with aplomb, meeting challenge after challenge, no matter the landscape.
Football would have been much the poorer had Spurrier not decided to try his hand as an assistant at Florida, then Georgia Tech, then Duke – the latter of which would become the first real laboratory for the man once dubbed “The Mad Genius.” For nearly three decades now, Spurrier has been one of the game’s most interesting and successful coaches, cracking wise at his foes and vanquishing them more than 70 percent of the time.
All of that leads to a fascinating profile of a football man who defined three different eras. So colorful and successful has Spurrier been that ESPN is working with Kenny Chesney to produce a 30-minute special, not unlike The Book of Manning 30 for 30. It should be a classic about the boy from Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn., although Steve has no idea of the theme.
“They came down here (to the beach) and shot a bunch of stuff,” said Steve, “including some photos of my late parents – talked to family members. And they’re flying my daughter Amy up to Columbia to interview. But I’m not sure what the program is going to be.”
We could all probably guess.
* * *
The enigma that is Steve Spurrier provokes passionate discourse. Depending on your point of view, The Ball Coach is either diabolical or delightful, vengeful or visionary, goofball or genius, Huckster or Houdini.
Former Gator teammate Allen Trammel knows the private side of his friend that few see. “He’s very humble when he’s around family and friends,” he said of Spurrier. “He knows everybody’s name, including the kids, and he’s a very considerate person. He’s fiercely loyal to the people he cares about.”
(Don’t let that out – it might blow the image of The Evil Genius.)
Say what you want to about him, but Spurrier's body of work is downright Miss American -- a beautiful thing to see in person if you are a Gator or Gamecock: Winner of more than 200 college football games, a national championship and a Heisman Trophy.
A triple legend, if you will, who has defined three eras as player and/or coach.
Way back in the day, critics predicted what they perceived as Spurrier’s poor work ethic would preclude him from enjoying success as a coach. This was the scouting report: Too busy looking for fun. Won’t burn the midnight oil studying film. Plays too much golf and spends too much time working on his tan instead of X’s and O’s. Relishes The Good Life -- in modern terms, perhaps, a little too Johnny Manzielian in his day.
Pure heresy, according to the unwritten rules of the coaching handbook. After all, would a Bear Bryant have been caught dead playing Augusta National or sunbathing at the beach?
The traditionalists never understood the part about coaches not sleeping in their office overnight or going blind watching game film in order to be successful – that there was life away from football. Maybe that’s why the HBC isn’t burnt out at 69. “It’s not about age,” Spurrier insists. “It’s about your health.”
And your record.
FYI, Spurrier’s 25-year college record is 219-79-2 for .733 percent. The secret to his success? “Keep on playing and something good will happen,” is his favorite halftime speech.
* * *
I asked the Head Ball Coach, "what would you have done if you hadn’t decided one day in 1978 after watching a Florida football game that you wanted to be a coach?"
“Insurance. Probably insurance. It would have been ‘Trammel/Spurrier Insurance,’” Spurrier said, glancing over at his longtime friend Trammel, an Orlando insurance executive/banker.
However, coaching came along. In retrospect there was no other way it could have happened. The way Springsteen was born to run, Steve Spurrier was born to coach.
* * *
In the 40-plus years I have been covering his games as player or coach, interviewing him at SEC Media Days, after a game, at his office or in his home, I have rarely seen him in a better place or mood than he was in late May, relaxing with Jerri at a condominium pool complex where his family owns units.
He had a twinkle in his eye. This cannot be good news for his rival coaches, over whom he holds a 13-3 advantage since 2009, including five straight wins over Clemson.
As usual, our unscheduled, off-the-cuff conversation was rich and enlightening.
Three of his four offspring and more than half his 12 grandchildren were along; sons Steve Jr. and Scottie and daughter Lisa Spurrier King. Daughter Amy Moody of Panama City was awaiting the arrival of her parents in Panama City the next day.
"Life is really, really good," Spurrier said, deferring only a bit to his arthritic back with a quick stretch after hour nearly three-hour conversation.
Away from football, this is his element – the ocean, his family, a few friends and few rounds of golf. It is the one place he plants comfortably for a few weeks a year. The same beach where he stood in December 1989 the night before accepting the Florida job, reflecting on the words of the UF alma mater, when nobody had any idea of the havoc he was about the wreak on the SEC for the next 12 years with the Fun ‘n Gun.
Where palm and pine are blowing,
where southern seas are flowing…
Those words seem to perfectly describe his coaching philosophy – let it blow in the wind. The magic formula for winning 219 games? He always tells his team at halftime: “Keep playing and something good will happen.”
The question is, does the HBC have one or two more in him and can the Gamecocks continue being good?
* * *
Many of the pollsters are picking South Carolina in the pre-season Top Ten, so the future still looks promising. Stud running back in Mike Davis. Maybe the best offensive line in the SEC, led by 6-8, 348-pound tackle Corey Robinson. Though experienced and talented, quarterback Dylan Thompson still must follow in the footsteps of Connor Shaw, the school's all-time winning signal caller.
There are still some holes.
Except for Shaq Roland and Damiere Byrd, wide receivers depth is a question.
The NFL's No. 1 pick, Jadeveon Clowney and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles are gone. Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt is the only returning DL starter. Cornerback Victor Hampton also left early.
But fret not ye Gamecocks. The top quarterback in Georgia, Lorenzo Nunez of Harrison High School, also committed to South Carolina over N.C. State.
"I don't know why people think this is the end of something," Spurrier recently said. "We've got a team that has a chance to be okay."
If 2014 is “okay” or average when compared to the last 42 games, that means South Carolina is looking at a 10-win season with a shot at Spurrier’s second SEC East title.
* * *
The current landscape in Gainesville is a bit barren, although Jeremy Foley sounds upbeat about Muschamp’s ability to return the roar of the Gators. Many disgruntled Gator fans have expressed a desire for change, including at least one high profile alumnus who was chastised for tweeting “it’s time for a change.” Many hard-core Florida fans have waved the white flag and turned.
Spurrier’s name still comes up.
In fairness, the UF is reaching out for fans to help improve “the stadium experience” with a 12-person advisory board made up of ticket-holders. If Muschamp can win eight or more games, there can still be a turnaround.
People like David from Ocala want a quicker solution; he thinks somebody like Spurrier could bring back the magic to The Swamp immediately.
"It was always so damn much fun when he was the Gator coach," says the Ocala businessman, who just turned back six of the 10 tickets his family has owned for three generations. He says most of his tickets would go begging and would wind up in the trash. "Why don't we just go get Spurrier and let him finish up here? What's it going to take -- 10 million, 15 million?"
One might argue that the Urban Meyer Era at Florida produced a better winning percentage and one more national championship. The difference is that Meyer was corporate, Spurrier was organic. I don't hear too many Gator fans that are calling for Will Muschamp's head also yearning for the return of the Urban Era.
That aside, others could say that no coach will ever impact the style of football's most powerful conference, win as many SEC titles (6), score more points or make the game as much fun for the fans and media as Spurrier did at his alma mater. That’s why he is remembered and honored in a statue and on the stadium façade at Ben Hill Griffin.
Baby Boomers still cling to joy that the homegrown Spurrier brought them and that 1996 national championship will always be their Casablanca.
* * *
As for that “vengeful description” – what may infuriate the opposition endears and ingratiates him with the home side.
Thus that old saying: "Spurrier may be an SOB, but he's our SOB."
There is no doubt that he doesn't forget when you cross him. Make no mistake, his steel-trap mind works two ways. There’s no problem with his memory. He can remember almost every play of every game, nearly every hole of any recent round of golf (including his playing partners) and most any competitor guilty of snubbing or disrespecting him or intentionally harming his players. Payback can be hell.
Although he rarely talks about it, the famed “echo of the whistle” controversy with Florida State in the 1996 regular season still sticks in his craw because the way the Seminoles manhandled quarterback Danny Wuerffel. Over the years, mostly through NFL contacts, FSU players have admitted to him that Bobby Bowden and his defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews purposely knocked quarterbacks out.
One former Seminole said Andrews took great delight that the Seminole defensive kayoed six QBs that year. Wuerffel came back from a beating in Tallahassee to lead the Gators to an SEC title and a national championship with a whopping 52-20 Sugar Bowl victory over the hated Seminoles.
Echo THAT whistle, Spurrier seemed to be saying. And he did have the last say.
Bowden isn’t the only one who has felt Spurrier’s sting. So have former Georgia coach Ray Goff, Bill Curry (who didn’t retain Steve at Georgia Tech) and Dabo Swinney, among others.
Not saying Spurrier is holding a grudge because Bernie Machen declined to hire him back at Florida, but maybe there’s also a little message in the record if you’re scoring at home, President Machen. Please note that record has been 42-11 the last four years while Florida’s was going 30-21. His home record was 69-5 at Florida.
The Gamecocks’ all-time winning coach also takes great delight in having beaten Clemson the last five years and quotes a South Carolina newspaper headline that reads: “Another Clemson class graduates without beating South Carolina.”
Zing! That’s the Ball Coach we know. Free Shoes University. Can’t spell Citrus without at UT. And one of my personal favorites: Having the cops handcuff him at Gamecock practice after Clowney was detained downtown because of a mistaken identity. Yeah, like there’s a Steve Spurrier look alike!
Sometimes he even takes playful pokes at his friends, like Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops. Told after last year that Stoops became OU all-time winningest coach, Spurrier commented: “Yeah, but has he ever done it at two schools?”
* * *
Money has never been the primary motivation with Spurrier, who will already could make over $13-$14 million the next three season in his current job and seems to have no interest in coaching anywhere else.
He doesn’t even use an agent now. He did go for the big money once. When Daniel Snyder hired him as Redskins coach, the $25 million deal was the NFL’s biggest ever. Yet he walked away from the Redskins two years later for a settlement that Snyder described as “Chump Change.”
“I don’t ever want to be one of those coaches that gets paid for doing nothing,” Spurrier told me. His salary is unofficially listed at $4 million annually. “But I don’t need to be the highest paid guy. Just somewhere in the top five or so. I just ask for what’s fair.”
The pursuit of the SEC title hangs out there like a carrot for Spurrier, but another reason he keeps coaching at South Carolina is he enjoys having sons Steve Jr. (“Bubba”) and Scottie on his staff.
“Yeah, but that’s not the only reason,” said his son Steve Jr. “He’s very motivated to win and compete.”
Bubba also agrees that taking a break from football – like golf and the beach -- is a key to his dad's regeneration of spirit every year. In fact, the whole family usually joins him. “It’s very refreshing for him,” says the younger Spurrier.
Over the past two decades, Steve Jr. has built a strong bond with his dad as a trusted advisor, and now as co-offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator.
"He allows me to give him my opinion,” said Steve Jr. “You know, let's me weigh in a little bit. Next to mom, I've been around him more than anybody the last 20 years."
His father has already made it known he’s not plotting to have his son succeed him when he’s done, although that can’t really be ruled out. I asked Bubba if it was time for him to become a head coach. “I’ve got a really, really good job here,” said the younger Spurrier.
And while he didn’t say it, the Gamecocks are also on a really, really good roll.
* * *
Of course, his rock is Jerri, whom he married as a college student when they eloped to Folkston, Ga. in September, 1966. “Who says I didn’t have a ‘destination’ wedding?” she laughed, pointing to the simple gold band still worn on her left hand. “Right out of the tackle box,” she said of the jewelry. Of course if she wanted a big rock, she could have a diamond as big as Kim Kardashiain’s. She is so NOT Kim Kardashian.
Because they were married under the radar almost 48 years ago, Steve threw a big party at Hilton Head for their 40th anniversary and plans to do something similar in a couple of years. I didn’t want to ask, but could that also be a retirement party?
* * *
So what would Spurrier be if he weren’t coaching?
A showman perhaps? He brings pizzazz and panache to the game, as an iconoclast who laces his advocacy for change with a keen sense of irony and humor. If he were a country music star, his profile might look like this: A little Blake Shelton wise-ass humor, George Strait longevity for success and Keith Urban’s flair and good looks.
“I love it!” exclaimed Trammel. “Perfect analogy!”
Now all Spurrier needs is a hit song.
How about, “Keep on playing and something good will happen!”?
Are you listening Kenny Chesney?
SouthernPigskin.com columnist Buddy Martin has written seven books on football, won an Emmy for his work with Terry Bradshaw and hosts Buddy Martin's Sports Page weekdays at 5 pm on WOCA.com in North Central Florida.