The first thing they remember is Steve Spurrier’s memory. Even 15 and 20 years later, he can recall downs and distances, situations and words that just stuck in his mind. The journalists who doubted him more than two decades ago? The fellow Southeastern Conference coaches who thought he was a gimmick coach? Yes, he remembers them, too.
By KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star
Chris Doering, a former walk-on wide receiver at the University of Florida, attended a South Carolina-Florida game a few years ago. When Spurrier saw his former pupil, he pointed toward the sideline where, sometime in the 1990s, Doering once caught a pass and stayed inbounds to preserve Florida’s halftime lead. Doering had forgotten it, but not his Ol’ Ball Coach.
“He’s just got a photographic memory,” says Doering, who went on set the school record with 31 receiving touchdowns. “… People are just given gifts.”
Spurrier is 67 years old now, his legendary Florida career more than a decade behind him. He is the Gamecocks’ coach and has pushed South Carolina to unprecedented heights. But his most significant contribution isn’t what he’s done in Columbia or even winning a national championship in Gainesville. If Spurrier thinks about it, he should be able to remember the 1990 season, when, despite the doubts, his team was so dominant that it forced other SEC teams to catch up — or keep getting embarrassed. When many did, the conference evolved into the nation’s best, winners of the last six national championships.
“It just really revolutionized the conference,” says Shane Matthews, the former Gators quarterback who helped Florida defeat opponents by an average margin of 30 points in 1990. “… You saw everybody trying to keep up with us.”
Spurrier arrived in Gainesville amid hope but facing a disappointing history. Florida’s only conference championship, in 1984, had been vacated after major NCAA violations were discovered under former coach Charley Pell. Now suddenly this youthful coach with a radical new offense was going to shower the program with trophies?
“It wasn’t even a big deal that I was there; I can assure you of that,” Spurrier says now. “They weren’t worried one bit about somebody who’s going to start throwing the ball all over the place.”
So what if Spurrier had led Duke to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship the previous season. And who cared that, 24 years earlier, Spurrier became the Gators’ first Heisman Trophy winner. This was the SEC, land of the power running back, and if Spurrier wanted to talk Heismans, three of the conference’s stout rushers had won them in the 1980s.
Spurrier was questioned, but he was confident. Sometimes he seemed too confident. Shortly after he was introduced, a reporter asked him who his punter might be when the season began. Spurrier looked at him and laughed.
“Our punter?” he recalls saying. “I hope we’re not going to try to win games trying to out-punt the other team.”
Spurrier surprised reporters, boosters and fellow coaches. Some were intrigued by this new way — “Never heard a coach say something like that,” he says proudly — but others were turned off.
“You either love him,” Doering says, “or you hate him.”
Players, particularly those he inherited on offense, loved him. When Spurrier arrived, Matthews was the Gators’ fifth-string quarterback and had never taken a snap during a college game. That didn’t stop Spurrier from declaring, before he’d chosen a starter, that his pick would make that season’s all-SEC team. Outsiders rolled their eyes, and they howled when it was Matthews who Spurrier pegged.
The secret, though, was that Florida’s offense was simple — more so, Matthews says now, than any offense he ran even during his 14 NFL seasons. If players committed and practiced, then by the time the game began, the quarterback and the receivers would know where the ball was going even before the snap.
“The defenses back in those days were not as complicated as they are now,” Spurrier says. “So it wasn’t all that difficult.”
Here’s something else he remembers: Shortly before his debut against Oklahoma State, a few of the local sportswriters expressed concern about the Gators’ chances against the Cowboys. This contest, they wrote, could be a struggle.
So a short while before kickoff, Spurrier found Matthews in the locker room and sat next to him. What kind of play would the youngster like to run on his first snap? Matthews told him he’d be fine with a low-pressure call, such as a draw or screen.
Naw, Spurrier told him in his high-pitched, east Tennessee drawl; that’s not why Florida hired him. He was brought here to sling it, and that’s what they’d do.
When Matthews lined up, he took Spurrier’s play call, and sure enough, Matthews dropped and twirled it 35 yards to receiver Ernie Mills on a crossing pattern. Four plays later, the Gators were in the end zone, and by the time Oklahoma State left Gainesville, Florida had its first win: 50-7.
“They got on us,” says Pat Jones, the Cowboys’ coach at the time. “And it was just kind of like: ‘Hold onto your hat and get out of there.’”
The weeks passed, and eyes stopped rolling. Doubts stopped coming. Spurrier was onto something, and few coaches had ideas on how to stop the train.
“You could put a plan in against it that’s perfect,” says former Auburn coach Pat Dye, whose fourth-ranked Tigers lost 48-7 to Florida in 1990. “But the thing that he did back in the early ’90s that used to drive me nuts is: We’d have the damn receivers covered, and the quarterback would throw the football to them, and by the time the ball got to them, they’d be uncovered.”
As Spurrier predicted, Matthews was an all-conference player his first season, and he was the conference’s player of the year in ’91 and ’92. The coach had recognized Matthews’ talent, and combined with Spurrier’s offense, the Gators made magic. They hung 47 points on Kentucky in ’90, 45 on Georgia in ’92, 58 on LSU in ’93. In Florida’s first two games in 1994, Spurrier’s team scored 70 and 73 points.
The Gators were still on probation in 1990, stemming from Pell’s violations, and would’ve won the SEC if they had been eligible. Once the sanctions were lifted a year later, Florida won the conference championship in five of the next six years. The league expanded in ’92, and the Gators won the SEC East five consecutive years.
Doering says Spurrier could watch a defense once and, just figuring it in his mind, remember where weaknesses would be. When players reported to the football complex on Sundays, Spurrier distributed hand-drawn offensive “ball plays” that he’d tailored to the next opponent’s defense.
“When we walked out there,” Doering says, “not only did we know we were going to win the football game, but the opposing team, the opposing fans — everybody knew that they really stood no chance.”
Florida’s conference neighbors knew something had to change. Longtime coaches such as Dye and Tennessee’s Johnny Majors were pushed aside, and in their places programs hired aggressive recruiters and coaches who could either match Spurrier’s offense or somehow find a way to stop it. New Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer brought in quarterback Peyton Manning, who ran a pro-style offense. Arkansas hired defensive mastermind Joe Lee Dunn to be its coordinator. Teams targeted fast, agile safeties and speedy linebackers to reduce passing lanes and keep up with Florida’s wide receivers.
The SEC was taking on a new look.
“You could literally see the change,” Doering says, “happening right in front of your face.”
Still, Spurrier kept winning, and not only was his offense dominant, the Gators’ defense was fast and organized. From 1993-96, Florida lost only two conference games.
It wasn’t until the 1995 national championship that a team convincingly solved Spurrier’s offense. Nebraska ran something called a zone defense, at the time a new concept, and it confused the Gators and helped the Huskers keep possession often enough to score 29 points in the second quarter. Nebraska won, 62-24, but not only that, the Huskers showed SEC coaches how to slow Florida.
The Gators won the national title in ’96, propelled by quarterback Danny Wuerffel’s Heisman season, but by then, the SEC wasn’t the collection of patsies that Spurrier had so often trounced. Tennessee won the SEC East the next two seasons, adding a national title in ’98, and Georgia, Auburn and LSU had evolved, too.
“He basically changed the way college football is played,” says Matthews, who runs Spurrier’s offense as a high school coach in St. Augustine, Fla., “especially in the SEC.”
Spurrier left Florida after the 2001 season, heading to Washington and the NFL. After three disappointing seasons, in which he tried to storm the NFL with the same offense and many of the players he’d coached at Florida, including Matthews and Wuerffel, Spurrier resigned in December 2003.
“He was made to be a college football coach,” Matthews says.
Spurrier joined South Carolina in late 2004, talking with humility and offering to take things slow. It was smart, considering he was now being asked to push the historically mediocre Gamecocks toward better days — and compete in the very superconference he had helped create.
“‘Why would you go there? You can’t win there,’” Spurrier recalls several of his friends telling him. “ ‘Every coach that goes there gets fired.’”
He hasn’t been fired, but success has come slowly in Columbia. It partly was because the SEC had changed again by the time Spurrier returned to college football. The league was again ruled by defensive-minded coaches such as Nick Saban and Tommy Tuberville, and even without Spurrier, Florida remained a conference- and national-title contender behind another offensive visionary, Urban Meyer and his spread option.
Now in his eighth season, Spurrier has been unable to find a reliable quarterback to join him at South Carolina, forcing him to rely on rushing and defense to win games. But he has done it, winning the Gamecocks’ first division championship in 2010 and setting a school record with 11 wins last season. Matthews says it’s more impressive than anything he did at Florida.
“You’ve got to give him credit,” Dye says, “because he’s adjusted his thinking.”
Others have been forced to think differently, too. A few years ago, when the South Carolina crowd cheered the Gamecocks after a narrow loss, Spurrier publicly scolded the fan base. He said supporters should never seem that desperate. Now, he says, the expectations have changed. Fans once hoped for a good showing against the SEC’s big boys; now they hope for a win.
“That’s the way you’re supposed to feel: mad or a little upset if you don’t beat them,” says Spurrier, whose team is ranked ninth to start the upcoming season. “… So now, yeah, our expectations are high.”
Spurrier says he has no idea how he’ll be remembered, but in Columbia and Gainesville, his impact will be recalled for years.
“They were ready for a little bit of direction, a little bit of optimism,” he says. “It’s amazing when you get some guys confidence and tell them they’re pretty good; they play like they’re pretty good. That was all I had to do.”
To reach Kent Babb, call 816-234-4386, send email to email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/kentbabb. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.