Spurrier left when it was no longer fun

College football will never be the same...

There was that day in Destin at the SEC Spring Meetings some five years ago when Steve Spurrier was asked some questions about retirement. He was 65 then and showing no signs of slowing down. Holding court with reporters from all over the SEC surrounding him, Spurrier talked about doing something that had never been done at South Carolina before he retired – winning a championship – but he threw in one other little nugget that was pretty much overlooked.  

“I’ll quit when it’s not fun anymore,” Spurrier said.

Not fun anymore probably happened sometime during the offseason, although Spurrier didn’t tell anybody until Monday night. If you’ve followed the Head Ball Coach all these years, it was painful to watch South Carolina’s recent struggles. The Gamecocks are 2-4, losers of all four SEC games and looking like a team destined to spin its wheels the rest of the season. Spurrier probably knew this was going to happen back last spring but the competitor in him made him come back for one more try. When it became obvious that he couldn’t will the Gamecocks to be better than they were, it was time to face up to not fun anymore had arrived.  

So, Spurrier retired Monday night. It was abrupt and unexpected but it was so Spurrier, brutally honest to the end. His heart wasn’t in it anymore and he didn’t think he could get the job done. Taking a paycheck when you’re heart’s not in it isn’t the Spurrier way of doing things, so he told his administration and told his team that it was time to go. Now.

So the curtain closes on a fabulous coaching career. Spurrier won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship at Duke in 1989. The school hadn’t won one since 1962 and hasn’t won one since. Then came that incredible 12-year run at Florida where he was 122-27-1 with six SEC championships and the 1996 national championship. After a couple of years in the NFL, he came back to college football at South Carolina where he leaves as the winningest coach in school history at 86-49 and the only one to win 11 games, which he did in consecutive years from 2011-13. Spurrier closes the door on his college coaching career 228-89-2.

* * *

I’ve got far too many Spurrier memories and not enough time or space to write them. I was there when he debuted with the Florida freshmen against Florida State in 1963 and at his varsity debut against SMU in 1964. In November my family was exiled to Mississippi when the Altamil Corporation bought out the Adkins Manufacturing Company for which my dad was the chief financial officer. The Gators were supposed to play LSU on October 3 in Baton Rouge but Hurricane Carla forced postponement to December 5.

The rescheduling of the game allowed me to see my first game in Tiger Stadium, a 20-6 win over Charley McClendon and LSU. It was a cold, windy night in Baton Rouge and the LSU defense had a nasty reputation, but they couldn’t contain Steve Spurrier. Because of Spurrier, I won a huge bet with Ann Crosby, the wife of my dad’s boss in McComb, Mississippi. If the Gators won, Mrs. Crosby had to put my Florida flag on her front door and keep it there for a week. If the Gators lost, I would have had to put the LSU flag on my front door on Westview Circle. We had that bet for the three Spurrier years and for three years the Gator flag flew on the front door of the Crosbys. Mrs. Crosby hated Spurrier with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns.

Thanksgiving weekend in 1965, my family drove back to Florida to spend the holiday with grandparents. Much to my surprise, my grandfather got me a ticket to the Florida-FSU game. It looked like dire straits for the Gators with two minutes remaining when FSU scored to take a 17-16 lead, the clock showed 2:10 remaining, way too much time for Stevie Wonder to work his magic. It took six plays and 58 seconds for Spurrier to drive the Gators 71 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. At the FSU 24, Spurrier rolled to his right looking for Charlie Casey on an out pattern but FSU didn’t have a safety in the middle of the field. With his left hand, Spurrier waved Casey into the end zone and lofted the perfect pass for the TD with 1:12 remaining. Allen Trammell would add the exclamation point by running an interception back for a statement TD but when it was over and Florida won, 30-17, all anyone could talk about was Spurrier.

A year later at Thanksgiving, my family was back in Gainesville. This was the weekend of the Florida-Miami game. On Thanksgiving night, Spurrier was announced as the winner of the Heisman Trophy. On Saturday he faced Ted Hendricks and Miami. Hendricks sacked Spurrier seven times and forced Spurrier to hurry his throws all day. Miami won the game, 21-16. It’s the only time in his college career that I ever saw Spurrier flustered.

In the fall of 1976, while working for the Miami News, I covered a Tampa Bay Bucs game. Spurrier was wrapping up his professional career with the worst team in the history of the NFL. It was the Bucs’ expansion year and Spurrier darn near was dismembered that season because the Bucs O-line couldn’t block anyone. I remember the look on Spurrier’s face in the locker room that day after the Kansas City Chiefs had beaten the Bucs, 28-19. The look said this is no fun anymore. Spurrier retired from pro football after that year.

* * *  

The memories of his 12 years at Florida are too many to list so I’ll just mention two games that stand out. The first was September 8, 1990, Spurrier’s first game as the Florida head coach. Spurrier wasn’t the first choice of UF athletic director Bill Arnsparger, who wanted LSU coach Mike Archer to succeed Galen Hall. It took some persuasion by Ben Hill Griffin (yes, the stadium is named after him) for Spurrier to get the job. As legend has it, Mr. Griffin told Arnsparger, “Bill, Steve Spurrier is going to be the football coach here. You don’t have to be the athletic director.”

Oklahoma State was the opponent that first game and Shane Matthews, the 6th-string quarterback the year before, was the starter. It took 1:50 for the Gators to get on the scoreboard. Fans were hardly warm in their seats when Matthews completed four straight passes for 62 yards to set up a 3-yard TD run by Dexter McNabb. Matthews threw for 332 yards that day as the Gators won, 50-7. Little did college football and the SEC know, but a revolution had begun. Steve Spurrier was about to transform the SEC from three yards and a cloud of dust to start throwing when you get off the bus.

The second memory is the national championship game in 1996 in New Orleans. With a healthy offensive line, Spurrier did to FSU what he would have done in Tallahassee if not for all the injuries. Florida destroyed FSU and Bobby Bowden, 52-20, and it could have been worse. Up until that moment, Florida had always been the sleeping giant. Well, the giant was awake and flexing its muscles. “God shined on the Gators,” Spurrier said.

Yes, he did.

* * *

When he retired as Florida’s head coach after the Orange Bowl in January of 2002, Spurrier said 12 years was probably about the right time for a coach to call it quits at one school. He stunned the college football world that day when he told the press it was time to move on to something new. Had he stayed at Florida, it’s easy to speculate that he might have kept on winning big, but Spurrier had to be true to himself. Honest as the day is long, he felt it was time to fade off into the sunset and he walked away. Just like that.

And he walked away again Monday night. Just like that.

Some might think Spurrier did the selfish thing by walking away both at Florida and at South Carolina, but after all these years of following and knowing him, the one thing I can say is that he’s always been honest to a fault. Steve’s always been the kind of person that if you are afraid of the answer, then by all means, don’t ask the question. I think that Monday night, just as that day in 1976 when he quit pro football and just as 2002 when he walked away from Florida, he came to the conclusion it wasn’t fun anymore and if it wasn’t fun, taking a paycheck would have been dishonest.

* * *

Even though South Carolina folks rightly claim Steve Spurrier as their own, Gator fans also know that he was, is and will always be the Gator who made us relevant. He did it as a player. He did it as a coach. He is the single most important figure in the history of Florida football.

I can’t imagine what life as a Gator would have been without him. Now I can’t imagine what college football will be without him.

He’s only been gone a few hours and I already miss him.

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