FOOTBALL: Whole Lotta Posturing Goin' On

Here is all you need to know about the football coaching situation at the University of Florida. If Steven Orr Spurrier wants this job, it is his for the taking. Call in the boats, fire the admiral, the war's been called off. If he wants to be the coach, he will be, simple as that.

As simple as that may seem, it is also complicated well beyond the far reaches of the collective imaginations of the entire Gator Nation which is poised to once again embrace Stevie Wonder as the savior of the football program. While you may be salivating at the thought of Spurrier returning to lead the Florida football program to new heights, there are two words which should become part of your vocabulary for the next few weeks.

Patience Grasshopper!

This is not a deal that will be done tomorrow or even next week. It will take time to do it not because the issues that surround the return of SOS are as tricky as they are many. While the issues are worked through during the next few weeks, there is also that possibility that Spurrier could decide things are not going well, pull up stakes and walk away. There is always that possibility, however remote it may be.

The odds are strong that Spurrier either will decide or has already decided to come back to Florida. It is known that he has an interest, but depending on whom you choose to believe, he's already talked with the honchos at UF or has merely conveyed his desire to them. Either way, all signs point to a return of Spurrier, who has been larger than life in two different tenures at Florida, first as a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in the 1960s, and next as a national championship winning coach from 1990-2001. When it comes to the University of Florida, Spurrier may not be bigger than the university itself, but he's definitely larger than the president and athletic director, the ones who ultimately will have to defer to the masses.

For University of Florida President Bernie Machen, the issues are many. He came to UF in January and this will be the second decision (the first, the firing of Ron Zook) he's made that has both statewide and national consequences. On the day that Zook was fired, Machen said after the press conference, "I didn't realize when I came here just how big, how important football is. I was at Michigan and football is also very big there, but it is not like it is here."

So he is aware of the magnitude of this decision. He's acutely aware that the day that Spurrier comes back to Florida, it will dwarf all other sports news in the nation. He seemed shocked at last week's press conference that the media attention given to this story carries such weight nationally.

From the moment Zook was canned, speculation with Machen has centered around two names: Spurrier, the coach who walked away from Florida three years ago, and Urban Meyer, the coach that Machen hired away from Bowling Green when he was the president of the University of Utah. Rumors have been circulated that Machen is digging in his heels, determined to bring Meyer to Gainesville. There is also talk that Athletic Director Jeremy Foley favors Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino over a return by Spurrier

Both Machen and Foley said at the press conference and during the week that their commitment is to bring the "best" coach possible to Florida. Whatever they say, whatever their agenda, hard charging reality is that IF Steve Spurrier wants to be the football coach at the University of Florida, then the job is his and that's the way that weenie wiggles.

It is not that Spurrier is a spoiled brat who must have his way. The last thing in the world he will do is force his way back into the coaching position he left three years ago. He loves the University of Florida far too much to do that although he could. Spurrier is Florida's very own legend and included in his admirers are legions of deep pocket boosters. Spurrier won't be demanding, but the boosters will be. For all practical purposes, they are already galvanized on this issue. Spurrier is their man.

Machen is well aware of the power and influence of the big money boosters. He is about to kick off a capital program at UF determined to raise $1.4 billion. Those same boosters who give the big bucks to make Florida athletics first class are the same big bucks alumni who are counted on the most to write hefty checks to the capital program. It may be different at Michigan or at Utah, but in Florida, the rich alums who donate to the athletics are also the core group who donate to the university whenever there is a capital fund.

Back in 1989, Bill Arnsparger was the athletic director at the University of Florida and Dr. Robert Bryan was the interim president. Arnsparger wanted Mike Archer, the coach who had succeeded him at LSU, to succeed Galen Hall as Florida's football coach. Bryan threw his initial support behind Arnsparger.

The Gator boosters wanted Spurrier, but Arnsparger and Bryan dug in their heels. That's when Ben Hill Griffin (as in Stadium) uncomplicated matters.

When Arnsparger told Griffin that he had made his choice and that he was picking Archer, Griffin smiled and told Arnsparger, "Bill, Steve Spurrier is going to be the football coach at the University of Florida next year. You DON'T have to be the athletic director."

Machen is NOT about to let this situation get to a point where a booster of the magnitude of Ben Hill Griffin spells out what is going to happen. He knows that if he is going to be a success in the capital fund, then it will all start with his ultimate decision about who succeeds Zook. Meyer may be a coach he admires and likes personally with a track record of winning the Mid-America Conference championship at Bowling Green and the Mountain West Conference title at Utah. Spurrier's track record is six Southeastern Conference championships and one national championship in a 12-year span at Florida. Meyer may have thrilled crowds of 30,000 at Doyt Perry Stadium at Bowling Green and crowds of 45,000 at Rice-Eccles Stadium at Utah, but Spurrier is the reason The Swamp has been expanded twice in the last 14 years to its present capacity of 90,000. In other words, Spurrier is the dollars and cents choice, the reason that those fat cat athletic boosters with the open checkbooks will be first in line to contribute to the capital campaign that will define Machen's tenure as the president of the university.

Machen's heart may say Meyer, but his head and common sense will say Spurrier. He is pragmatic enough to resist the will to show his testosterone level is equal to any booster out there. Bringing in his own man may have a certain appeal, but he is indeed smart enough to realize that he didn't get this far in his career in academia by picking and choosing the wrong fights. To dig in at this point would be suicidal for his career. Machen is in the process of selecting five new vice-presidents at UF. If he wants a fight, then that's the place to show his backbone and steel will. If he makes a bad choice for a vice-president, the alums will still donate heavily to sports and the capital fund. If he makes the wrong choice as football coach, he's toast.

Getting to this point where we all can agree that it has to be Spurrier is the easy part. The tough part is to bring Stevie Wonder back in such a way that everyone's ego is goosed in the right way. Machen needs to choose Spurrier because he makes sense, not because he's caving in to to the boosters. Spurrier's ego requires that he comes back to people who love him and want him to return. If Machen feels there is a gun to his head, he may balk. If Stevie Wonder doesn't feel the love, he may walk away.

So as we write this next chapter in the saga that is Gator football, just call it "Whole Lotta Posturing Goin' On." The outcome of the next chapter may be already decided, but at least it will be entertaining.

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