Steve Spurrier: Back in the Game

The legendary Steve Spurrier is once again ready for launch, this time as head coach of the newly minted Orlando Apollos. And the Ol’ Ball Coach has a bunch of plays he thinks you’ll like.

As the legend goes, when Steve Spurrier was Duke University’s offensive coordinator he tapped Ben Bennett on the shoulder while the quarterback hunched over his breakfast the morning of a game. Bennett has recalled over the years that Spurrier diagrammed a play to use that afternoon, and did so “right there in my oatmeal.” Laughing now at the story as he sits in his Gainesville home, Spurrier neither confirms nor denies Bennett’s recollection. But he does acknowledge the obvious—that when it comes to football, and especially football plays, his mind never shuts off.

“When I see a play or think something up, I try to find a piece of paper somewhere and draw it up real fast and put it in a stack of plays that I keep,” he says. “I have a big stack right now.”

The AAF cites Spurrier’s “unparalleled ability to develop young players.” (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

It’s been several years since the mastermind that is Steve Spurrier—a.k.a. the Ol’ Ball Coach—has been able to deploy those plays into an actual game, creating his winning brand of Fun ’n’ Gun football. It hasn’t seemed right not having him around on fall weekends—not to him, nor to the football world. God gave him a gift, Spurrier says, and ever since he abruptly left South Carolina as the Gamecocks’ head coach midway through the 2015 season, that gift has been under wraps.

Spurrier has spent the ensuing years playing golf, hanging out at Crescent Beach, where he has a second home, and becoming an ambassador and consultant at the University of Florida, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 and an NCAA National Championship as the Gators’ head coach in 1996. But instead of filling a void, the void only became more obvious.

When the phone rang one day and it was Rick Neuheisel, Spurrier wasn’t prepared for what he heard—that there was an opportunity for him to coach in a professional football league. Spurrier and Neuheisel have similar résumés: Both were college quarterbacks, NFL quarterbacks and coached in the USFL, NFL and in college. Neuheisel told Spurrier about a new league that was forming, backed by prestigious names with pigskin pedigree. Spurrier was interested. Another phone call followed. This one came from J.K. McKay, the son of John McKay, who coached both Spurrier and J.K. a lifetime ago with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. McKay informed Spurrier that this new pro league would be called the Alliance of American Football, or AAF, and that there was going to be a team in Orlando.

“Are you telling me I can have the Orlando team?” Spurrier asked McKay.

“You can coach the Orlando team if you want it,” McKay replied.

“Count me in,” Spurrier said. “I’ll take it.”

It happened that quickly, that seamlessly.

“I didn’t even know what the pay was or anything like that,” Spurrier says. “I didn’t need an agent, didn’t negotiate. I just said, ‘Count me in.’ ”

And he is in—all in.

The league is composed of eight teams—Orlando, Atlanta, Memphis and Birmingham in the Eastern Conference; San Antonio, San Diego, Arizona (Tempe) and Salt Lake in the Western Conference. Orlando’s team nickname is the Apollos, and they’ll play at UCF’s Spectrum Stadium, with the home opener set for February 9 against Atlanta.

“The season is 10 games, 12 if you make it to the championship game, so we’re planning on 12 games,” Spurrier says. “I don’t think I would be doing this if it was anywhere else but in Florida, and Orlando is a great city. It’s an hour and a half from my home in Gainesville. Everything just fit.”

Some might say, however, that there is one thing that doesn’t fit—his age. When Spurrier coached the Florida Gators for 12 seasons, 1990 through 2001, he would often chide then-Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden for coaching into his 60s and 70s, vowing that he would never be that type of coach. Spurrier will turn 74 in April. To say that he has changed his mind is an understatement.

“I thought when my coaching days were over that I’ll have plenty of time and I’ll work on this dadgum golf game and I’ll be better than I used to be,” Spurrier says. “Guess what? It doesn’t happen that way when you hit 70. It didn’t for me. I sort of got a little arthritis and stiffness and I don’t play near as good as I once did. I’ve really cut back on golf. I’m not completely giving it up, but coaching this team, the Apollos, certainly has my main interest now.”

And there is interest in him, to be sure.

Spurrier is perhaps the biggest name the AAF has attracted into its fold. Longtime NFL executive Bill Polian, who is one of the AAF’s cofounders, agrees. In an email, Polian said, “For a new league, having a man of Steve Spurrier’s accomplishments as one of our coaches in our inaugural season gives us immediate credibility with fans nationwide. Of course, there was no other choice for the Orlando Apollos. Steve is synonymous with football in Florida. But most importantly, his unparalleled ability to develop young players is exactly what will provide Orlando fans with exciting and highly competitive Alliance football.”

To be sure, there are other big names that the league has attracted. Former Miami Hurricanes head coach Dennis Erickson is the Salt Lake Stallions’ head coach. Former St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz is the San Diego Fleet head coach. NFL great and Hall of Famer Mike Singletary is coaching the Memphis Express, Neuheisel has the Arizona Hotshots franchise … and on and on it goes. In addition to Polian, the league’s front office boasts names like that of CEO and co-founder Charlie Ebersol, the son of legendary broadcast executive Dick Ebersol and actress Susan Saint James. Former NFL stars like Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu work in player relations.

But it’s the name Steve Spurrier, along with his outsized personality, which will likely emanate a few more watts of light on the league’s marquee. On top of that, the AAF has some innovative ideas, and if anything, Spurrier has always been forward thinking.

The AAF is looking to take much of the foot out of football. There will be no kickoffs or extra points. As for the former, the ball will simply be placed on the 25-yard line. As for the latter, teams will get the ball on the two-and-a-half-yard line and go for two points. Getting another opportunity to score, rather than relying on the blasé and somewhat cliché extra point, will provide Spurrier with another play to call. Already it has his creative juices flowing, as he rummages through his stack of papers with scribbled formations and plays.

“I like that rule,” he says. “What you’re going to see is a lot of different kinds of unique ball plays. Most Americans, when they’re watching football games, they love to see some kind of double reverse or a reverse or a throwback to a halfback or a quarterback. I think you’re going to see a lot of that stuff. We’ll have about 10 two-point plays on every play sheet.”

And something else.

As UF’s quarterback, Spurrier won the coveted Heisman Trophy in 1966. (COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF FlORIDA ATHLETICS)

“We’re going to have a section on our play sheet called the SportsCenter play,” Spurrier adds, referring to the ESPN news show that features top 10 highlights. “If one of those plays hits, I guarantee it’s going to be on SportsCenter. Hopefully we can give people some ball plays that they’ve never seen before.”

If so, it won’t be the first time Spurrier has wowed. When he arrived into the storied and staid Southeastern Conference as the Gators’ head coach in 1990, it was if he brought an MP3 player to a house party that still used 8-track tapes. While the SEC was a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust conference—or maybe it was three yards and a cloud of rust—Spurrier’s philosophy was to establish the pass and then the run, and not the other way around. He transformed quarterbacks into gunslingers who almost always outdrew the competition. His philosophy was to score in two basic ways—early and often.

Before becoming the Gators’ head coach, Spurrier was UF’s quarterbacks and wide receivers coach, arriving in 1978 when the school had a hotshot sophomore quarterback named Cris Collinsworth. It was Spurrier who moved Collinsworth to wide receiver, which eventually launched an NFL career and later a career as a broadcaster. Collinsworth marveled at Spurrier’s ability to see the unseen back then, and he still does today.

“With Steve you never knew what was going to get called, because he had the capability of ad-libbing during the course of a game better than anybody I’d ever been around,” Collinsworth says. “He was sort of like a guy who played music by ear. There are some people who study it and hit every note and are talented. But it seems that the ones who are geniuses are the ones who can sort of just look at the keyboard and something flows out of them. That was the way Steve ran his offense.”

Add to that Spurrier’s almost maniacal competitive drive, something he learned from his father, the late Rev. Graham Spurrier. In 1952, when Spurrier was 7 years old and the family lived in Newport, Tennessee, it was his Presbyterian minister dad who started Little League Baseball there. Later, when the young Spurrier played Babe Ruth League ball, his father was the team’s manager.

Spurrier’s Gators won 7 SEC titles, as well as the 1996 National Championship. (COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION)

On the first day of practice, the Rev. Spurrier assembled the kids along the right-field line and asked them: “How many of you boys believe in the saying, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game’? ” Young Steve watched as every hand shot up—every hand, that is, except his. He knew where his father was going. “You can put your hands down,” the elder Spurrier said, “because I don’t believe in that statement. It does matter whether you win or lose. That’s why they keep score. There’s going to be a winner and a loser in every game. Any time you keep score you’re supposed to try and win. So we’re going to play by the rules and we’re going to play fair—but we’re going to try and win.”

It’s a philosophy that Steve Spurrier has adopted and maintained throughout his life. When he became the Gators’ head coach in 1990, the school had been recently rocked by two coaches who were fired for NCAA violations—Charley Pell and Galen Hall. Spurrier takes pride in the fact that during his 12 years in Gainesville, UF won seven SEC titles (one unofficial because of violations under Hall) along with the ’96 National Championship, and did so without even a whisper of improprieties.

Spurrier did gain a reputation, though, for petulant behavior—throwing his visor when plays didn’t go his way, as well as mocking other coaches and schools whenever the narrative suited him. He said FSU stood for Free Shoes University, in reference to allegations that Seminole players violated NCAA rules by receiving free shoes. He said you can’t spell Citrus without the letters U-T, mocking the Tennessee Volunteers’ program that seemed to always enter the regular season highly ranked, and yet invariably landed in Orlando’s second-tier Citrus Bowl game. He also seemed to take sadistic pleasure in not just beating the Georgia Bulldogs, but in running up the score whenever he could. Google “Steve Spurrier’s 15 greatest trash-talking quotes” and be prepared for a chuckle or two … or more. He also has an elephant’s memory for slights, and exacting retribution for them never seemed to end. All of it made great copy for journalists, even those whom he battled with, as well as providing reams of bulletin board material for rivals.

Gator fans revered him while opposing fans reviled him. Either way, Steve Spurrier commanded people’s attention and their eyeballs. The AAF and the Apollos are banking—literally—on that not changing.

In recent years, though, Spurrier has showed a softer side. His daughter Amy Moody noticed a change going back to 2000, shortly after the Rev. Spurrier died, which was around the same time that Steve’s own children started having children of their own. Amy noted that her dad never used to hug before, but that he was now more prone to an embrace, though he would sometimes add, “Can you scratch my back while you’re there?”

He seemed looser in front of a camera, sometimes even jovial and joking. His smile came to the fore more often. And the coach who once warned his players to never dump a bucket of Gatorade on him, no matter how big the win, allowed himself in 2014 to be videotaped doing the Ice Bucket Challenge, which helped raise awareness and money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Spurrier spent 11 seasons coaching South Carolina’s Gamecocks before leaving abruptly in 2015. (COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA ATHLETICS)

For a man who has accepted outside criticism like a cat would accept bathwater, Spurrier also tends to be more self-deprecating these days, though sometimes with a caveat. He was that way to a lesser degree when he was at UF, when he would sometimes blame himself and his coaching abilities for a loss—sort of. A common refrain from him would be: Our guys didn’t play very well. I guess we didn’t do a very good job coaching them up.

While he claims responsibility for his two failed years as an NFL head coach with the Washington Redskins, he has never been shy about also casting a shadow of blame on team owner Daniel Snyder.

Spurrier went to the Redskins in 2002, a year after leaving Florida, signing a five-year, $25 million contract. He later admitted that he went where he was offered the most money. “When someone offers you three times more than what you were making, it’s tough to turn that down,” he says. “But I didn’t go to the right place, and that’s my fault.” He explains that Snyder promised him a general manager, specifically Bobby Beathard, who had been the architect of four previous Super Bowl titles. But neither Beathard nor anyone else was hired. Instead, Snyder made the personnel decisions.

“I was supposed to get a general manager and, stupid me, I didn’t get that down in writing,” Spurrier says. “Sometimes you have to get stuff in writing and get everyone to sign it. But I never had to do that in my life before, so you live and learn. When Dan Snyder was not only picking the whole team, but also the quarterbacks, I told my wife Jerri before the second season, ‘I’m finished. This isn’t going to work out. We’ll get through this year and see what’s next.’ ”

Sure enough, after he followed his inaugural 7-9 record in 2002 with a 5-11 campaign in 2003, Spurrier quit. In doing so, he walked away from $15 million.

His later departure from the University of South Carolina was even more abrupt. In explaining what happened, Spurrier is again critical of himself, though without any caveat this time. He was in his 11th season with the Gamecocks, having led the program to unprecedented success while becoming their all-time winningest coach. There were three straight 11-win seasons and nine bowl appearances. But a 7-6 record in 2014 was followed by a 2-4 start in 2015. That’s when Spurrier shocked college football by stepping down.

“I did a terrible job my last year at South Carolina,” he says. “I had assembled a team that was in disarray. Players didn’t like each other; they didn’t like their coaches. And coaches didn’t like each other. There was a lot of division. It was a mess and it was my fault. Our defense was the worst in school history for the second year in a row, and I’m in charge of the defense too, even though I’m an offensive quarterback coach. It was time to get the heck out of there.”

In doing so, he left a $3 million buyout on the table.

Money doesn’t matter to him as much now as it did when he was a struggling young coach, plying his trade with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits, making “sixty grand a year.” He was 37 then, his age now if you reverse the numbers. At this stage of his life it’s all about fun.

Fun … and winning.

For Steve Spurrier you can’t have one without the other.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” he says, still sitting next to the scraps of paper with scribbled plays. “I’ll be a lot better coach this go-round. I plan on doing a good job.”

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