Emotions running high in Spurrier-Florida matchup

It's a loaded Saturday in the Southeastern Conference, with huge games in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Athens, Ga. But the game that was the third choice in the television pecking order comes with the spiciest story lines:

The Visor Bowl in Columbia, S.C.

"Might be the most intriguing Jefferson-Pilot SEC game in history," said Tampa Tribune columnist Joey Johnston.

Jefferson-Pilot generally gets the best game CBS and ESPN don't want, and in this case it might be the best No. 3 draft pick since Michael Jordan. Florida vs. the Head Ball Coach makes for fascinating football Saturday, by no means solely because it carries SEC Eastern Division title implications. There's so much more to this game than that.

And frankly, it's a little bit awkward.

This is like a divorced couple sitting down together for dinner -- each with a new spouse. Steve Spurrier and his new squeeze, South Carolina, are making goo-goo eyes at each other. Florida and its new flame, Urban Meyer, are smiling bravely at the table, while privately telling themselves that better times will come.

The Gamecocks and Meyer are pretty much innocent bystanders to this family drama. It's Spurrier and the Gators who have a history together. The fact that the two don't have a future together really stirs the pot on this football game.

The questions still simmer:
Did Florida fail to show its greatest football hero the proper respect last year, when searching for a new/old coach?

Did Spurrier decide following his own footsteps was too complicated?

Or did Florida president Bernie Machen and athletic director Jeremy Foley not provide the stroking his considerable ego needed to return home?

Will the two sides ever be as happy without each other as they once were together?

And here's the question almost too traumatic for Florida fans to confront: What happens if Spurrier wins?

"Gator Nation is conflicted," said Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi. "It's the first time in their life they're rooting against Steve Spurrier. They don't like it."

"I think there are plenty of Gator fans covering their eyes, almost afraid to peek this week," Johnston said.

"There's people who think they should have kissed his ass to get him back," said Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley, "and there's people who think he left Florida in the lurch. Ninety percent of them just want Florida to win."

There are a few fans indulging in the seemingly irresistible urge to vilify and/or diminish everyone who voluntarily left behind "our team." Among the choice Internet posts this week at Alligator Alley on Gatorbait.net:
"I think this whole Spurrier [aura] is way overrated."

"I want us to hang 50 on SOS [Stephen Orr Spurrier]."

"I want to hang 50 on him in the first half and never slow down or look back."

"How sweet would it be to see the visor, headphone and clipboard being thrown to the ground about eight or nine times?"

But the biggest argument ensued when one fan asked, "While coaching at UF, did THBC [The Head Ball Coach] ever beat anyone he was truly inferior to in talent?"

That brought forth a spirited defense of THBC. Among the responses: "To answer the question posed, just go check SOS's resume … Our trophy case. He is simply the best!"

And now the best wears garnet and black, not blue and orange. A hard reality to swallow in Gator Nation.

"If we lose," declared one poster on Alligator Alley, "the Gainesville quarterback club might damn well run Machen, Foley and Urban out of town."

I consulted the message boards and talked to media members this week because the principals involved are treating the subject like uranium from Chernobyl. Foley, normally as accommodating as can be with the press, issued a cautious statement earlier in the week and otherwise declined public comment.

"While I certainly understand the news interest in having me comment on a number of questions surrounding Florida playing a game against coach
Spurrier, this game is about the players and the coaches on the field," Foley statement-ized.

Meyer and Spurrier are trying earnestly -- if unconvincingly -- to follow the same tack.

After extolling Spurrier's work in Gainesville, Meyer said, "But that's as far as it goes. Anything other than that is unjust for the players. This is about getting the players ready to go win a championship on the road."

Spurrier, for his part, said, "It's been three years since I've coached there. This is my team now [at South Carolina]. It's our team, we are all involved in it. I've been with this group for I guess about a year or so now. I've only had one team at a time and this is my team."

Yeah. But that team on the other side of the field Saturday -- that's his school.. The place where he won the Heisman Trophy as a player, three decades before he won the national championship as a coach.

That's why, in the long and vivid history of college football, this might be uncharted territory. And that's why, as Bianchi said, "This is like [Rick] Pitino playing Kentucky times ten. Pitino was just the coach there at Kentucky. He wasn't the greatest sporting legend in the school's history."

The feelings for Spurrier remain strong enough in Gainesville that a local radio station joined the Gamecock radio network and has broadcast all its games, plus Spurrier's weekly call-in show. Fans there Saturday can flip the radio dial between the Florida version of events and the South Carolina interpretation.

"Spurrier's hold on Gator Nation remains unshakable in some corners," Johnston said. "Despite Steve's claims that a lot of guys have played their alma mater, this is considerably different. His jersey and name are painted on a wall at the Swamp. … And Spurrier loved his school in almost a hokey, Jack Armstrong-kind of way.

"To me, this is like JoePa coaching against Penn State or Coach K coaching against Duke. The coaches aren't talking about it, but the fans are sure obsessed by it."

As awkward as this game appeared from the moment Spurrier was hired by the Gamecocks, it has only gotten worse in recent weeks. For the first half of the season, this looked like a Florida walkover. But then Spurrier began doing what Spurrier has always done in the SEC -- finding ways to win games and leaving a trail of heartburn throughout the league.

South Carolina's upset win in Knoxville two weeks ago left Phil Fulmer bent over, hands on knees, absorbing yet another body shot from his nemesis. And when the Gamecocks followed that last week by beating Arkansas in Fayetteville -- where they'd never won since joining the SEC in 1992 -- Carolina was stunningly bowl-eligible.

And feeling cocky.

"South Carolina's 6-3 and everyone's ecstatic," Bianchi said. "Florida's 7-2 and everyone's miserable."

So now Florida knows how the other 11/12ths of the Southeastern Conference lived during 1990-2001: In mortal fear of Darth Visor.

He didn't just beat SEC teams, he undressed them. And along the way he'd find a way to slip in a cutting remark that would fester for a full year. Spurrier has stuck more needles into people in the South than an acupuncturist.

That's another notable element this week: Spurrier hasn't said the first incendiary thing.

"I think he's conflicted, too," Bianchi said. "The telltale sign is that he's never taken shot one this week. He's trying to tear down what he built."

And Meyer is trying to maintain (if not enhance) what Spurrier built. For Meyer and the men who hired him, winning this game is nonnegotiable.

"I think this is the one un-losable game on their schedule," Bianchi said. "This is the first referendum on whether Florida did the right thing."

Here's what Florida did:

When Foley terminated the mistake that was Ron Zook on a Monday in late October 2004, he called the former Head Ball Coach. They talked, and agreed to talk some more, but Florida made it clear from the beginning that Spurrier would have to be "part of the process." In other words, this wasn't going to be a coronation.

Thus what seemed like a fait accompli never came off. By that Thursday, Spurrier was pulling out. The two sides never sat down for a formal interview, and there was never a formal job offer.

The sticking point was one of two things, depending on who's doing the explaining:

• Spurrier was offended by not being offered his old kingdom right away on a silver platter, instead being told that he'd have to interview for the job like every other Tom, Dick or Urban.

• Or Spurrier pulled out because of his own reticence, realizing he was never going to top what he'd already done in Gainesville and he'd be wiser to find a new challenge and a fresh canvas elsewhere.

"We'll never know the real answer," Dooley said. "My theory is that he probably wouldn't have [come back, if offered]. He's done it already. … Spurrier isn't upset that he's not the Florida coach. He's upset that he wasn't asked to be the Florida coach."

Said Bianchi: "That's always going to be the great question: What would have happened if they'd come out of the box, fell at his feet and said, 'Come home'? We'll never

The two sides are probably better off apart now. In Meyer, Florida could have a successful coach for many years to come. In Spurrier, South Carolina could have the turnaround artist it has craved for decades.

But bringing the divorced parties together again should make for some fascinating football this Saturday, and for many years to come.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.