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Thursday, October 4, 2001
Updated: October 5, 12:49 PM ET
Why they call him
Steve 'Superior'


By Geoffrey Norman
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: Geoffrey Norman is working on a book about college football in the state of Florida. Each week during the 2001 season, he will send a letter to Page 2, in which he will try to make sense of the personalities, events and peculiar culture that make up Sunshine State football.

Dear Page 2:

Last Saturday in the Swamp, Steve Spurrier was in what the current vernacular would describe as his "comfort zone." With less than two minutes left against a thoroughly beaten opponent, he called for his quarterback not merely to pass the ball but to go for the end zone. Which he did. Florida 52, Mississippi State 0. Florida had annihilated the No. 21 team in the nation and the only SEC team it had lost to last season.

Vengeance, sayeth Spurrier, is mine.

Steve Spurrier
Steve Spurrier seems to be glowing again under his familiar visor.
Later, when he was asked if he had considered running the football at the end of the game, Spurrier answered disingenuously. "Running it out to keep the shutout? No, I didn't think about that. We felt having 35 points at the half, we only needed 17 more to break 50."

Spurrier was, to be sure, playing his backups. Brock Berlin was the most highly recruited quarterback in the nation two years ago, when Spurrier brought him to Florida from Louisiana. But this season, he is backing up another sophomore, Rex Grossman. So it was an orthodox coaching decision to give Berlin some work with the game safely put away. As Spurrier has said before, "We don't leave our front-line guys in there after we've got a big lead. But we don't expect the guys we put in there to lie down, either. They don't practice every day so that when they get in a game, they can play soft."

Running up the score is a football crime that accusers point to in notoriously selective fashion. It generally means you just don't like the coach you are charging with the offense. The sainted John Heisman was head coach of a team that edged out an opponent 222-0. (My histories fail to note if his boys were throwing for the end zone when time ran out.) Yet Heisman's name is, somehow, still associated with all that is good about the game.

I interviewed Jimmy Johnson at Miami, after the Hurricanes had won the national championship, and asked him about the complaint that his team ran it up on outclassed opponents. He shrugged. "I don't remember any of those people complaining about the teams that scored 50 on Oklahoma State when I was coaching there."

Bobby Bowden, Spurrier's purest antagonist, says, "You know, in basketball if you can score and you don't do it, they call that 'point shaving' and they put you in jail for it."

  Spurrier, a lot of people said when he arrived at Florida, didn't have the work habits -- he preferred golf to 18-hour days in the film room -- and his nose was insufficiently hard. The guy wore a visor, fuhcripessake, instead of a proper gimmie hat. He would be lucky to leave town with an ass in his pants. 
  

Still ... the rap seems to hang on Spurrier. New York columnist Mike Lupica and ABC's Keith Jackson have both lodged the criticism, along with legions of fans from the schools Florida has not merely beaten but humiliated. And the reason that the charge seems to linger, I think, is simple enough. It isn't just that Spurrier "runs it up," but that he so plainly enjoys the blowouts. Positively relishes them. Demolishing Mississippi State was more than another victory, it was a validation.

Most football coaches live in a world of W's and L's. Steve Spurrier lives in a Manichean universe, where it is Us vs. Them. Hatfields and McCoys. The Gators vs. the Gatorhaters. Every game is a test, each season an ordeal. The victories are sublime, and the defeats are raw agony that nobody takes harder than Spurrier himself.

He did not so much come to Florida, in 1990, to take the job of football coach as return there, like MacArthur. Spurrier was the prodigal and the deliverer. He had won the Heisman in 1966 as Florida's quarterback, and that had been the school's high-water point. The Gators had never won a national championship. Worse, Florida was one of two schools in the SEC that had never won a conference championship. The other was Vanderbilt. The shame of that had to be nearly unendurable for Florida fans. To be the flagship university of the state with more football talent than any in the union and be linked with Vanderbilt ... this was ignominious.

Moreover, Florida was on NCAA probation when Spurrier arrived as head coach. Had narrowly avoided the "death penalty," since the Gators had been convicted of a second offense. The violations had cost the program an SEC championship and two head coaches their jobs. One of the fired coaches had later attempted suicide. Florida was reeling and needed a savior.

Spurrier proved to be just that. In his first season, he took his team up to Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama. He then proceeded to run up a record that would have won the SEC if it hadn't been for the sanctions. A defiant Spurrier had that team's photograph framed and captioned, "SEC Champs." It hangs next to the photographs of the other six conference champions on his office wall. "Those players," Spurrier says, "were punished for other people's mistakes."

Aaron Walker
Tight end Aaron Walker celebrates Florida's third TD Saturday against Korey Banks and Mississippi State.
Before that first season, there was considerable skepticism in the air as to Spurrier's chances of success in the SEC. He'd won as head coach in the old, defunct USFL, but that was a sort of the county fair version of professional football. And he had won at Duke - even taken the Blue Devils to a bowl game. But that was Duke, and even though Spurrier's teams sometimes ran up basketball-sized scores, it was hard for SEC people to take that very seriously.

In the SEC you won games 17-14, with defense and a kicking game, not with a lot of fancy offense. A couple of legendary SEC coaches had been known to punt on first down and send the defense out to win it. Spurrier, a lot of people said, didn't have the work habits -- he preferred golf to 18-hour days in the film room -- and his nose was insufficiently hard. The guy wore a visor, fuhcripessake, instead of a proper gimmie hat. He would be lucky to leave town with an ass in his pants.

Right away, he won and did it with a flashy offense he called the "fun and gun." Florida passed the ball. A lot. And put up a lot of points. Florida began to win SEC championships almost routinely. But there was always something. A blemish, a crisis, a heartbreaking defeat. Something that kept Florida from realizing its proper glory. And Spurrier suffered in full public view, throwing tantrums on the sideline and hurling the trademark visor to the ground. He feuded with critics, especially in the press, and seemed to have skin that was tissue thin. After one routine press conference, he told the reporters to bring their tape recorders to the front of the room and, then, to "turn them off." What followed was called "bizarre" by one reporter who was there.

"It was like Nixon, or something. Rambling, emotional, with Spurrier pacing and almost crying. It was embarrassing. I wanted to get out of there."

But the Spurrier Agonistes routine couldn't get in the way of one fact: Flatly, the man could coach. Florida just dominated the SEC in the '90s. Instead of running him out of town, other coaches and other programs began to imitate him. But the original, pure faith of the new kind of football was still practiced in Gainesville, and if anybody was in the slightest danger of missing that fact, Spurrier would serve up a reminder. After which, the charge of "running it up" would fill the air. And, sometimes, the charge would even be true.

Spurrier never forgets a loss. Florida and Georgia have been hate-your-guts rivals since before Spurrier's playing days, and one of his toughest losses as a player was against Georgia in 1966, his Heisman year. Florida went into the game with a 6-0 record and visions of a championship -- some kind of championship. Conference, at least, and possibly even the biggest one of all. Georgia stomped out those dreams 27-10.

Steve Spurrier
Spurrier's "fun and gun" offense proved his doubters wrong.
So, 30 years later, in 1995, Spurrier patently ran it up on Georgia and as much as admitted it. With the clock running down and the reserves in the game, Spurrier called a flea flicker that went for a touchdown and made the final score 52-17.

Nobody had ever scored 50 on the Bulldogs at home, Spurrier said after the game, and he thought it would be neat to do it.

Florida went undefeated the rest of that season and played Nebraska in Tempe, Ariz., for the national championship. It was a struggle between the old, orthodox football religion and the new, heretical gospel according to Steve. Nebraska blew the Gators out of their shoes 62-14, and Spurrier was devastated. It was gloating time for Gatorhaters everywhere. One former SEC coach, who had been routinely beaten by Spurrier's teams, called a reporter at home, at seven the next morning to say, essentially, "See, I told you. That kind of fancy-pants football will blow up on you."

The next year, Florida won its first national championship, beating FSU in the Sugar Bowl 52-20.

For the last two years, there had been some talk that Spurrier's intense glow was, perhaps, dimming. In 1999, the Gators finished with three straight losses. Bad losses. Last year, Florida lost to FSU, won the SEC championship game, then lost to Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Toward the end of the game, Spurrier threw his clipboard to the ground and sat on the bench with his head in his hands, the picture of despair.

But ... that was a young team. This season, Florida is loaded and there were more preseason questions about the coach than the talent. Spurrier had said, many times, that he wasn't going to do this forever. Could he have been burned out by his own emotional intensity?

The Mississippi State game and that last touchdown pass seems to have answered that one pretty conclusively. This was the Spurrier of old, running it up and relishing it.

Florida plays LSU at Baton Rouge this weekend. Should be interesting.

Sincerely,
Geoffrey Norman