Spurrier Has Built a Sugar Bowl Legacy

by Jack Hairston
Story submitted Fall, 2008, for the Sugar Bowl's 75th Anniversary Celebration

In almost five decades as a football player and coach, Steve Spurrier has had a full share of the good, and a few touches of the bad.

All-Southeastern Conference quarterback, Most Valuable Player in the SEC, All-America, Heisman Trophy winner, coach of a Heisman winner, 10 years a National Football League player. Released three times as an NFL player. Fired twice as a college assistant coach.

Then, head coach of championship teams in the United States Football League, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference. Head coach of a national championship team at the University of Florida as well as that school's first six SEC championship teams. Fired as head coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins. Most recently, he's given the University of South Carolina some of its greatest success ever.

In almost five decades as a football player and coach, Steve Spurrier has had a full share of the good, and a few touches of the bad.

All-Southeastern Conference quarterback, Most Valuable Player in the SEC, All-America, Heisman Trophy winner, coach of a Heisman winner, 10 years a National Football League player. Released three times as an NFL player. Fired twice as a college assistant coach.

Then, head coach of championship teams in the United States Football League, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference. Head coach of a national championship team at the University of Florida as well as that school's first six SEC championship teams. Fired as head coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins. Most recently, he's given the University of South Carolina some of its greatest success ever.

Along the way Spurrier, a surprisingly youthful 63, was probably college football's first $2 million a year coach, was credited by many as having the most innovative offensive mind the game has seen and was, depending on a person's affiliation, described as the most refreshingly honest person in the game. . . or the most insulting spoiled brat.

Spurrier's zingers regarding other coaches have been many. Ray Goff, Georgia's coach at the time, said once publicly: "He's a good coach, but I'd like to run into him some night down a dark alley."

There have been other comments of that nature by Spurrier's peers over the years. However, during the Heisman activities in New York in 1996 when Spurrier product Danny Wuerffel was the recipient of that award, Spurrier got a phone call from the Nashville Banner saying that he'd been voted SEC Coach of the Year.

At a Heisman party that night Jerri Spurrier, Steve's devoted wife, and I were talking about the award, and Jerri said, "I've never seen Steve so appreciative. He almost cried when he learned he'd won. The conference coaches select that award, and people are always saying Steve is so unpopular with the other coaches. This meant a lot to him."

"Steve isn't as bad as the other coaches think," I said. "If he'd be just a little bit nicer when he talks about them, I believe he'd be very popular with them."

"Oh, no! It helps us when Steve's hated by the other team," Jerri said. "It helps us win."

That's when I realized Spurrier had a motive for his madness when he verbally harpooned other coaches.

In Spurrier's long career, the two games that best represent his accomplishments were probably a pair of Sugar Bowls. His junior season at Florida in 1965 he led the Gators to a 7-3 record and into the Sugar Bowl against Missouri. While his numbers may not be so impressive by today's standards, Spurrier had shattered the most meaningful passing records in the SEC, completing 148 passes on 287 attempts for 1,893 yards; throwing an average of 26 passes and averaging 172 yards per game. He went on to break those records as a Heisman Trophy winning senior.

But his 1965 season was capped by the game of his life in the Sugar Bowl, when he hit on 27 of 45 passes for 352 yards. Missouri led, 20-0, after three quarters, but Spurrier came back firing, and the Gators almost pulled it out. In the last quarter, Spurrier threw 22 yards to Jack Harper for a score. Thinking the game was out of reach, the coaching staff went for two. When it didn't work, it put the Gators in a position where they would need to continue to go for two, if they managed to score again. And Spurrier did just that, finding Charlie Casey from 21 yards out for a score, and then sneaking one yard for the third to make it 20-18. However, none of the conversions were successful and time ran out on the Gators.

But for the first time in Sugar Bowl history a player on the losing team, Spurrier, won the Most Valuable Player award. There were far fewer TV games at that time than now, but the national exposure he got that day helped him win the Heisman Trophy the next year.

His senior year, Spurrier sparked Florida to an 8-2 record, followed by an Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.

After his pro playing career, he went on to the coaching ranks, taking over the reins of the Florida program in 1990. During his 12 seasons as the Gator's head coach, Spurrier took five SEC championship teams to the Sugar Bowl and won there twice. But the New Orleans game that meant the most to the Gators was the meeting with Florida State after the '96 season.

At an August booster meeting in Jacksonville, Spurrier was asked how he felt about the upcoming season. He replied, "I don't want to say too much, but the night of Jan.2, if things go right, there'll be some Gators dancing on Bourbon Street."

Florida was ranked No. 1 in the nation that year from September to its November 30 meeting in Tallahassee with No. 2 FSU. The Seminoles won that one, 24-21, and took over the No. 1 spot, while the Gators dropped to No.3. In the SEC championship game in Atlanta the next week the Gators outscored Alabama, 45-30, and the Sugar Bowl landed a rematch of the Gators and the Seminoles.

The national rankings going into the bowls were FSU (No. 1), the Rose Bowl's Ohio State (No. 2) and Florida (No. 3). The Sugar and the Rose were both played on Jan. 2, the Rose late in the afternoon and the Sugar at night. Arizona State upset Ohio State in the Rose, so it was clear going into the Sugar that this was for all the marbles.

Florida defensive coordinator Bob Stoops, now the ultra-successful Oklahoma head coach, said on the eve of the game: "We didn't say anything about it, but we had a lot of banged-up players when we played 'em in November. For this one, we're all ready."

Spurrier spent several days before the game complaining about FSU's late hits on Gator quarterback Danny Wuerffel in the first game. The Sugar Bowl game officials said they weren't paying any attention to Spurrier's remarks, but the late-hit charge got so much play around the country the referee couldn't help but feel, at least to some degree, that every grandmother in the country was watching to see if the ref was going to let those defensive players illegally pound on that nice quarterback again.

The referee made a call or two early on late hits, and that was the end of that. The game was cleanly played. Wuerffel bombed the FSU defense into submission, completing 18 of 34 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran 16 yards for another TD. The first half was competitive, Florida leading 24-17 at the break, but the Gators won the second half, 28-3. Final results: Florida 52, FSU 20, and Florida had its first national championship.

After the game Steve and Jerri went down to the French Quarter and danced one dance on Bourbon Street before joining friends for some celebrating. Spurrier had made sure his August prophecy had been completely fulfilled and he had continued his own legacy in the Sugar Bowl.

Jack Hairston is an award-winning Florida sportswriter who covered University of Florida football for over 40 years.

 

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