SEC Historical Spotlight – Steve Spurrier
By Ted Lewis for the Allstate Sugar Bowl
[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2017 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]
Steve Spurrier, was – and is – in the words of his closest friend and college roommate at Florida, “The ultimate alpha male.”
Then, Bill Carr added, “Come to think of it, that doesn’t begin to describe Steve Spurrier.”
Danny Wuerffel, whom Spurrier calls both the best and favorite player he coached, said of his seemingly temperamental opposite, “He’s not your grandfatherly type of person, but he coaches you every snap and every play along the way.
“When you play for him, you have confidence that if you do things right, you’re going to win. What a privilege it was to play for someone like that.”
The Spurrier-Wuerffel partnership reached its zenith in the 1997 Sugar Bowl when Florida claimed the school’s first national championship with a resounding 52-20 victory against archrival Florida State, who’d beaten the Gators 24-21 a month before, pounding Wuerffel that day with six sacks and 21 other hits behind the line of scrimmage.
In the rematch, however, Wuerffel capped his Heisman Trophy-winning season by throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns and was awarded the Miller-Digby Trophy as the game’s MVP.
The real MVP that day, though, was Spurrier. After the rematch was set, he publicly lobbied for better treatment of his quarterback by the Big 12 Conference officials who would be working the game.
A switch to the shotgun in the SEC Championship Game (where Wuerffel threw for a record 401 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-30 victory against Alabama) was probably more of a factor. But there was little doubt that Spurrier had once again displayed his master gamesmanship.
“There’s no doubt Coach Spurrier likes to needle people,” Wuerffel said. “He told me when I was a freshman it wasn’t my fault we lost a game; it’s was his for being dumb enough to play me.
“But this was him showing his strong sense of justice. He was doing what any coach or parent would do – advocating for his kid.”
That 1997 Sugar Bowl was one of a combined six in which Spurrier participated, either as a player or as a coach.
It was a mixed bag of results.
He was the MVP of the 1966 game, the only MVP from a losing team in the bowl’s 82-year history, after his fourth-quarter heroics left Florida on the short end of a 20-18 score against Missouri.
That performance set the stage for Spurrier to become Florida’s first Heisman winner the following season.
And despite the loss to Missouri in New Orleans, it was a breakthrough year for Florida, which had never before played in a bowl game other than the neighboring Gator Bowl.
“We did thoroughly enjoy going to New Orleans,” Spurrier said. “It was the first time I ever ate oysters, and I’m still eating ‘em pretty good.”
Aside from the title game victory against Florida State, Spurrier’s teams lost three of their other four Sugar Bowl appearances – falling to Notre Dame in the 1992 game, beating West Virginia in 1994, losing to Florida State in 1995 and to Miami in 2001.
That gives him the dubious distinction of being tied for the most Sugar Bowl defeats for a coach. Of course, since some of the others in that category are named Saban, Dooley, Paterno and Beamer, Spurrier points out, “That’s pretty good company. Just getting to the Sugar Bowl enough to lose it three times means you must have had good teams.”
And that Spurrier did.
Taking over at his alma mater at a time when it was rocked by probation, Spurrier guided the Gators to a 122-27-1 mark between 1990 and 2001, winning the school’s first SEC title and appearing in seven SEC championship games, winning five of them.
More than that, Spurrier’s “Fun and Gun” offense forced the rest of the conference to open up the passing game.
And there was Spurrier’s competitive personality that made him the coach rivals loved to hate, especially if something went wrong and he flung his visor.
He was known by some as “Steve Superior,” but what became a term of derision actually originated as a compliment from former Auburn Coach Shug Jordan because of Spurrier’s talent, not his attitude.
To Carr, who went on to become athletic director at Florida and is now a high-level college consultant, Spurrier had a coaching persona that just couldn’t be duplicated.
“I’ve had coaches tell me they wanted to be successful like Steve, and I’d tell them you’re crazy because there’s only one person who could do things the way he did,” he said. “It didn’t matter if it was football, golf or tiddledywinks, he was going to beat you.
“As a coach, he’d give positive reinforcement to some players but he could push the buttons of others to prove to him he was wrong about them.”
After a short stint with the Washington Redskins, Spurrier returned to college coaching in 2005 at South Carolina where he remained until resigning during the 2015 season, departing as the winningest coach in that program’s history as well.
And although he was at a division rival, the folks at Florida never stopped loving him.
Early this season, the 1996 championship team was honored and Spurrier’s name was added to the title of the stadium he dubbed “The Swamp.”
“Steve Spurrier,” Wuerffel said that day, “is the greatest Gator of them all.”