An Incomparable Journey Through Football
History does not recall the forgettable. Stephen Orr Spurrier has lived a truly unforgettable football life spanning the better part of the past half-century.
Spurrier is nothing less than an American original, an iconic sports figure who evokes different memories and emotions for different generations. Among his contemporaries, he remains the good-looking swashbuckler of a quarterback who played the game with swagger before swagger was a thing. To Florida Gator supporters, he is a visor-wearing deity. However, Spurrier’s opponents, victims in most cases, still bristle at facing one of the most competitive, creative and resourceful individuals the game has ever known.
A minister’s son, Spurrier moved around plenty before settling down at the age of 12 in Johnson City, Tenn. He was a naturally gifted athlete, excelling in basketball, baseball and football before deciding that the gridiron was where he wanted to create a legacy.
The legend of Spurrier was born in Gainesville, Fla., a campus town still close to his heart to this day. Spurrier, ever the pioneer, was the antithesis of most quarterbacks in the 1960s. While his peers were largely game managers, tasked with executing clean handoffs, he was an improvisational wizard. He found creases where they didn’t exist, took chances others wouldn’t and emerged into a cover boy with national appeal.
Spurrier was a three-year starter at Florida, breaking a handful of passing records and opposing defenses’ hearts along the way. He was a two-time consensus All-American, winning the Heisman Trophy in 1966. In a harbinger of the rest of his time in the game, Spurrier was brash and bold and exciting and unpredictable every time he stepped onto the field.
Following graduation, Spurrier spent the next ten years in the NFL, nine with the San Francisco 49ers and a season with the fledgling Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He started 38 career games, threw 40 touchdown passes and even did some punting, but his time as a pro would not define him. It was coaching, beginning two years after retirement, which would thrust Spurrier back into the national dialogue.
Credit Doug Dickey for bringing Spurrier back to Gainesville and giving him his first shot to coach. It was a fortuitous decision that would create a ripple effect in college football for over three decades. Spurrier spent a season with the Gators and the subsequent year at Georgia Tech, but it was at a renowned basketball school that the budding coach would really begin to locate his coaching voice.
The 1980s were a formative period for Spurrier, now focused on blazing new trails as a coach the way he did as a player. He worked two tenures at Duke, first as the offensive coordinator and later as the head coach, wrapped around an underrated three-year stop with the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits. It was in Durham that Spurrier began honing his craft out of sheer necessity. The Blue Devils’ personnel stacked up poorly versus the rest of the ACC, forcing the staff to concoct offensive innovations to narrow the talent divide.
And more often than not, it worked.
In the early 1980s, QB Ben Bennett was rewriting record books at Wallace Wade Stadium. By the end of the decade, Spurrier and his wide-open attack succeeded in making Duke relevant on grass. He was the ACC Coach of the Year in 1988 and 1989, his kids had fun piling up gaudy numbers and the Devils won the league title in 1989, their first such achievement in 27 seasons. Those years at Duke set the stage for a return to Gainesville, which Spurrier had been eyeing shortly after entering the coaching profession.
“I love those guys at Duke,” says a reflective Spurrier. “That ’89 team, we have a reunion every five years. Most teams get together every 10 years, but we do it every five, because our guys just love coming back. They realize how special it was what we accomplished, winning that ACC championship.”
If Spurrier used the 1980s to establish his coaching style and philosophy, the 1990s would witness his rise into the pantheon of his profession. For the second time in his life, he’d use the University of Florida as a canvas for showcasing his ingenuity, competiveness and unique style of gamesmanship. When Spurrier returned to his alma mater in 1990, the Gators were still buried beneath the long shadows of instate rivals Miami and Florida State. When he left for the NFL a dozen years later, Florida had won its first six officially recognized SEC titles as well as its first consensus national championship in 1996.
Spurrier did more than just win in Gainesville, and he won plenty. He turned the Gators into a must-see program, for fans and prospective recruits alike. Synonymous with his disposition, he made Florida football entertaining, from the high-octane offense to zinger-laced press conferences designed to get inside the opponent’s head. Spurrier was masterful at finding the other guy’s weakness and then repeatedly exploiting it. And if a rival was in the opposite locker room, he’d take particular delight in administering a beating. The Head Ball Coach in the Swamp running the Fun ‘n’ Gun—for Gator backers, it was a period of unmatched prosperity and joy that they’ll never forget.
“Winning starts with a great attitude,” offers Spurrier. “Oh, we had a lot of great players over the years. But our guys understood the importance of not getting too full of themselves. They took the wins and then they got ready for the next game. And we made sure to always instill confidence in them, that feeling that they were better than the other guys.”
Spurrier turned Florida into a perennial national power, which still rings true today. And he had a blast doing it. Spurrier also forever altered the way the game is played in the SEC, long known for its conservative bent and resistance to change. But he wasn’t through in the Southeastern Conference, even after a two-year stop with the NFL’s Washington Redskins proved to be an incompatible fit.
In 2005, Spurrier returned to the college ranks with South Carolina, which was pining for a jolt of energy and leadership. He delivered both in an 11-year run with the Gamecocks that nearly matched his Florida stint in terms of longevity. In short order, Spurrier managed South Carolina into a contender, much like he had done a decade earlier at Florida. Sure, points weren’t as bountiful as at previous stops, but the coach adapted to his personnel and kept on winning.
In those 11 seasons in Columbia, Spurrier led the Gamecocks to three of their four 10-win seasons in school history. He put the program on the map, both with his magnetically colorful personality and his coaching acumen. When the carousel finally slowed down in 2015, Spurrier was the winningest coach in both Florida and South Carolina history, and he was second to only Bear Bryant in SEC victories. However, he remains the undisputed champ at making football appealing for fans of all ages.
Throughout his five decades in football, Spurrier has never ceased to wow, with a tight spiral, an offensive wrinkle or a press conference quip that brought the house down. In a game rife with copycats, he was an innovator, unabashedly true to himself and unafraid to choose the road less traveled to achieve his goals. Above all else, Spurrier has been good for the game and great for the fans, even those rooting for the other side. And that’s one of the best compliments that can be bestowed upon a sports figure.
“When I was coaching, I used to tell the kids that they’ll always remember what they did as a player,” says Spurrier. “They were always going to remember what they accomplished with their teammates no matter how many years passed. Now I look back at it all sometimes and I think, man, we really did make memories that lasted a lifetime.”
Spurrier is no longer coaching. He threw his last pass in a live game more than 40 years ago. And yet his impact is still being felt today, and will continue to be for many years ahead. He is a living legend, a one-of-a-kind competitor and this year’s recipient of the Reds Bagnell Award for his lifelong contributions to the game of football.
Winner: Reds Bagnell Award – 2016 University South Carolina