By Tyler Berry
College football fans are aware of what, of who left the game today. Those who aren’t necessarily college football fans may not fully understand the impact of the abrupt retirement of Steve Spurrier, or the Head Ball Coach, as he was often called.
It’s true. Steve Spurrier, of the University of Florida fame, the current head coach of South Carolina, announced his immediate retirement on Monday evening. It came as a surprise to most and it turned an already eventful Monday of sports into an even more important day.
Coach Spurrier was and will always be one of the most respected, well-liked head coaches in college sports. He is the South Carolina Gamecocks’ all-time winningest coach and was influential in putting that school’s football program on the map.
As one of the older head coaches of an NCAA FBS program, many younger enthusiasts never had the luxury of knowing and appreciating what the Head Ball Coach did for the game. Who was Steve Spurrier? Who is Steve Spurrier?
A resident of Florida born in 1945, it was only right that Spurrier played his college ball at the University of Florida. A two-time All-American quarterback, Spurrier was notorious for his late game comebacks and is often regarded as one of the most influential Florida Gators of all time. Because of his exciting comebacks along with his outstanding numbers, (37 touchdowns and almost 4500 yards over 3 seasons) Spurrier was the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner and SEC Player of the Year.
He never became the NFL starter that many thought he would be, but because of his sheer athleticism, had a solid career as the 49ers punter and backup quarterback. After nine years with the Niners, he spent his final season with the newly formed Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He retired after a respectable 10-year career but his influence on the game of football was only beginning.
After a surprisingly short stint as quarterbacks’ coach at the University of Florida, he made a name for himself in the coaching world at Duke, where he was an assistant and offensive coordinator for three seasons. It was that successful stint that put him on the map and gave him his first head coaching shot for the Tampa Bay bandits of the USFL. At 37, Steve Spurrier became the youngest head coach in professional football history.
Well, we all know what happened to the USFL and, while it was an unfortunate situation for hundreds of individuals, it turned out to be an important event in Coach Spurrier’s career. In 1987, he took over the head coaching duties at Duke and led them to their first bowl game in 27 years, along with the school’s first ACC title in 25 years. He was eventually named the ACC Coach of the Year in both 1988 and 1989.
This impressive three-year job led him to the University of Florida, where he took over a team riddled with scandal and investigation. You see, Spurrier inherited a team that was led by Charley Pell, a head coach so corrupt, you wouldn’t have been surprised if he had been involved with the mob. Pell came under investigation in 1982 and ended up hurting the program so badly that they faded into mediocrity for many years. When all was said and done, Coach Pell was cited by the NCAA for 107 infractions including “paying for no-show jobs, scalping athletes’ tickets, spying on opposing teams, giving free gifts to players,” and so much more. When all was said and done, the Gators were put on probation and banned from bowl games for two years.
It was Spurrier’s leadership that picked up the program out of the gutter. In his first year as head coach, the Head Ball Coach led the Gators to what would have been the SEC title if they had been eligible to win it. And he kept winning. In 1991, he took the team to its first (officially recognized) SEC title and helped the program do the same four times over the next five years.
His first, and unfortunately only, National Championship would come in 1996, in a shootout against the Florida State Seminoles. It was a game that would further fuel the already burning flames of an in-state rivalry. Spurrier was officially a legend in Florida sports.
From there, he continued to lead to Gators to winning seasons in the years to follow. As the statistics show, he averaged more than ten wins in each of his 12 seasons at Florida. He won six SEC championships, was named SEC coach of the year five times, and coached Danny Weurffel, officially making him the first Heisman winner to coach a fellow Heisman winner. All this happened before 2002.
This brings us to what many consider the low point of his coaching career. After announcing his abrupt resignation, something that we can now consider a “trend,” Coach Spurrier left Florida and took his first and only NFL head coaching job with the Washington Redskins.
Ripe with potential, at least according to the media hype, Spurrier, along with eventual Bengals head coach, Marvin Lewis, at his side, was supposed to lead the Redskins to a great season. Everything looked great through the preseason, but things did not go his way once September rolled around. His squad, led by three QBs, including his former Heisman winner Danny Weurffel and Shane Matthews, finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. It was considered his first failed season since his debut year as head coach of the Duke Blue Devils.
His second, and final, season in the NFL went even worse. The Skins finished 5-11 and Spurrier resigned at the end of the year. He did so voluntarily, leaving over $15 million on the table. Ever the classy individual, Spurrier apologized to the Redskins fans and organization, saying “I apologize to Redskins fans that we did not reach a level of success that we had all hoped... It's a long grind and I feel (that) after 20 years as a head coach there are other things I need to do. I simply believe this is the right time for me to move on because this team needs new leadership.” He has always been class incarnate.
With a disappointing NFL tenure behind him, Coach Spurrier replaced the brilliant Lou Holtz as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. Holtz retired after an unfortunate brawl between his side and Clemson, which led both teams to be banned from any bowl games for that year. Holtz went on to a fantastic broadcasting career for both CBS and ESPN, while also being cited as an integral factor in recruiting Spurrier to South Carolina.
In 2005, Spurrier coached his first Gamecock football game. Making many analysts look silly, Spurrier ended up leading South Carolina to a winning season and got an iconic win over the Florida Gators, whom the Gamecocks had not beaten since 1939. No surprise to anyone who knew Spurrier, he was named SEC Coach of the Year.
Fast forward to 2011-2013 and the Head Ball Coach was on a roll. Through these three years, he led the Gamecocks to 11-2 records in each season, giving the team Top 10 finishes in the AP poll for all three seasons.
The 2014 season and the first half of the 2015 season were not kind to Spurrier. He saw his team’s recruitment quality slip and, subsequently, his teams’ records slip. As of this writing, and his retirement, the Gamecocks have a 2-4 record. Many critics disrespectfully have cited his age as the reason for this recent decline in team quality. Uncharacteristically, albeit understandably, Spurrier has fired back at these critics, scolding them for putting him down even though he gave the Gamecocks eight straight years of success.
As the news of his retirement came abruptly Monday evening, it will probably take a little time before the nation knows the true reason behind it. However, based on this football enthusiast’s research, it would seem as though he felt he could no longer provide the coaching quality that his team deserved. Abrupt retirements and resignations are unfortunate, but probably don’t happen as often as they should. Many coaches overstay their welcome and force the hands of their athletic directors or general managers. Why deal with the embarrassment of being fired when you can go out on your own terms?
The Head Ball Coach, often mistakenly (even by me) referred to as the Old Ball Coach, has taken it upon himself to leave a situation that he did not feel he could fix. It takes a strong, experienced, dignified man to do so and more ball coaches should learn from him.
So, cheers, Coach Spurrier. Go enjoy your retirement. Go enjoy life on the beach. Go play golf, travel around, and spend time with your family. You went out on your own terms and will always be regarded as one of the most influential coaches in NCAA history. Thank you for all you’ve done for the game. Your legacy remains intact.