If Steve Spurrier had a speech for his team Monday night, you didn’t want to hear it.
When he left Florida in 2002 for Washington's NFL team, his press conference was short, unsentimental and unpolished. When he left that job two years later, he left millions of dollars on the table and did it quickly. In his own words, his "give-a-damn was busted." When that happened, in Spurrier’s eyes, it was time to go, and immediately.
He quit. You could ask him to explain it, but it wouldn’t go well. Spurrier is not Lou Holtz or Bobby Bowden. He really isn’t Bowden, who even in losses would ride a West Virginia twang over the thorniest questions. Spurrier's best locker room speeches were accidental, like one prior to a 1996 drubbing of the Tennessee Volunteers in Neyland Stadium. He was just launching into it when an assistant bumped the light switch and sent the locker room into darkness. The players thought it was a motivational tactic, went nuts and stormed out to the field.
Anyone who hired him for a corporate speaking junket knew they were getting someone who would reheat John Wooden, talk about winners and losers in a meandering way and then drink a few beers before disappearing into the night. Spurrier is fine one-on-one, and a great chatter with reporters, but podium oratory was never one of his strengths.
This is a way of getting to the point that Spurrier is stepping down, and that the last person you want to ask about it is Spurrier. For all the one-liners and whiplash halftime interviews and sometimes bracing candor, the Head Ball Coach has been notoriously bad at explaining himself or his motivations. That is, unless he had an enemy to work against, in which case his motivations became crystalline.
At Duke, his first head job, that oppositional other was Mack Brown at North Carolina. Spurrier called the eventual Texas CEO "Mr. Football" while taking pictures of the scoreboard after the Blue Devils humiliated the Tar Heels at Chapel Hill. While he didn’t have to say it in so many words, the implications about someone else said as much about Spurrier as anything. Brown represented the glad-handing booster with a football hobby, the politician who loitered by the whiteboard waiting for a real coach to show up and teach him how to score a few touchdowns on game day.
At Florida, it would be Georgia head coach Ray Goff, a coach he almost single-handedly humiliated out of the profession and into the fried chicken business. After him, it was Phil Fulmer at Tennessee or Bowden at Florida State, depending on the year and how confident he felt about his team.
Later, in the NFL, he’d cite the ruined careers of lesser coaches as justification for his methods.
"Some coaches who spent a lot of hours had a lot of success," he said. "Some got fired quickly. I know Brad Scott had a cot at South Carolina."
Spurrier took that South Carolina job and won, a transaction that implies two parties: the loser, who did losing things and lost all the time, and the other guy, the winner.
That guy, it was strongly implied in any of these relationships, was always Spurrier.
In a goodbye speech, there’s no opponent, so why would he have anything to do with it in the first place? He is bad at pitching, bad at explaining, but pretty good at the doing of the thing. When athletic director Jeremy Foley asked him to submit a resume for the Florida job in 2004, Spurrier reportedly told him to go look in the trophy case. He was insulted to point out something with words, like some endlessly lobbying huckster of a coach. That was beneath him, unclean, something only losers did. There were trophies, and a scoreboard. Read them for yourself.
Things always seemed obvious to him. If he quit and walked out of the South Carolina building, his only explanation would be pointing to the scoreboard. That decided things. The rest was just speechifying.
Another coach Spurrier liked to tweak later in his career was Nick Saban, someone Spurrier would point out had taken the Alabama and LSU jobs.
"If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they've always won there at Alabama."
You could take favorable jobs as a bad coach and look okay, or take great jobs as a good coach and look orders of magnitude better than you might actually be.
Spurrier, in contrast, took the Duke, Florida and South Carolina jobs, jobs that were garbage scows before he arrived. He won at all three, in biblical fashion — the Old Testament Bible, where locusts ate your crops, lightning blew up your houses, and your village was flattened by a tidal wave before your rescue boat was swallowed by a whale. He drew the ire of illiterate nanny-take pissmerchants like New York columnist Mike Lupica, who accused Spurrier of running up the score, whatever that means.
The Old Testament thing ran a little deeper than mere cruelty. Spurrier had and still has an intense sense of fairness, at least by the judgment of his own rules. When Nebraska decimated Florida 62-24 in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, Spurrier was visibly enraged when the Cornhuskers spent most of the fourth quarter running the clock out rather than scoring as many points as they could. He strained his relationship with Alabama coach Mike DuBose by asking him, point-blank in a letter, if Alabama was committing recruiting violations. Spurrier allegedly disliked Bill Clinton for one reason: he cheated at golf, and if he’d cheat at golf, he’d cheat at anything.
That ledger of grievances and judgments ran long. Sometimes the turnaround on vengeance could be short, like when Mississippi State beat Florida in 2000 in Starkville and a Florida student manager was knocked out on the sidelines by a cowbell thrown from the stands. The following year, Spurrier put in Brock Berlin in relief in a blowout, then called a deep pass that went for a touchdown, admitting in the postgame that he’d scored a TD for the trainer in a 52-0 blowout. One reporter mentioned Mississippi State having the best pass defense in the nation going into the game. "Won't be coming out, though" was Spurrier's response.
Sometimes that long arc of account-settling ran very long. When Bill Curry came to Georgia Tech in 1980, he didn't retain Spurrier or the rest of Pepper Rodgers' staff. Spurrier retaliated by going 6-0 as an assistant and head coach against Curry in the ACC and 7-0 in the SEC, including a 73-7 game against Curry's Kentucky I watched in person in 1994. If it sounds like three and a half hours of pure savagery, there is a very good reason for that: it was. Spurrier football at its most complete felt like uneven, sustained retaliation for an endless list of real and sometimes imagined offenses.
He retires as a singular presence in every sense. While he single-handedly changed the way the SEC plays football by winning with a pass-first offense, he has no great coaching tree or organizational legacy. While other playcallers bit his concepts, there is no philosophical heir, no real system like the air raid or the West Coast offense. There are concepts, and a loose playbook, sure, but most of Spurrier's offense walks in the door when he arrives, and leaves with him when he goes. He called plays largely by feel, and always standing on the sidelines.
He also stands alone institutionally. He just walked out of the South Carolina job, a job he clearly regarded as a job and not a family, or a kind of personal mafia he could in retirement work for connections or a partnership in a car dealership. Imagine Swinney doing the same thing; you can’t, because Dabo sees Clemson as a place he’s a part of, not a place that is a part of him. Part of their rivalry came from this stark difference, sure, but that’s part of the story. Swinney will coach his last season to the final whistle and take a final lap around the stadium. Spurrier just skipped town like a drifter headed for the train tracks.
Failure and rejection forged a lot of that singularity. His father was an exacting minister who would remind him, even in his best efforts on the basketball court or football field, of the mistake he’d made in the game, the bad pass, the shot he’d missed. Despite him growing up just down the road, Tennessee barely recruited him at quarterback because they ran the Wing-T. He went to Florida, where his success at an underachieving program was undermined (at least in his mind) by losing to Georgia in his Heisman season of 1966.
He entered the NFL and eventually became the starting quarterback for the worst team to ever play the game, the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Players had beers at his house after games, mostly to avoid going out in public.) After washing out of the league, he caught on as a quarterbacks coach at Florida and Georgia Tech, then as offensive coordinator at Duke. He became the youngest pro coach in history at 37 in the USFL, but went 1-1 against Lee Corso.
He had a losing record against Bowden, lost one of the most lopsided games in national championship history and never won an SEC title at South Carolina. Spurrier would be the first to remind you of all this, too.
Spurrier will also remind you that he won a lot of games, games those teams would have never dreamt of winning without his assistance. He did not belong to you, or the school or the fans. He did not belong to Dan Snyder, even after the owner tried to pay him for another season of toil in the NFL. You could buy someone like Jim Haslett, another lesser Spurrier enjoyed needling during his brief tenure in the NFL. At any level, you could only rent Spurrier, and only then with terms he could change at any second. He was the first coach to make $2 million dollars a year in college, and maybe one of the first to openly admit his careerism. He was, to some degree, a pioneering forefather of the modern bastard coaching model.
To wit: Spurrier just ditched the team full of players who committed to play an entire season for the man. Then again, most of the people making that accusation would also have to admit that most players at South Carolina have barely had contact with Spurrier, who’s happily let his assistants run the program for the past few years. Spurrier’s public indecision on retirement was a chewtoy for both offseason column-raking and opponents recruiting against South Carolina. When Spurrier put a number on exactly how many years he had left, there was an uproar. When he changed course and said he’d stay for longer, he came off as unstable.
Leaving now probably doesn’t change much. It's shocking, but it inadvertently lets South Carolina get a jump on hiring his replacement and answers the longer-term questions about recruiting sooner, rather than later. That replacement will walk into a much, much better situation than Spurrier walked into, and with better facilities and higher expectations than Spurrier had when taking over a program Lou Holtz left in the recycling bin.*
*Let’s be honest: the garbage pile, because Holtz probably believes recycling is a Communist plot.
Leaving now is awkward and unsentimental and selfish, but again: this is Steve Spurrier. You didn’t pay him to cuddle, though he was affectionate enough. You paid him to not only win, but to pick rivals out of a crowd, fixate on them and beat them until their teeth rattled. You paid him. It was a job, one where he showed up to thank the band each year and do all the delightfully antiquated things college football coaches do, sure.
But in the end it was a job, and one that had devoured peers and mentors of his in ghastly ways. Bowden spent the better part of five years fighting the inevitable at Florida State, capitulating to a humiliating coach-in-waiting arrangement. Fulmer was flat fired at Tennessee, while a coach Spurrier admired, Joe Paterno, fell into abominable scandal in his old age at Penn State. Even his original Most Despised Rival, Mack Brown, could not politick or manage his way out of a grisly demise at Texas. (And if that’s what it came to in the end, the politically limited Spurrier was done before he even started that fight.)
He’d leave the job to someone else and go do something else. That’s an unemotional way to look at it, but it's part of a system. There are rules, and you should follow them. The defense never backs up if you don’t throw it deep. The game’s based on points, so you better be able to score more than the other team. If you make money, you pay the coach, and if you make some more, you pay the players. If someone cusses at you, well, you cuss back, provided you don’t use the f-word, 'cause that’s a rule Spurrier had, too. No f-words, but sure: drop a dammit or a hell or even a shit, if you had to in the heat of a fight.
Don’t work too much. No really, don’t work too much, or at least not all year long, if you can help it. He’d grind during the season and in recruiting, sure, but he’d also show up at Daytona shirtless and drinking a banquet beer. There might be something to that: Spurrier outlasted one generation of coaches, and then outlasted most of another while happily admitting to extensive time spent on the back nine. It helps to have a singular genius for your job, sure, but with all that dark, sleepless misery, Saban still only managed a head-to-head record of 1-3 against the Head Ball Coach. There’s probably a lot of make-busy waste work done in the name of looking like you’re working hard in coaching. You might, for longevity’s sake, want to avoid it.
Oh, and if there’s time on the clock, you do your best to score, because that’s the whole point of the game. If there’s no time left on the clock, well, you have a beer, go home and figure out what do next. Maybe cry a little or celebrate, if you're the kind of person who needs to do that.
Spurrier walking into the room - "alright, let's get this over with."— Chris Dearing (@CDearing82) October 13, 2015
Photos by Scott Halleran/Getty Images, Matthew Stockman/Allsport, Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports