Friday November 14th, 2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As Dean Nappy pointed to the glassed-in room, the memories of all those postgame celebrations danced in his eyes.

"We built this room," Nappy said, "for them."

The room is in the back of Napolatano's, the Italian restaurant Nappy and his wife, Ginger, have owned since 1979. The room features a door that would allow a certain visor-wearing football coach to sneak through the kitchen to the men's room and back unnoticed by hundreds of orange-and-blue-clad revelers outside. The Nappys built this room in the '90s for Steve Spurrier and his Florida coaching staff. That way, if the Gators had, say, just won the SEC title in Atlanta, the coaches could call him from the team charter and alert Nappy so he could ready the room and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs for Spurrier.

"We're landing in 20 minutes," Nappy said, replaying the typical call he'd get a few hours after an away win. "We'll be there in 40 minutes."

The back room -- and the rest of the restaurant -- was destroyed in a 2005 fire, but the Nappys rebuilt with exactly the same floor plan. They couldn't save all their Spurrier memorabilia, but just outside the back room are photos of Spurrier with the 1996 SEC championship trophy and then-defensive coordinator Bob Stoops trying his hand at tending bar.

Those memories make this weekend tough for Nappy. He loves the Gators. Always has. Always will. Because of Florida's current coaching staff, his son, Eric, a former walk-on kicker, has a 2006 national title ring. But he loves Spurrier, too. He considers him "like family." That will make Saturday's matchup between third-ranked Florida and Spurrier's No. 24 South Carolina team excruciating to watch.

Nappy isn't alone. Though no other Florida fan rose at 4 a.m. to make the sauce that would top Spurrier's spaghetti, many in Gator nation find themselves equally conflicted. Even though they know the stakes -- Florida likely will wind up in the BCS title game if the Gators win their next four games -- some find it impossible to pull against the man who put their program on the map.

They loved when Spurrier quipped that you can't spell Citrus without UT and that he coined the phrase Free Shoes University. They defended him when rivals called him cocky and arrogant. They'll never forget when he hung half a hundred on Georgia or when he rotated quarterbacks Doug Johnson and Noah Brindise on every play to spoil Florida State's national title hopes in 1997. But the love affair began long before all that. As a senior quarterback in 1966, Spurrier won Florida's first Heisman Trophy. He cinched it against Auburn when he convinced coach Ray Graves to let him kick a game-winning field goal he knew the Gators' regular kicker couldn't make. As a coach, Spurrier led Florida -- a founding member of the SEC -- to its first conference title in 1991. He then won five more. He coached another Heisman winner (Danny Wuerffel) and led the program to its first national title in 1996.

The segment of the Florida fan base that suffered through all those years without an SEC title and all those heartbreaking losses to Georgia will forever be indebted to Spurrier for changing the fortunes of the program. That group will suffer most Saturday. Some will reflexively smile if Spurrier's team lines up in the Emory and Henry formation and converts a third-and-long. Then they'll see the garnet and black and realize that Emory and Henry formation just dealt a blow to their team's national title hopes, and the smile will disappear.

The other segment of Florida's fan base -- the one that believes football was invented when Spurrier returned to Gainesville in 1990 -- won't be so conflicted. This is the group that, by the end of the 2001 season, had Spurrier convinced that Gator Nation wouldn't be satisfied with 10- and 11-win seasons. He had to win the national title every year and beat every opponent by 50. So he left for a miserable two-year stretch with the Washington Redskins, and they began creating Web sites urging the firing of successor Ron Zook. When Spurrier took the South Carolina job weeks before Florida hired Urban Meyer to replace Zook, that group wrote Spurrier off as Gator Bait. And that's just what they'll call him Saturday. Which could be a mistake.

Don't forget this quote from S.L. Price's 1995 SI profile of Spurrier, in which Spurrier talks about the coaches who cut him loose before he finally caught on at Duke in the '80s. "I'll show those people they were wrong, the ones who didn't keep me as a coach," he says. "We all like to prove people wrong who say we're no good."

To the stadium he nicknamed The Swamp, Spurrier will bring the best South Carolina team he has assembled in four seasons in Columbia. It's better than the 2005 team that beat Florida and cost the Gators the SEC east title. It's better than the 2006 team, which would have ruined Florida's run to its second national title if not for the fingertips of defensive end Jarvis Moss, who blocked a Ryan Succop kick. It's certainly better than Spurrier's 2007 team, which essentially handed Florida quarterback Tim Tebow the Heisman by allowing him to throw for two touchdowns and run for five more.

Of course, Spurrier will face what might be Meyer's best Florida team. That 2006 team didn't capture the base's imagination until it hammered Ohio State in the national title game. It squeaked through most of that season. This team, however, has Florida fans waxing nostalgic. The Gators have beaten their last five opponents by an average of 37.2 points, and Meyer has been accused of running up the score (by Miami) and of calling unnecessary timeouts to rub in a blowout (by Georgia). Sound familiar?

It should. Unlike Zook, who took painstaking steps to distance himself from Spurrier's legacy, Meyer always embraced the Head Ball Coach. When Meyer was introduced as Florida's coach in December 2004, he began to win over a fan base angry that Spurrier wasn't allowed a second coming by professing his admiration for Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun. When Florida finished its shrine to the football program on the southwest corner of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium earlier this year, one of the first people Meyer invited to see the place was Spurrier.

Even Spurrier may occasionally find himself conflicted. Few former players love their alma maters more than he does. Every once in a while, in interviews, he'll still drop a "we" when speaking about Florida. But come Saturday, when he slips on his visor and takes up his ball play sheet, Spurrier's hatred of losing should supersede any prior affections. As usual, he'll try to prove wrong those who think he's no good.

Meanwhile, in the bleachers and across the Sunshine State, some Florida fans will wrestle with their allegiances. Especially at a little Italian place about five miles west of Florida Field, where the owner still rises at 4 a.m. every day to make the sauce. "If you're a Gator fan," Nappy said, "you have to root for Florida." Then, a smile. "You can never overlook Coach, though."

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