GAINESVILLE, Fla. — His hands and fingers are swollen and bruised, and of course wrinkled. Two pruned plums hanging from 75-year-old branches.
Steve Spurrier can no longer consistently shoot his age on the golf course. These days, he only plays about once a week, his hands scarred from arthritis. If you can’t adequately squeeze a club, you can’t adequately swing a club. Twisting isn’t easy either. Two years ago, doctors scraped arthritis off of his spine.
His swings nowadays are ugly, he says. He once had grand plans for golf, hoping to perfect every aspect of his game once he retired from coaching.
He forgot one thing: He’s old.
“I’ve lost it,” he says, in a manner that, actually, evokes no pity at all. He doesn’t want your sympathy, even if you do give it to him.
He’s a shell of the man you remember stalking the sidelines at both Florida and South Carolina, his playsheet in one hand and the other resting over his lips, that visor snug under a black headset. He limps around now—piddles, one might say.
His official title within Florida’s athletic department is ambassador. Whatever that means. He’s still better known by the three letters that grace the placard outside of his cozy, windowless office in the bowels of The Swamp: HBC.
Here, he has surrounded himself by the past, mementos from a 26-year college head coaching career that included a record of 228-89-2 (71.8%), seven conference championships, two losing seasons and one national title. He’s kept game balls from each hallmark victory. His very first as a head coach for the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits in 1983. His 50th home win at South Carolina. All of his SEC championship game victories at Florida, including three against Alabama.
In fact, he says, he’s beaten Alabama quite a bit. Spurrier’s career record against the Crimson Tide is 7–4. He’s 3–2 in SEC title game bouts and he was 1–1 while at South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ win in 2010, he quips, remains the last victory by an SEC East team over Nick Saban. Since that game, Alabama is 27–0 against those from the opposite division with an average winning margin of 27.6 points. Three of the 27 games produced a one-possession result.
Coincidentally, Alabama and Florida will meet for the 10th time out of 29 SEC championship games on Saturday in Atlanta. Spurrier will watch from home as his Gators take on college football’s powerhouse.
“It’s almost unfair. It really is, unless you change recruiting,” Spurrier says. “I remember thinking one time, ‘Why doesn’t college do like the pros? The team finishing first gets the last pick.’
“Alabama … It's like being in the NFL, winning the Super Bowl and every year they get the first 10 picks in the first round. And then they get 10 in the second round and the rest of you guys take everyone else!”
That mind of his is still fine, and maybe he could call a play or two, or nine or 10. But he’s done with that life. He’s not done with talking about it, of course. He still talks, talks with the best of ’em, in fact. After all, that’s the only thing he did better than call plays—talk.
Talk about how good his golf game is. Talk about how pitiful Florida’s opponents are. Talk about the championships. Talk about the touchdown passes. Talk about the victories.
He still talks. He never misses a chance to zing some of his old foes, especially the Georgia Bulldogs. He could talk about them for days. Did you know he was 11–1 against them as Florida’s coach? Because if you don’t know, he’ll tell you.
In fact, he’s got an entire section of his office shelf reserved for Georgia, three game balls each of historical significance: In 2014, while at South Carolina, he set the SEC career record for wins by one coach against the Bulldogs. His 100th win at Florida in 1999 came against the Bulldogs. And he coached a team in 1995 that scored more points than any opponent at Sanford Stadium.
He tells the story like it happened yesterday. On the bus ride to the stadium, an assistant coach informed Spurrier that no Georgia opponent had ever scored 50 in Sanford Stadium. The Gators were big favorites. Maybe they could do it?
Leading 45–17 late in the game, Spurrier called a quick screen pass. Receiver Travis McGriff caught it, sprinted up field and scored.
“He made it 52 points,” Spurrier smiles.
The barbs are still sharp from HBC. And the desk cluttered. Papers, books, folders and a Bible. It looks like he’s formulating a game plan against the Crimson Tide while praying for victory.
In reality, Spurrier stays away from all football-related scheming. He rarely even visits the football offices one floor below his own.
“You’d be crazy not to pick his brain every once in a while, but I know he’s not trying to be the OC,” says former athletic director Jeremy Foley, Spurrier’s previous boss who is still on staff here in an AD emeritus role.
Spurrier used to walk through the football offices once a day on the way to the team weight room for a workout. Since the pandemic began, he now works out at home, a stationary bike and treadmill his tools of choice. His only visit downstairs is to deliver coach Dan Mullen a miniature bottle of Sutter Home wine, a budding tradition here.
Mullen’s team opened the season by setting the school record for yards in an SEC game in a 51–35 win over Ole Miss, a record once held by Spurrier’s team. Mullen joked that Spurrier should bring him a bottle of wine.
So he did—a 3-ounce bottle. Spurrier delivered the same gift two weeks ago, after Florida won the Eastern Division. The miniature wine bottles are not new to Spurrier. They are, at times, his drink of choice.
“Those came from the bottom drawer of his desk,” laughs his son, Steve Spurrier Jr., the outside receivers coach for Mississippi State. “He didn’t go out of his way to track down a case. If it was his last one, he’d have probably kept it for himself.”
During a Friday afternoon conversation in that office of his, Spurrier is asked about those tiny wine bottles and he begins rooting around for some. One drawer opens and then the next. Nothing.
He turns toward a miniature fridge in the corner, opens the door and then scowls.
“Nah, that’s all beer.”
Spurrier stays quite busy these days, even with most of his speaking engagements canceled. He hosts his own podcast three days a week and he’s in the process of opening his own restaurant here in Gainesville, Spurrier's Gridiron Grill. His daughter suggested he open an eatery to store and show off his memorabilia.
He doesn’t miss a Florida home game, watching each from athletic director Scott Stricklin’s suite. The two are close. Literally. They live across the street from each other in an affluent subdivision outside of Gainesville’s main drag, about 20 minutes from campus.
When out of town, the Stricklins can always count on the Spurriers to look over their home.
“They’re great neighbors. They don't leave the trash cans out. The yard always looks nice,” Stricklin says. “And it helps our home value too.”
Back in his office, Spurrier has plenty of bones to pick with plenty of people. Today’s young coaches are too busy working when they should be relaxing more, Spurrier claims.
The coaching profession has turned into a group of people who are constantly bragging about their work ethic and not their win record, Spurrier says.
“‘Well, I work hard. Nobody is going to out-work me. Here to midnight every night,’” he says. “That’s the theme to go get a job is trying to convince the ADs and everybody how hard you work instead of ‘Hey, what’s your record?’”
Former Florida coach Urban Meyer is a noted grinder, pushing all of those around him to the limits. During Meyer’s days at Florida, Spurrier recalls a golf outing with Mullen, then UF’s offensive coordinator.
“You guys ever get out to the Gainesville Country Club?” Spurrier asked Mullen.
“Play golf!?” Mullen responded.
“In the offseason,” Spurrier replied
Mullen proceeded to tell the coach that working for Meyer does not include an offseason. Even if it’s spending a May day watching a game from two years ago, they do it.
“Well,” Spurrier quipped, “we play golf in the offseason.”
Spurrier is full of stories. In the football offices, many mornings turn into story time with HBC. He remembers every season, every game, every play and many times the playcall.
“You know that thing they did on [Rams coach] Sean McVay, about him remembering everything from a game?” asks Steve Spurrier Jr. “Dad is the exact same way. You can ask him a game against Georgia in 1995, second-and-8 on the 40, and he can tell you the defense they played and the play they ran.”
While on staff with his dad at South Carolina, Spurrier Jr. remembers walking off the field after a spring game and asking his dad if he wanted to watch the game film with the rest of the staff.
“No,” his dad said, “I’ve already seen it.”
Spurrier describes his tenure at South Carolina as rewarding. Sure, he ended it abruptly, but he won 33 games in a three-year stretch at an SEC cellar dweller. Everyone chases a national title, Spurrier says, but the real gratification comes with setting a bunch of firsts at one school. He did that in Columbia, even if some don’t respect it.
“I heard [Kirk] Herbstreit say that the other day, ‘Spurrier won at South Carolina when the league was down,’” Spurrier says. “Knowshon Moreno, [Matthew] Stafford. Georgia had some ball players. Urban [at Florida] ... was he down?”
Spurrier’s career is long enough that, of course, he has regrets. He thinks back on that long journey.
Why did I leave Florida for the NFL in Washington?
It still sticks with him.
“I only coached [at Florida] 12 years. It’s not a long time,” he says. “There was something in the back of our minds … and Denny Erickson and Butch Davis said the same things, ‘We should have never left the college jobs we had.’
“But you almost triple your money back then. Now it’s all about the same. But there’s always something about … after you’ve done your thing in college, go do it in the NFL and then retire and go play golf.”
Two decades later, he is retired and he is, of course, playing golf. Even if it’s not pretty. He flashes those hands of his, swollen and bruised. He mimics a golf swing and shakes his head.
“I just make ugly swings,” he says. “Mentally, you say, ‘When I’m finished coaching and sort-of retired, I can really get my golf game going.’
“Doesn’t work that way.”