Tale of the Coaching Tape: Nick Saban vs. Steve Spurrier
Steve Spurrier has never really been known for biting his tongue, much to the delight of sportswriters everywhere.
Some of his gems over the years include:
“You can’t spell Citrus without UT,” about rival Tennessee regularly playing in the bowl game that featured the SEC’s best division runner-up.
”… But the real tragedy was that fifteen hadn’t been colored yet,” about an Auburn dorm fire in which numerous books were destroyed.
“You know what FSU stands for, don’t you? Free Shoes University.”
Alabama was not exempt:
“In 12 years at Florida, I don’t think we ever signed a kid from the state of Alabama … Of course, we found out later that the scholarships they were giving out at Alabama were worth a whole lot more than ours.”
There’s nothing in college football like a Spurrier zinger to get under the skin of opposing fans, but his career was nothing short of stellar, including as a player.
Against visiting Auburn on October 29, 1966, the quarterback essentially assured Florida of its first Heisman Trophy when, facing fourth down in the closing moments, he waived the kicker off to attempt the 40-yard game-winning field goal himself.
Spurrier had thrown for 259 yards -- and to give you an idea of how times have changed he finished with 2,012 passing yards that season -- and averaged 47 yards a punt. When he cleared the crossbar by about a foot, Coach Ray Graves could only smile. Auburn coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan called him “Steve Superior.”
As a coach, he turned the Gators into a national powerhouse, and over the span of 12 seasons they won seven SEC titles, one national championship and finished ranked in the nation's top 10 nine times.
Florida became only one of six schools in major college football history, and one of two in SEC history, to win 100 games during a decade (100-22-1, 1990s). The Gators were also the first team in the conference to win at least 10 games in six straight seasons, and the third school ever to be ranked for 200 consecutive weeks.
Spurrier even slapped the “Swamp” nickname on Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, saying “only Gators can survive a trip to the swamp.” Easily one of the loudest stadiums in the country, Florida was 70-5 there under his direction.
Although Spurrier has never won one of the major national coach of the year awards, he did become the first Heisman Trophy winner to coach another Heisman winner: Danny Wuerffel in 1996.
“He was a little different,” said Tommy Tuberville, who at Ole Miss and Auburn lost his first four games against Spurrier. “He was outspoken. You can be pretty much outspoken when you’re kicking everybody’s butt like he was.”
“If people like you too much, it’s probably because they’re beating you,” Spurrier said.
Despite their impressive resumes, Spurrier and Nick Saban faced each other only four times, with Spurrier holding a 3-1 advantage. Sadly they never met with a championship on the line. Saban came up empty his first two years at LSU when Spurrier was still at Florida, 41-9 and 44-15, and they split their two Alabama-South Carolina meetings.
The Crimson Tide won a pretty sloppy 20-6 game in Tuscaloosa during its 2009 national championship season, but Spurrier’s Gamecocks pulled off an emotional 35-21 home victory the following year. While Alabama was playing its third consecutive ranked SEC team, and had won 19 straight games, it was South Carolina’s first win ever against an opponent ranked No. 1.
"I think that this game was meant to be," said Spurrier, who in the process earned his 107th SEC victory to move into second for the all-time lead behind only Paul W. “Bear” Bryant (159).
"I gave myself a game ball for that one," he added.
While both coaches won a national championship before giving the NFL a two-year shot, Spurrier with the Washington Redskins (12-20, 2002-03), their careers have been very different after returning to the SEC.
Spurrier was solid at South Carolina, going 86-49 from 2005-15, including three straight 11-win seasons after the Gamecocks didn’t finish ranked in the final Associated Press poll during his first five years. When USC finally broke through and won the Eastern Division in 2010, it lost to Auburn in the program’s first and only appearance in the SEC Championship Game, 56-17.
The 2013 team had South Carolina’s best finish in the AP Top 25 at No. 4.
As for Saban … Yeah, you knew it was coming:
“He’s got a nice little gig going, a little bit like (Kentucky basketball John) Calipari,” Spurrier told ESPN.com in 2012. “He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now, you’re going to be a first-round pick and go.’ 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.”
Spurrier, of course, was first a head coach at Duke, where from 1987-89 the Blue Devils went 20-13-1 and won the 1989 Atlantic Coast Conference championship before returning to his alma mater in 1990.
Four months later, Saban responded with: “LSU wasn’t winning when I went there. Michigan State wasn’t winning when I went there. Toledo wasn’t winning when I went there. And Alabama really wasn’t winning when I came here. I guess I gotta go someplace else. I don’t know."
"I think it's great, I love Steve. I'm always anxious to hear what he has to say — it's always funny."
Of course, he couldn’t help but needle the Ol’ Ball Coach a little himself.
“You know, there are other coaches in this league, like Steve Spurrier, who are older than me, that I look up to, that are my mentors, that I really learn a lot from, that I really want to try to be like,” Saban said at the next SEC Media Days. “In fact, I was even going to consider wearing a visor on the sidelines this year. I was afraid I'd throw it.”
Nick Saban vs. Steve Spurrier
(For consistency reasons, statistics through 2018 season)
Category, Saban; Spurrier
Seasons 23; 26
Consensus national titles 6; 1
Record in conference title games 4-1 5-3
Top five finishes 9; 7
Top 25 finishes 16; 16
Overall record 232–63–1*; 228–89–2
Percentage 78.5; 78.1
Losing seasons 0; 1
Bowl/CFP record 14-10; 11-10
Percentage 58.3; 52.3
Conference titles 9; 7
Conference record 138-42-1; 137-61-1
Consensus All-Americans 41; 16
First-round draft picks 34; 17
Record against ranked teams 82-40; 64-57-1
Percentage 67.2; 52.89
Record against top 10 teams 42-21; 27-34-1
Percentage 66.7; 44.35
National title seasons One every 3.8 seasons (2.4 at Alabama); 26
Consensus All-Americans (through 2018) 1.78 every season; 0.62
First-round draft picks (through 2019 draft) 1.48 every season; 0.65
Average wins vs. ranked teams 3.57 each season; 2.46
Wins over top-10 teams per year 1.82 every season; 1.04
* vacated games
A version of this chart originally appeared in the book, “Nick Saban vs. College Football,” Triumph Books, 2014