At Florida, loyalty still runs deep for the Head Ball Coach
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As
"We built this room," Nappy said, "for them."
The room is in the back of Napolatano's, the Italian restaurant Nappy and his wife,
"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
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,
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
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
Don't forget this quote from
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
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."