GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Three offensive assistants stood around a board in the Florida football offices in the winter of 1978. The quarterbacks coach drew one aerial assault after another -- devil-may-care plays no one would dare run in the ultra-conservative SEC. His name was Steve Spurrier, and he was convinced the offensive innovations in his head would eventually succeed on the field.
The receivers coach, Lee McGriff, chuckled to himself every time Spurrier drew a new play. McGriff didn't scoff at the feasibility of the plays, but he had noticed Spurrier drew all the plays without linemen. The third assistant, offensive line coach Kim Helton, could barely contain his contempt. "I know this is not OK with Kim Helton," said McGriff, now the analyst for Florida football's radio broadcasts. "I'm watching him out of the corner of my eye, and there's a storm starting to brew inside him."
Finally, Helton could take no more.
"Coach?" McGriff remembered Helton asking a colleague he would never call "Coach" under normal circumstances. "Do you think you might need some linemen to make this play work?" Spurrier, sensing an opportunity to gig his colleague, fired back. "Kim," McGriff remembered Spurrier saying, "we just need y'all to get in the way."
Helton strode to the board and drew offensive and defensive lines. He then drew a defensive stunt that could not possibly be blocked by an offense with five receivers in the pattern. "How are you going to block that?" McGriff remembered Helton asking.
Spurrier considered the conundrum. Then he spoke. "Well," McGriff remembered Spurrier squawking. "It'll be one for them."
One for them.
Coaches spend sleepless nights trying to keep opponents from getting one for them. Not Spurrier. He knows you will get a few, and he'll probably get more. He knows there is likely a call you can make that will throw his offense for a 10-yard loss under certain circumstances. He also knows what happens when you don't make that call. "If you don't do that," McGriff said, "he has just fried you."
Spurrier comes back to Gainesville Saturday, and he brings with him a South Carolina team that can stop his alma mater's recent renaissance cold. He will come to a stadium usually referred to by a name he coined, a stadium that has a statue of Spurrier's 21-year-old self on its west side and his name in a ring of honor on its north side. The home crowd will cheer against him because he stands between the Gators and the SEC East title, but those in the stands won't jeer him too hard. After all, Spurrier the player was a beloved Gator, and Spurrier the coach was Florida's Bud, Bear, Woody or Bo. Those plays that lived inside his head in the winter of 1978 revolutionized the way offense is played in college football, and they brought six SEC titles and a national title to a school that had won nothing for 85 years. (The SEC title in 1984 was stripped the following spring because of numerous NCAA violations, and Spurrier's 1990 team wasn't allowed to claim a title because of violations during the Galen Hall era.) Even though Urban Meyer coached Florida to twice as many national titles, they will never love Meyer the way they love Spurrier, who still often says "we" when referring to Florida even though a divisional rivalry makes the Gators a definite "they."
"Florida is always going to be my school," Spurrier said this week. "I love Florida. ... We're Gators, but we're Gamecocks now. When my coaching days are over, I'll be more of a Gator then. But I'm a Gamecock now."
As fruitful as Spurrier's tenure was at Florida, a win Saturday would provide further evidence that he has done an even better job at South Carolina than he did at Florida. At Florida, Spurrier took those innovations that percolated in his head, added the phenomenal athletes that grow like oranges in the Sunshine State and lifted a program that was always
Spurrier said Thursday that South Carolina star tailback Marcus Lattimore will not start Saturday because of a bruised hip. In Gainesville, this pronouncement was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Here, better than anywhere else, they know about the Head Ball Coach's mind games during the days leading up to a big game.
No doubt Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose six-year-old self may have been playing football in his yard less than a mile from Florida Field when Spurrier heckled Helton, has prepared his defense as if Lattimore will carry his usual load. The South Carolina offense, which uses Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw on zone read runs to set up high-percentage passes for Shaw, is more complete than the LSU offense Florida stoned two weeks ago. Florida rammed the ball down LSU's throat, but only because the Gators trailed by just six points in the third quarter. If the Gators must pass, that's when South Carolina defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor will feast. But if Muschamp and coordinator Dan Quinn's defense can limit the Gamecocks' appearances in the end zone, Florida can run all night with tailback Mike Gillislee and quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Go back to the mid-'90s and tell someone that a Spurrier-coached game in The Swamp with the SEC East hanging in the balance will feature two teams grinding on the ground and trying to create turnovers, and that person will wonder what sort of mad dystopia we inhabit in 2012. But it will be beautiful in its own way. Muschamp will try to push the Gators back to the standard Spurrier set. Spurrier will try to foil his alma mater and continue revising the standard at South Carolina.
Besides, he may prefer to run now, but Spurrier hasn't changed in any other way. "I certainly hope the Gators finish second in the East this year," he cracked. "That would be a good finish for them."
Saturday, Spurrier, who spent so many years making Florida finish first, will work to make the Gators finish second. If he can, his legend at South Carolina will grow. If he can't, it'll be one for them.
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