Once upon a time there was a preacher's boy, sandy-haired and blue-eyed and true, whose initials were S.O.S. Steven Orr Spurrier could pass, run and kick three ways. He could think on the fly. He could come to the rescue, always in the nick of time. He was so nonchalant, so immune to the pressures that he often fell asleep on the bus ride to the game on Saturday. There was some question of his birthplace, whether it was Johnson City, Tenn., where he grew up, or High Springs, Fla., where his father ministers to the Presbyterians, or Miami Beach, which is on his birth certificate, but one collector of press-box memorabilia said it was none of these, that he was actually born in a manger.
University of Florida football fans do not count this a sacrilege because they knew from the beginning that old S.O.S. was born to give their sportswriters a release from years of pent-up cleverness. The writers called him Super Steve and Batgator and Goldflinger, but when he went out to play football—ah, boy, that was when they really let go. One wrote that Spurrier with his hands tied behind him and his face to the wall would be a two-point favorite at his own execution.
Spurrier did so many wonderful things so many wonderful ways that Florida won its first seven games this season. Florida fans, who are best described as long suffering, had to go back 38 years to remember when the Gators had done that before. The Gators were also nationally ranked (they have never gone undefeated or finished in the top 10 in the wire-service polls), and were on the verge of their first Southeastern Conference championship. Florida people who used to say "wait till next year" were now saying "wait till the fourth quarter," and "let me check your pulse, Harry, because here comes Spurrier bringing the Gators downfield again." When S.O.S. kicked a 40-yard field goal in the last minutes to beat Auburn two weeks ago, one of them wanted to stop the game and award Spurrier the Heisman Trophy on the spot.
Last week in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl, which bulged with 62,800 people, Steve Spurrier went to his execution. He was favored, all right, by five points, but he was executed nevertheless. Trailing 10-3 at the half, and looking reasonably tranquil, the University of Georgia Bulldogs came to some logical conclusions about stopping a superquarterback like Spurrier: 1) a superquarterback cannot throw from the prone or sitting position and 2) he cannot do anything at all without the football.
As conclusions go, there was nothing unusual about these or the way Georgia went about researching them. The Bulldogs, in three-deep coverage, had Safety Man Lynn Hughes keying on the Florida tight end, fudging a little bit in his direction; the halfbacks played Florida's wide receivers as close to their chin straps as they dared and the ends helped out on wide coverage. The tackles looped in to contain and harass, the linebackers stunted and slashed through the creases to demoralize and perhaps abrogate and all was done in a variety of patterns to disguise the well-conceived plots of good plotters like Georgia Coach Vince Dooley.
The results were unusual, though. Tackles George Patton, who is an All-America, and Bill Stanfill, who should be, forced Spurrier to rush his throws and, along with the linebackers, leaned on him whenever they could. The deep men were like dogs yapping at the heels of Florida's usually excellent receivers, and the most intrepid Bulldog of them all, Lynn Hughes, intercepted two of Spurrier's passes right out of the hands of Tight End Jack Coons. One he returned 39 yards for Georgia's winning touchdown. After seven games and three quarters and live minutes, Florida's impetus did not just flag, it disappeared entirely.
Dooley, meanwhile, told Georgia's quarterbacks to quit trying to do things they could not do—like pass—and let such big old country-boy fullbacks as Ronnie Jenkins wham away at Florida's middle, which happens to be vulnerable because 158-pound linebackers like Jack Card cannot keep turning back 250-pound tackles forever. Everything powerfully simple and to the point: plunges, dives, counters and—just to keep the fans from thinking Georgia dull—an occasional pitchout. Of their 47 plays in the second half, the Bulldogs threw only one pass, and they controlled the ball as if playing the game alone.
In the third quarter, Florida got off only 13 plays, excluding punts; in the fourth, only 11, and in those final 15 minutes when Georgia broke the 10-10 tie and went on to win, 27-10, Florida had the ball for all of three and a half minutes. Flustered, Florida made one first down in the second half, gained five yards rushing, 29 yards passing. The three passes that Georgia intercepted were more than Spurrier had allowed in the seven previous games. For the first time he did not pass for a touchdown. His passing yardage (133) was almost 100 yards below his average.
But when he came out of the Florida dressing room after the game, through that vale of undergraduate tears into the dwindling sunlight, hands reached out for him and people begging for his autograph hemmed him in, and Jerri, his wife of two months, blonde, blue-eyed and tear-stained, still could not understand it. "Don't they realize how bad he feels? Why do they want his autograph now anyway?" It will come to Jerri in due time that the reason is elementary: that one game does not separate Spurrier from his greatness, that even Unitas does not always make all the ends meet, and that the puckish young man with the bowlegs and slouchy, listing walk and the one-sided smile she married is the best college quarterback in the country and therefore fair game.
And, though they have been congratulating each other all the time about having someone like Spurrier to cheer about, it is only their provincial skepticism that keeps Florida fans believing there really is a Midwestern Bloc that will vote for some unworthy and keep southern boy Spurrier from winning the Heisman Trophy they think he deserves.
Shug Jordan, the Auburn coach, cannot, with his down-Alabama accent, quite pronounce Spurrier. He calls him Superior. He says that when you think about preparing for Florida, you begin with Superior and you end with Superior. LSU's Charley McClendon said after Spurrier had beaten his team for the third straight year that "people will say we should have changed our defenses for him. Well, I'll tell you, he likes every defense there is."
It is no use to quote professional scouts on Spurrier when they talk of him because they all tend to gush. Spurrier's own coach, Ray Graves, gets positively dreamy-eyed on the subject. Florida State Coach Bill Peterson says Spurrier is the greatest quarterback in the history of college football. June McGowan, wife of Florida Assistant Coach Bubba McGowan, says that Peterson would not be so conservative if he had to watch Spurrier's hairy finishes every week for three years. Eight times S.O.S. has brought Florida from behind in the fourth quarter.
Names like Bratkowski, Trippi, Sinkwich, Namath, Parilli, Conerly and Tarkenton preceded Spurrier into the Southeastern Conference record book, but he has wiped out practically every record they set. At present he leads the country in number of completions and completion percentage. He has punted for a 41-yard average, has place-kicked three field goals (in six attempts) and if you put up a steak dinner he will drop-kick the ball through the goalposts from 40 yards away—and from the sideline, too.
But do not muddle your head with endless figures, says Florida's offensive coach, Ed Kensler. Come a little closer and watch Spurrier think. See him pick up that secondary receiver, or the third or fourth one; check off with brilliance at the line of scrimmage; make up plays in the huddle; underthrow a receiver to shut off the defensive back but still give his receiver a shot at the ball.
Florida coaches sit by the hour in projection rooms, cluck-clucking over the past chapters of the perils of S.O.S. "Too much. Old Orr is just too much," Kensler said while watching one brilliant play last week.
Too much is something Spurrier might not get now that the American and National football leagues have merged and all but eliminated big-bonus competitive bidding for college draft choices. It is a nonsecret that Spurrier was part of the fine print of the merger, that he has been promised—as the first quarterback likely to go in the draft—to the New York Giants, whose fans are already dropping him encouraging notes about coming to their rescue. And just the other day there was Giant Coach Allie Sherman himself, cluck-clucking along with the others in the Florida projection room in Gainesville and making vague explanations of his presence. Sherman has tickets to Florida's last two games.
It has been estimated, perhaps inflatedly, that Spurrier would have gotten a million dollars in an AFL-NFL bidding contest. He shrugs it off. If it cost him, say, $500,000, which is the figure he uses, "I never had it so how can I miss it?" He does say, however, that he will get all he thinks he is worth, and Bill O'Neal, a Gainesville lawyer who has acted as legal spokesman for Florida football players, believes negotiations will begin at $200,000. O'Neal does not expect trouble, he says, but if Spurrier does not get his due O'Neal will advise him to wait and see. Antitrust action? Perish the thought. After all, Wellington Mara wouldn't want people around New York saying the quarterback he bought cost less than the Jets paid for that other fellow, would he?
Spurrier is not a perfect specimen, of course. His passes are not all spirals, and his moves are not always deft. Once, when he tried to run off to Folkston, Ga. to marry Jerri Starr, he made a series of tricky turns and wound up in Kingsland. Jerri was suspicious. As a fraternity big sister, she used to monitor Steve's date book and when asked what else he played besides sports, she said, "Around." But they found they could get married just as fast in Kingsland. Things just naturally turn out right for S.O.S.
Everybody at Florida is now tickled with Spurrier the husband, except maybe Jerri the wife, when he pops in with five teammates for supper, or even when he does not pop in at all because he has to eat filet mignon with mushroom sauce at the training table. His coaches talk of the settling qualities of married life, and his teammates tell of his regaining their devotion since marrying and realizing that football wasn't all fun after all.
Florida is an outstanding school with a curriculum and scholastic standing second only to Vanderbilt in the SEC. But though it is 60 miles inland from the distracting Atlantic beaches and too tough to take lightly, it has had a history of fine-looking athletes who had excellent attendance records at the parties along fraternity row, and who were leaders in the co-educational togetherness of Beta Woods, that carefully maintained, discreetly policed parking lot at the west end of the campus.
This is not saying that football was taken lightly, but prior to the coming of Ray Graves in 1960 all the seriousness in the world and all the fun of the football weekends (the Florida-Georgia game used to be called the world's largest outdoor cocktail party) could not make Florida fans happy with their lot. Bob Woodruff, whom Graves succeeded, built a good athletic program—he is now athletic director at Tennessee—and won more football games than he lost, but he lost unspectacularly and the big games regularly. To compound his ills he was, by self-description, "the oratorical equivalent of a blocked punt."
Graves played for the conservative General Neyland at Tennessee and coached under the conservative Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech, but when he went to Florida he promised, "We will not be dull." The first Florida play from scrimmage that year was a forward pass. Incomplete. The fans loved it. But better than that, that very first year his team won more games—nine—than any in Florida history, and the biggest of all was an 18-17 upset of Georgia Tech that was achieved when Graves ordered a two-point conversion after a last-minute touchdown. Dodd told Graves later, "You sure didn't learn that from me."
Since 1960, Florida has had three bowl teams and only one losing season, and twice finished second (but still never first) in the tough SEC. Ironically, this team that Graves has to go with the exceptionally talented Spurrier is not as good as some of those in the past. He is strong up the middle with Center Bill Carr—another preacher's son—Spurrier and Running Back Larry Smith, whose mother comes to the games in mink and calls down to the sidelines to have Larry please pull up his pants because they are too low. Do not be deceived. Smith is probably the toughest running back in the conference. Spurrier also has a good receiver in Richard Trapp, called "Killer" for his skinny body and multiple allergies. But other places are manned by people who simply believe in Spurrier. They are not, as Georgia proved last week, enough to complement even so extraordinary a player as Spurrier, who is, among other things, one of the loosest performers to come along in years—too loose, according to Jerri Spurrier. She arrived for a game in New Orleans five and a half hours late one night and found S.O.S. sound asleep. "Oh, I knew you'd make it," he said, smiling dreamily.
"It will take 13 men at the very least to stop Spurrier," Dooley said before the game. Georgia, which is now tied with Alabama for the SEC lead and very likely will end the season that way, played as though it had 13 men on the field. At least.