Grateful Gators

How Steve Spurrier's shift in strategy brought the Florida Gators a national title.
How Steve Spurrier's shift in strategy brought the Florida Gators a national title.
January 13, 1997

In the

small hours of last Friday, Florida coach Steve Spurrier
rushed toward a fourth-floor suite of a New Orleans hotel with
his family in tow and college football at his feet. A surreal
52-20 Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State that was chilling in
its ease and convincing enough to earn Florida its first
national title lay two hours behind him. Free, for the moment,
from the worshiping Gator masses and alone in his private circle
of family and friends, Spurrier trundled forward, taking gulps
on a celebratory Coors longneck, feeding off the energy of the
evening. Lord, how he had wanted this game, this small piece of
revenge, this first title after resurrecting his alma mater and
branding its program with his perfectionist's zeal.

His Gators had reached the doorstep one year before, only to be
punished by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, and this autumn they
had turned over their No. 1 ranking to Florida State after a
bitter 24-21 loss to the Seminoles on the last day of November.
Given new life with the Sugar Bowl invitation to New Orleans,
Spurrier had attacked his work as never before. Now, in the
early bayou morning, Spurrier let the joy wash over him as he
punched the air with staccato bursts. "Been excited about a lot
of games, been involved in a lot of them," he said, running his
hand through his boyish brown hair, still tousled from a hurried
postgame shower. "But we wanted this one very, very badly.
Golly, it's a thrill for Gators everywhere."

This had been the consummate match of man and contest, as if
Spurrier had been born 51 years ago just so he could stand in
the Superdome and coach this game. The loss to Florida State had
seemingly killed the Gators' national title bid, yet in the
weekend that followed, the dominoes of competition and politics
had fallen wildly, leaving Florida reborn. The rematch, which in
many ways would define Spurrier's place in history, pushed all
of his buttons: ego (his beloved offense was held to three
touchdowns in the first Florida State game), intellect (how to
outscheme the Seminoles' ruthless defense with an offensive line
scarred by injuries), loyalty (no Gator, including Spurrier,
class of '67, likes to lose to his hated rival in Tallahassee)
and passion (he has a deep affection for his quarterback, fellow
Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel, who took a pounding in the
first game). Raising the ante even further, Spurrier had spent
the month between games accusing Florida State of playing dirty.

In short, the stakes could not have been higher for a coach in
need of a validating national title. A victory would certify his
genius, a loss would leave him empty and sullied. In the weeks
leading to the bowl he became single-mindedly possessed.
"Thirty-two years I've known him, and I've never seen him so
involved," said Allen Trammell, a college teammate and close
friend of Spurrier's, the day before the game. To wit,
Trammell's son, Allen III, was married on Dec. 21 in Orlando,
yet after accepting an invitation to the wedding, Spurrier
canceled in a last-minute phone call to Trammell. "He said his
game plan just wasn't quite right and he had to stay in
Gainesville and work," said Trammell. "I understood. He was
living bigger for this one. It was huge to him."

When the rout was finished, and as Spurrier was being shuttled
from one interview to the next in the belly of the Superdome,
his wife of 30 years, Jerri, leaned against a concrete wall and
folded her slender arms across her chest. "I've never seen Steve
like he was for this game," she said. "It had to do with a lot
of things: Florida State, the offensive line, the fact that it
was Danny's last game." She paused, breathing deeply, her eyes
moist. Jerri was married to Steve when he won his Heisman in
1966, married to him when he quarterbacked the 0-14 Tampa Bay
Buccaneers in 1976, married to him when he accepted the Florida
job before the 1990 season. "So many different things about this
year," she said in the Superdome. "So much emotion."

The war of words began on Sunday, Dec. 8, the day the rematch
was made. Wuerffel had been knocked down 32 times by the
Seminoles the weekend before, and in the emotional minutes after
the win one Florida State player had said that the Seminoles had
tried to knock Wuerffel out of the game. Then Spurrier went on
the attack, flogging the issue in the media for three weeks.
What's more, he accused Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and
defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews of condoning headhunting.

When Bowden met with his team on Dec. 21, before a four-day
Christmas break, he shouted at them, "If I wasn't a good
Christian man, I'd tell every one of you to go out and kick
Steve Spurrier's ass." Upon arrival in New Orleans, Bowden
largely played the court jester, spinning jokes from Spurrier's
accusations while growing privately bitter that Spurrier had
made the issue personal. "Don't know why he had to do that,"
Bowden said. "I wish he hadn't. I guess I should be used to that
with him by now."

Spurrier was also getting personal with his team. The Gators
have a reputation for brilliant finesse play, but questions have
long persisted about their toughness, and those concerns only
intensified after the 62-24 Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska, in
which the Cornhuskers treated them as if they were the Marching
Gators. Florida State similarly dominated Florida in the Nov. 30
game. "We got pushed around up there," Spurrier reiterated in
the weeks leading up to the rematch. "My message to the team
was, Don't let that happen again. Don't get pushed around."

The emotion fueled by both coaches spilled onto Bourbon Street
three days before the game. On Dec. 30, Florida sophomore tackle
Zach Piller, who had missed the first game with a sprained right
leg but who would start the Sugar Bowl, stood outside a bar, the
Cat's Meow, and lobbed trash talk at Florida State junior
defensive tackle Julian Pittman.

"He was just running his mouth," Pittman said the next morning.
"He was talking about how he couldn't wait until [the Seminoles'
All-America defensive end] Pete Boulware tried to put an inside
move on him so he could get him." Pittman relayed Piller's boast
to Boulware, who deadpanned, "It figures Piller would talk; he
didn't even play in the first game."

Florida guard Donnie Young's reaction to his teammate's act was
far more emotional. Following practice at the New Orleans
Saints' facility on New Year's Eve, Young jumped on Piller. "If
you're going to be out on Bourbon Street behaving like that, I'm
going to pack up my stuff and go home, because you're not going
to be ready to play," Young told him. Piller stayed out of the
French Quarter for the rest of the week.

And Piller and Young were ready to play. That would be central
to the game, because Spurrier was building a strategy that would
decide the outcome--and the offensive line was crucial to the
success of that plan. "I believed we could win if our defense
could hold them to 17 or 20 points and we could get Danny some
time to throw the ball," said Spurrier.

AP Photo / Al Messerschmidt

Over the last seven years Florida's opponents have drawn strength from Spurrier's stubborn adherence to two tendencies: 1) he will not change his blocking scheme, and 2) he will not consistently run the shotgun. But in the Sugar Bowl he did both. Furthermore, Spurrier won the coin toss before the game and deferred his choice to the second half, the first time as Florida coach that he didn't take the ball. And the Gators wore blue pants, roughly as rare as Notre Dame wearing green jerseys and similarly regarded by some Gators as a good-luck charm.

To ensure that Boulware, defensive end Reinard Wilson and at
least one Florida State defensive tackle were seldom left with
just one blocker, Spurrier utilized backs and tight ends more
than ever before. The Gators also kept the Seminoles off balance
by using a silent snap count, in which the center released the
ball whenever he was comfortable after the quarterback had given
him a ready signal. (This also kept Florida off balance,
contributing to eight false-start penalties, but it served the
purpose of slowing Florida State's rush.) "We made more changes
in our blocking for this one game than we made in my entire five
years, and that was the whole key for us," said Young.

It was part of the key. The shotgun was the rest. Spurrier has
always eschewed the formation as a crutch for the offensively
impaired. However, as teams have concluded that the only way to
slow the Gators' attack is to bring heavy heat on the
quarterback, he has slowly accepted it as a means of giving
Wuerffel (and future quarterbacks) an earlier setup in the
pocket. In the loss in Tallahassee, Wuerffel had lined up in the
shotgun 21 times, including 13 of the last 16 snaps. He used it
to great effect in a 45-30 victory over a good defensive Alabama
team in the SEC championship game a week later. It was not new,
but newly embraced, as the Gators used the shotgun 21 times in
the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl. "It gives us a little more
time to get rid of the ball," said Spurrier. "I was hoping
they'd blitz more, but once they saw the shotgun, they chickened
out."

Given an extra beat, Wuerffel played another in a four-year
series of tough, brilliant games. He completed 18 of 34 passes
for 306 yards, including three for touchdowns to junior wideout
Ike Hilliard, and he was sacked only five times. Wuerffel's
eight-yard post to Hilliard with 5:43 left in the third quarter
gave Florida a 31-20 lead, and his uncharacteristic 16-yard
scramble stretched the lead to 38-20 with 13 seconds still left
in the period. His performance earned the undying praise of his
coach. "I like Danny for every reason you can think of,"
Spurrier said. "Accurate passer, makes plays, leads the team,
he's got it all. Florida State tried and they still couldn't
knock him out of the game. Anybody who didn't put him on their
Heisman ballot [more than 300 voters did not] is listening to
that NFL draft bull crap and couldn't have seen him play."

If the Sugar Bowl was Hilliard's last game as a Gator (he might
opt for the NFL), it will be one of the sweetest memories of his
career. A native of Patterson, La., two hours from New Orleans,
Hilliard caught 10 fewer passes (47) for five fewer touchdowns
(10) than in his sophomore season, while classmate Reidel
Anthony (72 receptions, 1,293 yards and 18 touchdowns) blossomed
into a consensus first team All-America. Hilliard was also
suspended from the Georgia game for missing class. But when
family friend Randall Menard picked him up for Florida's
three-day Christmas break and drove him to Menard's home in
Breaux Bridge, La., Hilliard told him he was due for a big game.
"I believed it," said Menard. "He kept his head up all year,
just waiting." Hilliard's patience was rewarded with seven
catches for 150 yards.

Even in punting, which Spurrier enjoys about as much as toenail
surgery, Florida was exceptional. Sophomore Robby Stevenson,
whose first punt in Tallahassee was blocked, leading to a
Florida State touchdown, averaged 48.1 yards on seven kicks and
twice pinned the Seminoles near their goal line. With Florida
State struggling on offense but hanging close, 24-20 in the
middle of the third quarter, Stevenson stuck the Seminoles back
at the two with a 69-yard punt, taking the upper hand in the
battle for field position and effectively stunting their offense
for the rest of the game.

The entire night was one long, improbable gift to one of the
last power programs in the country without a national title. In
fact, the unlikely succession of events that opened the back
door for the Gators began even before their loss in Tallahassee,
when Ohio State, then ranked No. 2 in the nation, was upset by
Michigan on Nov. 23, effectively eliminating the Buckeyes from
the race. Two weeks later Texas shocked two-time defending
national champion Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game, and
Florida was elevated to No. 3 in the polls, behind Florida State
and Arizona State.

The last sweet piece fell into place for the Gators on New
Year's night, when Arizona State was upset by Ohio State (page
64) in the Rose Bowl. In a departure from his bowl custom,
Spurrier took his team out of New Orleans, to a small Holiday
Inn in Gonzalez, La., 58 miles away. The plan was for the team
to immediately eat dinner upon arrival, but Spurrier, eerily
prescient, dispatched the players to their rooms to watch the
finish of the Rose Bowl. "Our food was ready," Spurrier said,
"but I said, 'Aw, go ahead and watch.'" When Arizona State's
Jake Plummer scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:40 to play,
Florida senior center Jeff Mitchell heaved his remote at the
television. When Ohio State scored the game-winner with 19
seconds left, Gator players streamed into the hotel's courtyard
in celebration. At a 10:30 p.m. team meeting, Spurrier told
them, "Gentlemen, they say God helps those who help themselves.
We've got a chance. It's in our hands."

At the end of that meeting the coaches lined up at the front of
the room and formed a receiving line. The players filed past,
shaking each coach's hand in a gesture of solidarity. "Words are
just words," senior linebacker James Bates said later. "A
handshake is a promise."

That promise was kept with the style that has distinguished the
Spurrier era, as the Gators ran away from Florida State in the
final 30 minutes, making one of the strongest programs in the
country look like Kentucky. "Makes you wonder how we beat them
the last time," Bowden said. The frustrated Seminoles made so
many obvious late hits that Bowden was compelled to apologize
after the game. But Spurrier was unmoved, and for those who
suspected that his pregame criticism was an insincere ploy meant
to influence the game officials, he said of the Seminoles long
after the game, "They tackle the quarterback after he throws it.
Most teams just knock a fellow down, but they tackle him. That's
how they played out there. That's how they always play."

In the end Florida players danced on the Superdome rug for 45
minutes, drinking in the title with the many fans who stayed and
rushed to the tops of the high walls that encircle the field.
Wuerffel found his father, Lieut. Col. Jon Wuerffel, an Air
Force chaplain, amid the chaos on the field, threw his sore
right arm across his dad's back and walked him in wide,
delirious circles of celebration. "I'm just looking for somebody
to give a hug," Wuerffel shouted above the roar.

The army of Gators fans spilled from the Dome onto Poydras
Street and marched toward the French Quarter and a nightlong
party on Bourbon Street. It was back in the last week of July,
at a booster club function in Jacksonville, that Spurrier had
promised, "On January 3, Gators will be dancing and high-fiving
on Bourbon Street." He also promised to join them, and
eventually he did.

But first there was a small moment with his family, a portrait
of satisfaction away from the madness. Spurrier leaned against a
counter in his suite; Jerri was nearby, as were daughters Lisa,
29, and Amy, 27 (with their husbands), and sons, Steve Jr., 25,
and Scotty, 9. "We were a team of destiny," Spurrier said. "God
smiled on us."

Scotty walked to his father and wrapped both arms wearily around
Steve's left thigh while nuzzling against his hip. Spurrier
reached down and massaged his son's head. "All right, Scotty, we
got us one, didn't we?" he said. "Those old Seminoles ain't got
us for a while, anyway." Spurrier clicked his teeth and nodded
briskly. "Yup, they couldn't beat us," he said.

Scotty hugged the leg just a little tighter. "I love you, Dad,"
he said softly.

And don't they all, Gators everywhere.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)