Meet Mr. Humble

Chastened by his failure in the NFL, STEVE SPURRIER is trying to turn South Carolina into an SEC power as a kinder, gentler ball coach--for now, at least
August 21, 2005

Nothing prepared him for nothing. For months and weeks of nothing. For days and days of nothing. And, hardest of all, for hours and minutes and seconds of nothing. For waking up in the morning, pouring a cup of coffee, grabbing the paper and sitting out on the deck behind the four-bedroom, two-story house in Hamilton, Va., and having nothing to do but stare at the distant hills before wandering into the kitchen and asking his wife what's for lunch, and her answering--because she had errands to run and volunteer work to do at Scotty's high school--"Nothing." ¶ Until that spring and summer of 2004, Steve Spurrier's life had been lived as if God's grace depended on how many SEC titles you won or yards you threw for or pass patterns you devised. He'd been cramming for football as if expecting St. Peter to administer a gridiron final before raising his hands to signal you'd broken the plane of the Pearly Gates. A minister's son, he played quarterback at Florida, where he could run, pass, punt and even kick game-winning field goals, as he did to beat Auburn and secure the 1966 Heisman Trophy. After that came the 10-year NFL career. Successful coaching stints with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL, Duke and, of course, Florida. The 1996 national title. The seven SEC titles. The nine Top 10 finishes. The best conference winning percentage of any coach in SEC history. He truly had become, as Auburn coach Shug Jordan had anointed him two generations ago, Steve Superior. And now, for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, he wouldn't be playing or coaching football. ¶ His life had become a jumbo version of a common American journey. We live in a free-agent society--employment for life is a Japanese thing. Americans are peripatetic, striving, up for a challenge. So we move and upgrade and stretch ourselves. The days of a college football coach's staying in one place for 20 or 30 years have gone the way of pension funds, Joe Paterno yielding to Coach Paycheck. So Spurrier switched jobs mid-career, abandoned a comfortable satrapy in Gainesville to stride upon the grandest football stage of all, donning headphones and a burgundy windbreaker as head ball coach (his expression) of the Washington Redskins. Isn't that what we're all supposed to do? Follow the money, right?

Sometimes, Spurrier believes, you never really understand what's happening to you until it's already hurt you. Spurrier knew that pro football was different from the college game he'd mastered; he'd played a decade for the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The NFL, of course, had repeatedly come calling, drawn by his high-flying air attack, which had sent footballs spiraling through the humid, buggy air of the Southeast until he had persuaded a whole region to embrace the forward pass. Yet he had refused the professionals' entreaties until the Redskins and their five-year, $25 million offer. "If this is what you really want...," his wife, Jerri, had said when he told her about the deal on the table, and before she had even gotten the words out, she could tell by his nodding that yes, this was what he really wanted. The potential pitfalls and obstacles--well, wouldn't they be overcome like everything that had gotten in Spurrier's way before?

"Football," says Spurrier, "is coaches and players and guys all pulling together and working together and loving each other and all striving for a common goal, and then, away we go." He says this a lot--"away we go"--and always in relation to football, as if in the perfect execution of hitches and outs and buttonhooks there is potential transcendence, that we will be transported by our common striving to a better, purer place. He recalls each of his seven SEC championship teams as examples of that sort of attainment, the pooled energy of all those players being infinitely greater than the sum of the individuals. He expected the NFL to offer the same possibility for enlightenment.

What he found instead was a collection of individuals, an enterprise in which free agency, big money and the demands of owner Dan Snyder precluded the possibility of such pigskin nirvana. "When you're the head coach in college, the athletic director and president are your bosses, but they do not come in and tell you how to run the football program," Spurrier says. "In the NFL there's the head coach, and usually there is a general manager. Usually the owner hires the G.M., and he and the coach work together on personnel, staff--and away they go. We didn't have a G.M. where I was. The owner was making those decisions, and the players knew it ... and if you're not in charge of the guys, they don't listen to you. If you can't cut 'em and get rid of 'em, then they're never gonna listen to you. It's as simple as that."

Still, he takes the blame for what went wrong, realizing he should have had it in writing that he would have control over personnel. "I'm not trying to make excuses," says Spurrier. "I wasn't in charge, but it was my fault I wasn't in charge."

Yet critics of the Spurrier era in Washington point to his insistence on throwing the ball more than 55% of the time when he had a team featuring Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis that appeared to be better suited to the ground game. "What the hell are we doing on offense?" Redskins players at the time were complaining to reporters. Spurrier's offenses at Florida had revolved around dependable quarterbacks who kept mistakes to a minimum. Yet the quarterbacks Spurrier had in Washington--Patrick Ramsey, Rob Johnson, ex-Gators Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews--hardly made Redskins fans forget Sonny Jurgensen or, for that matter, Mark Rypien. "Looking back," Spurrier says, "we probably should have run more. Anytime you throw too much and lose, you probably should have run. I probably had too much confidence in the passing game.... I was coaching like I used to coach--throw the ball in the end zone when you get a chance. We'd throw it in there, and they'd pick it off on first down."

Then, as if he feels he's conceding too much, he adds, "But we weren't nearly as good a running team as people said we were."

"There always seemed to be an excuse," says Redskins offensive tackle Jon Jansen. "We didn't have the right quarterback, the receivers, the scheme. When you have that many excuses, it's just a whole lot of bull----."

Whatever the cause, Spurrier's 12-20 record in his two seasons in Washington was the worst span in his coaching career. During the second season, relations with the players had broken down to the point where, Spurrier admits, "there were several of the players I didn't like being around very much, and they didn't like being around me."

Jerri kept on encouraging him, believing that if he could just win a game or two, tweak the system a little, it would all turn around. "He became very quiet," Jerri recalls. "I insisted on pushing him. I just thought if he would set his mind to it--I've seen him take on so many situations. He always works them out."

Their son, Steve Spurrier Jr., an assistant coach with the Redskins, warned her that this job was different. "This one is real tough," he told her.

Now Jerri looks back and says of her husband of 38 years, "He didn't know what to do."

The Spurriers' younger son, Scotty, recalls, "It wasn't fun times around the house, I can tell you that much."

Steve now admits that for the first time in his life, he just quit. "Toward the middle of that second year I was like Jo Dee Messina and her song My Give a Damn's Busted. Toward the end there, my give a damn was busted. This is not the way I ever coached. I even turned over the play-calling to one of the offensive assistants, Hue Jackson. I let him call the plays there for several games, and then I'd come back and call some, and then I'd say, 'Why don't you call them this week?' And so we went back and forth. I'm not proud of what happened, but there it is."

Upon resigning the Redskins job in December 2003, Spurrier had hoped to move back to Florida, to the family's beach house in St. Augustine. Instead, after talking it over with Scotty, then 17, Spurrier agreed to stay in Northern Virginia so that his son could finish his high school career at Loudon County High, where he was a starting wide receiver. The family moved from the Redskins-owned four-bedroom house at Beacon Hill Golf Club to a rental house in Hamilton, where Spurrier divided his time between golf, watching Scotty at football practice, sitting on the deck, waiting for the sun to set and doing ... nothing.

Sometimes things don't work out, and you end up here, in suburban Virginia, wondering what's for lunch. Career consultants call it "reloading" or "recharging." You're supposed to take this opportunity to learn new marketable skills, brush up your résumé, but what was Steve Spurrier supposed to do? Study Chinese?

"It's no fun to do nothing," says Jerri, "when you're used to going a million."

Spurrier began playing golf frequently with Redskins team dentist Charles Nardiello, until the dentist finally had to tell him, "Coach, I can't play every day. I gotta work."

By the time Mike McGee, then the athletic director at South Carolina, called last October to inquire if Steve might be interested in succeeding Lou Holtz, who was planning to retire, Jerri was thinking, Please, please, take it. "I just wanted him to do something," says Jerri, "He wasn't getting any better at golf. And the kitchen was getting awfully small."

McGee flew up to Dulles in October for preliminary talks. Before his second trip to Virginia, he told Spurrier he wanted to make him an offer, a package worth about $1.25 million a year. "We made that deal without agents or anything--just like that," Spurrier says.

And that made something out of nothing.

"Hardees is open!" Steve Spurrier, wearing a Gamecocks polo shirt, tan slacks and Reeboks, snips the ribbon and steps forward into the bright sunlight. He smiles for a moment, as if expecting a phalanx of photographers and then manages to keep his grin for the lone shooter--from this magazine--who has made the 20-minute drive from Columbia, S.C., to Blythewood.

There was some confusion in the restaurant when Spurrier showed up--the diners hadn't been expecting a side order of celebrity with their Thickburger. The manager explained that this Hardees has actually been open for three weeks, but this was the first time the coach could make it for a ribbon cutting, his point being that if you need a ribbon cut in South Carolina these days, there's no one you'd rather have operating those sheers than the immensely popular new coach of the Gamecocks. A van from Fox 102 classic rock is on hand for the occasion, and back inside a half-dozen kids line up with menus and caps for the ball coach to sign.

Spurrier's Redskins purgatory can only be described as a fall from grace, from the gusts of admiration and devotion that blow toward a successful coach in the SEC. In towns like Gainesville, Knoxville, Auburn and Athens, the football coach occupies a Pharaonic perch, commanding the fealty of the tens of thousands who roast meat in parking lots on Saturday mornings, fill stadiums and purchase mascot-emblazoned cooler cups, cushions, beer bongs and belly rings. In that sense the ribbon cuttings, the media golf tournaments and the dozen flights to Gamecock clubs across the Palmetto State in the school's King Air jet represent a restoration, a return from exile for a member of the SEC aristocracy.

"They treat me like I already won seven SECs up here," says Spurrier as he drives a tan Chrysler 300 down I-277, back to Columbia. "Every 5,000 miles the dealer gives me a new car."

It's just after noon, and the temperature is already crowding 100. The lush green hickory, beech and holly trees along the side of the road seem to sag in the heat. Spurrier, after the ribbon cutting, has a film of sweat along his upper lip, which he wipes away with a sleeve. He's wearing black wraparound shades, and with his swept-back brown hair and high cheekbones he looks a little like Pat Boone. He's talking about the last few years at Florida, how hard it became, year after year, to make the rounds of the booster clubs. "Twenty to 22 Gator Clubs every year. That's about 250 in 12 years," he says. "They had heard everything I had to say. It just got to where everyone wants a picture and for you to sign autographs all day, and if you don't sign this one they'll get mad at you, and if you don't sign their big poster--it just got to be a real hassle."

But what's to stop South Carolina from becoming a similar hassle? "I think I've got more tolerance than before," Spurrier says. "When you're not successful with your last venture, you learn some humility. And looking back, I understand why it happened, and I got no one to blame but myself."

That's quite a statement from Steve Superior, the man who used to raise the ire of his SEC rivals by running up the score to impress the writers and coaches who'd be voting in the polls the next day. He had been defined by his sideline smugness--the folded arms, the cocked head, the smirk that could make an opposing coach toss out his game plan and a referee think twice about throwing a penalty flag. In 1994 he heckled Florida State's players after they were involved in a notorious Foot Locker buying spree, calling FSU "Free Shoes University" and wondering why there were so many new cars in the team parking lot. He criticized Auburn's Terry Bowden for his soft schedule, needled Tennessee's Johnny Majors about a loss to Alabama and so infuriated Georgia's Ray Goff that Goff talked about wanting 30 minutes in an alley alone with Spurrier. (He got fired instead.)

"For him to admit that he is humbled, that surprised me," says Jerri. "To know a kinder, gentler Spurrier? But I saw it. He spent so much time with Scotty, and you see it with the rest of the family, with the kids. He's just more gentle."

Spurrier insists that his newfound humility will allow him to be more patient. It's a virtue he believes he'll need if he's to raise South Carolina's football program to the level boosters are expecting. Before Spurrier took over at Florida in 1990, the Gators had never won an SEC title. Yet that first year he led them to the best record in the SEC (though NCAA sanctions prevented them from claiming the title). Like Florida before Spurrier, South Carolina has similarly underachieved for much of its history. Since the glory days of the early '80s, when George Rogers won the Heisman ('80) and Joe Morrison coached the Gamecocks to a 10-2 record ('84), the high point may have been when Cocky won the national collegiate mascot championship in '86 and '94.

The program Holtz left behind was on tilt. The Gamecocks had gone 16-19 over his final three seasons in Columbia. Last month the school admitted to five major and five minor NCAA recruiting violations during Holtz's tenure and submitted a proposal to the NCAA to give up two scholarships in each of the next two seasons. Spurrier suspended highly touted running back Cory Boyd for the 2005 season for disciplinary reasons (he'll redshirt and is expected to be back next season, with two years of eligibility remaining), and the new coach dismissed five other Gamecocks outright. "Our rules are pretty simple," Spurrier says. "If they choose not to follow them, then they are saying, basically, they would rather do their own thing than play football at South Carolina."

And if there were any questions whether the kinder, gentler Spurrier would be less demanding on the field, that was answered quickly when, early in the summer, he revoked six scholarships awarded by the Holtz regime, not for disciplinary reasons but because Spurrier felt he "had better players"; he granted two of the scholarships to former walk-ons who he felt were more deserving. (Two others were restored, and a third player will medical redshirt, meaning he'll keep his scholarship but not count against the NCAA limit of 85.)

Spurrier's pulling of the scholarships prompted 90 South Carolina high school football coaches to sign a letter asking that their five state championship games be moved from the Gamecocks' home field at Williams-Brice Stadium. "We feel that unless an athlete 'breaks rules' or embarrasses the institution," read the letter, "to revoke a scholarship because you feel an athlete cannot play at the level needed to compete ... is unethical."

In fact, it's common for a new coach to choose not to renew scholarships of some players he inherits. "Our big concern was the timing," says Andy Tweito, a board member of the South Carolina Football Coaches Association. "They should have been told coming out of spring practice."

Spurrier dismisses this as the griping of coaches "who were sad that some of their players really shouldn't have been here to begin with.... I can't work for the high school coaches."

It is as if some of the locals, though excited about having a celebrity like Spurrier in their midst, don't yet understand that they have made a binding decision to do things the Spurrier way. But most of the fans seem happy with the choice: a record 62,618 season tickets have been sold; there were about 2,500 fans for each of the first few nights of August football practice; for the annual women's clinic on July 30, which was supposed to end with the women charging onto the field through gusts of celebratory haze, there were so many participants that the team ran out of artificial smoke.

As he's driving back to Columbia, there is another indication that interest in Gamecocks football has risen. Jim Clausen, the father of Jimmy Clausen, one of the top quarterback prospects in the country and the younger brother of Tennessee quarterbacks Casey and Rick, checks in with Spurrier by cellphone from California--a state not known for sending its blue chips to South Carolina.

"Hey, Jim, how are you doing?" Spurrier says. "O.K., that would be great. Have Jimmy call me.... Let's see, 12:30 your time, that would be 3:30, O.K.... Let's do that, Jim. Thank you, my man, I appreciate the call."

After he disconnects, Spurrier explains, "It's legal for him to call us but [an NCAA violation] for us to call him. When they're calling you, you know that's good."

And he's calling because playing for Spurrier instantly turns a quarterback prospect into a Heisman candidate. If enough of Spurrier's scholarships end up going to players like Jimmy Clausen, a strong-armed 6'3" junior who threw 57 touchdown passes and only six interceptions last year for Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, Calif., then South Carolina's high school coaches may find little sympathy for their position.

from a distance, under the floodlights at the Gamecocks' practice field, you can see how Spurrier has aged. It's in his slightly bowlegged gait, the care that he takes when bending to look down the line of scrimmage. He's had two back surgeries and now has to pause between practice stations to stretch, raising one shoulder and reaching his right arm behind his head and down his spine. He still mimics taking the snap from center, provides model three-step and five-step drops, shows where the quarterback should hold the ball. Yet the stiffness is visible in his jerky movements. No longer the fair-haired young quarterback or even the fortysomething, still fair-haired Gators ball coach, Spurrier is now a 60-year-old man with a bad back and spindly legs, walking his new team through its drills.

After each practice Spurrier addresses a throng of reporters as thick as that awaiting most coaches after a bowl game. Standing at the edge of the practice field in the even brighter lights of a few TV cameras, Spurrier, red-eyed, announces that he has named sophomore Blake Mitchell his starting quarterback, explaining with a series of platitudes that Blake has earned it, that the team believes in him and "we all feel good about it."

"Now where's Blake?" Spurrier asks.

As the quarterback is dragged before the reporters, Spurrier backs away. Out of the light, in his Gamecocks polo shirt, pleated shorts and sensible tennis shoes, there is something almost delicate about the way he folds his arms and watches his new quarterback address the media. He looks almost like a soccer mom, rather than one of the most formidable coaches in the history of college football. He's proud of his boy, you realize. Steve Superior has morphed into Mother Superior.

Spurrier wanders around the grass, stamping down divots torn up by the players' cleats, and begins the walk back to the football offices at Williams-Brice Stadium. Four security guards shadow him as he strolls down the sidewalk, past the Cockabooses--customized railroad cabooses where boosters stuff themselves with barbecue before home games--and into the shadow of the massive stadium.

"We'll be a good team," he says. "We're a little better than I thought we were. We have more speed. On the defensive side of the ball we look very sharp."

But what about the vaunted Spurrier passing game, the dazzling aerial attack?

"The talent level here is not quite, not quite," he says comparing this team with his 1990 Florida squad. "Everything has increased in the SEC. The conditioning level, talent, plus everybody is throwing the ball, and they know how to defend the pass. Back in the early '90s we could line up in a certain formation and guarantee what kind of coverage we would get. Now, defensive coordinators are into multiple defensive schemes. Everyone is disguising coverages. It was a lot easier back then because nobody threw the ball. Back then the philosophy was run the ball and play great defense."

Given the talent he has, Spurrier says, he might try that approach. He mentions a few defensive players he's very high on, namely sophomore rover Ko Simpson, senior defensive end De'Adrian Coley and sophomore defensive tackle Stanley Doughty. He might just leave it to the defense to win for him. "We may be a running team, who knows?"

He's not fooling anyone.

Back in his office Spurrier is looking through his bookcase, muttering what sounds like "shouldn't sue, shouldn't sue." He backs away from the volumes, shaking his head. He's searching for The Art of War, by the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. Like many of his fellow coaches, Spurrier is enamored of his martial aphorisms, which have been applied to everything from finance to provincial French cooking. Spurrier can't find the tract on his bookcase, which is stacked with various coaching biographies and strategy manuals--Wooden on Leadership, Dean Smith's A Coach's Life, von Clausewitz's On War. On the top shelf are various game balls from his playing and coaching days with San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Duke and Florida. (There is no Redskins ball.) The Heisman Trophy is on a counter just below a huge window with a view of the football field. Spurrier's office is high above the north end zone, a vast improvement over his Redskins office in isolated Ashburn, Va., or his third-floor office in Gainesville, overlooking the basketball court.

Spurrier gives up looking for the book and walks back across the garnet carpet to stand by the window. "Anyway, this is something, isn't it? How about that view? Life's good. My back is feeling good. Doc says I won't need another surgery, so we're all looking forward. Hey, take a look at this."

He winds up a little mechanical Cocky doll. The tiny mascot chicken starts chirping the Gamecocks' fight song as it marches past Spurrier's Heisman.

Steve Spurrier smiles. "And away we go."

Spurrier admits that in Washington, for the first time in his life, he just quit. "Toward the end there," he says, "my GIVE A DAMN was busted."

"I've got MORE TOLERANCE than before," Spurrier says. "When you're not successful with your last venture, you learn some humility."

"If guys choose not to FOLLOW RULES," says Spurrier, "they're saying they'd rather do their own thing than play football at South Carolina."

"This is something, isn't it?" says Spurrier, admiring the view from his office. "LIFE'S GOOD. My back's feeling good. We're all looking forward."

COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Rosato HAPPY TO BE HERE Spurrier got to know his players this spring, then conceded that he doesn't yet have the talent to run the offense he'd like. COLOR PHOTOJOE GIZA/REUTERS WHO'S THE BOSS? Spurrier blames himself for not insisting on control of personnel when he went to work for Snyder (right). COLOR PHOTOGARY HERSHSORN/REUTERS (INSET) [See Caption Above] COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER HAT IN THE RING After four decades of marriage Jerri knew that what Steve needed most was to get back on the sideline. COLOR PHOTOBOB ROSATO FUN 'N' RUN? Spurrier likes what he sees so far in Mitchell but still threatens to operate a --gasp!--ball-control offense. COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS SIGN OF THE TIMES The attention he gets across South Carolina confirms that Spurrier has been restored to the SEC aristocracy.

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)