For the 12 seasons that he was the head coach at Florida (1990-2001), Steve Spurrier was Darth Visor. He was the coach opposing schools loved to hate.
Other schools in this league couldn’t stand Spurrier because he would tell you in advance that he was going to beat you. And then he would beat you. Then he would tell you exactly how he just beat you. And then, as a parting gift, he would tell you that he was going to beat you next year.
He was the coach who stood up before a Gator booster gathering and said “I guess you can’t spell Citrus without a UT!” The reference was to Tennessee’s trips to bowls in Florida while his Gators were going to the Sugar Bowl and playing for national championships in a run that included five SEC titles in six years (1991-96).
He was the guy who said FSU, Florida’s bitter in-state rival, stood for “Free Shoes University.”
He was the guy who beat Georgia’s Ray Goff six years in a row and said: “Georgia gets all those highly rated recruiting classes. I don’t know what happens to all those guys after they get there.”
In the heat of battle, Spurrier knew exactly where to stick the needle so that it would be the most effective.
“Steve Spurrier is the most competitive person you will ever meet,” said former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who had many a battle royal with Spurrier. “He wants to win like we all do. But the difference is that Steve HATES to lose.”
But Saturday afternoon in Atlanta Spurrier will no longer be playing the role of villain. Exactly 10 years after he won his sixth, and final, SEC championship at Florida, Spurrier will lead South Carolina against No. 1 Auburn with a chance to become only the second man in history to win seven conference titles. A lot people at the Georgia Dome, who hated him so intensely for so long, will be pulling for the Head Ball Coach, at 65 years young, to beat the odds just one more time.
The top story line of the game is whether or not Auburn can stay undefeated and give the SEC a chance to win its fifth straight national championship.
The second biggest story line is whether or not Cam Newton, with everything swirling around him, can lead Auburn to victory and, in the process, win the Heisman Trophy.
Almost lost in the buzz surrounding this game is the fact that Spurrier has chance to move past Georgia’s Vince Dooley and John Vaught of Ole Miss on the all-time list for SEC championships. That would put him alone in second place, only behind the great Bear Bryant, who had 14 SEC championships at Alabama and Kentucky.
Spurrier already has 110 SEC victories in 18 years as a head coach in this league (12 at Florida, six at South Carolina). That puts him second to Bryant who had 159 conference wins.
For this game Spurrier is not the headliner, which he always was for 12 years at Florida. But trust me when I tell you that a victory Saturday night, which would be his second over a No. 1 team this season, would give Spurrier his sweetest championship ever. That is because there were so many people who thought he could never do it at South Carolina. There were so many people who thought the game had passed him by.
“It feels good to be back in this position and have a shot at the championship again,” said Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner at Florida. “Now we have the opportunity. Let’s see if we can do something with it. We know how big this is but wishing is not going to make it happen.”
Spurrier took over at South Carolina in 2005 after a short stint with the Washington Redskins of the NFL.
“Why not us? Why can’t we win an SEC championship at South Carolina?” Spurrier asked in his introductory press conference. “We have everything we need here.”
But Spurrier also knew he was inheriting a program that had won exactly one championship of any kind (1969 ACC title) since it began playing football in 1892. What Spurrier found was a fan base that WANTED to win and supported the program, but really didn’t think they were SUPPOSED to win.
“At times I saw people who were too comfortable with losing,” Spurrier said. “I knew we would have to change that if we were going to have any chance.”
Spurrier would chastise players because he didn’t think they wanted to win badly enough. They didn’t hate losing like he did. He chafed under the thought that anybody would accept mediocrity. “We are a 7-5 football program. That’s pretty much what we are,” Spurrier said before the 2010 season. “Now we have to decide if we want to change that.”
Spurrier changed it by finally getting some players who could make a difference. Freshman running back Marcus Lattimore, wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore would start for any other team in America.
“We don’t have as many of those special players as some of the teams that compete for the conference every year,” Spurrier said. “But now we have enough of them to have a chance.”
Saturday afternoon at the Georgia Dome, Spurrier has a chance to write one of the best comeback stories ever. He has a chance to stand alone, second to only Bryant, as the greatest coach in SEC history.
It’s been 10 years since the Head Ball Coach played in Atlanta. It is good to have him back.