How 'Steve Superior' got his swerve on again
College football is a better place every time Steve Spurrier wins a big one. Rivals in opposing SEC towns might not think so, but they should count their blessings. Nobody else in the league is going to teach them something worth learning.
Coaches are under a lot of stress these days, maybe more than ever. Too many look like a heart attack waiting to happen. Not Spurrier. His sideline demeanor isn't uniformly grim, like Florida's Urban Meyer, nor permanently pained, like Alabama's Nick Saban, whom Spurrier knocked from the top spot in the rankings over the weekend.
Instead, he's the guy always smirking, win or lose, like someone who just sneaked into the stadium. After all this time, he still refuses to make the racket look harder than it is. Spurrier won't even pretend.
''I used a line this week that I've never used in my life,'' he said just a few hours after his South Carolina squad upset Alabama. ''But since our basketball team had beat the No. 1 (team) and our baseball team had done it, I said, `Fellas, if fate means for us to win this game Saturday then let's give it a chance. Lets give fate a chance to happen.'''
Believe what you want, just know that beating the Crimson Tide involved a lot more preparation than being able to deliver a hokey pregame speech with a straight face. That singular win was actually a few years in the making.
After each of the last two seasons, Spurrier considered walking away from the game. At age 65, he'd already accomplished everything it had to offer. He won a Heisman Trophy playing quarterback for Florida, then returned there as coach and tied or won six straight conference titles and a national championship.
He played in the NFL and tried his hand at coaching there, too, effectively taking $10 million from Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for two seasons of less-than-satisfying work. But even in the pros, Spurrier wouldn't change.
He cracked jokes about the workaholic coaches who fell asleep on their office sofas watching game film and mocked the control freaks by delegating almost everything to his assistants except the play-calling. Ultimately, though, the joke turned out to be on him. Like a lot of successful former college coaches who hit a wall in the pros, Spurrier went 12-20, undone by a failure to grasp the difference between trying to motivate kids on scholarship and hardened veterans making more money than they knew what to do with.
By the time Spurrier returned to the college ranks at South Carolina in 2005, he set himself more modest goals. He'd changed the way the SEC played the game during his first go-round, employing a pass-happy attack called the Fun 'n' Gun rather than the ball-control rushing offenses favored everywhere else. Knowing he wouldn't have access to the talented recruits being stockpiled at Alabama, LSU and his alma mater, Spurrier decided to try and turn the tables.
Not long after he took over the Gamecocks program, Spurrier said it was going to be ''fun trying to win at South Carolina. ...
''We have so many accomplishments that have never happened there that we have a shot at,'' he added. ''I sort of feel lucky that I got a shot to be the coach to do some of these things for the first time ever.''
Then he got serious about it, or at least as serious as Spurrier gets about anything. He dumped a few longtime assistants and revamped how South Carolina played on both sides of the ball by bringing in a younger staff. Most important, the old ballcoach was still willing to learn new tricks.
He let new offensive line coach Shaun Elliot, who cut his teeth at Appalachian State, widen the distance between the blockers up front to yield better lanes for his running backs. It looked like a stroke of genius when freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore started knifing through those gaps for big gains.
Ditto for all the time Spurrier invested trying to teach Stephen Garcia to play quarterback the way he did once - with supreme confidence. When Garcia made his biggest blunder of the Alabama game, letting a high, hard snap get away from him for a safety, his explanation of how it happened afterward was vintage Spurrier, all the way down to the punchline.
''Once I saw the ball bounce, I wasn't sure if there was somebody behind me and I didn't want to fumble, so I just threw it out of the back of the end zone. I think I hit the goal post,'' Garcia said, then paused for comic effect. ''They said that was my first incompletion of the game.''
Even so, beating Alabama is supposed to be the beginning, not the end of the campaign. Spurrier turned lowly Duke into a winning program after decades of lean years, then Florida, and the only way he does it one more time at South Carolina is by keeping everyone in the program as dedicated and even-tempered about the game as he is.
More than a few people questioned why Spurrier would risk his legacy by trying to rebuild at South Carolina, a school that had won exactly one conference championship in more than a century of playing football. His friend, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, said at the time that people had no idea how much Spurrier loved proving a point.
''Him, worried about his legacy?'' Tuberville laughed. ''I don't think so. Not him. He has that confidence that he is going to succeed.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org