Saban, Spurrier share friendship, SEC success
In 12 seasons with Florida, Steve Spurrier dominated the Southeastern Conference with a wide-open passing game. His Fun-n-Gun was like nothing SEC defenses had ever dealt with before.
As LSU's coach from 2000-2004, Nick Saban's defenses locked down opponents with unrelenting pressure.
Both left the SEC for the NFL, only to return having realized college football was more their speed.
Now in their second SEC jobs, South Carolina's Spurrier and Alabama's Saban face each other for third time in their brilliant careers when the second-ranked Crimson Tide (6-0, 3-0) take on the No. 22 Gamecocks (5-1, 2-1) on Saturday night.
The first two meetings of two of the most astute minds in college football resulted in Spurrier-style blowouts, with Florida beating LSU 41-9 in 2000 and 44-15 in 2001.
As different publicly as the two appear - Spurrier with his wisecracking bite compared with Saban's stoic, plainspoken edge - they share a friendship and respect. So much so that Spurrier once hitched a ride with Saban on the LSU plane after coaching together in the East-West Shrine Game nine years ago.
"How about that?" Spurrier said with a chuckle this week.
Saban joked that LSU fans about "blew up the Gator plane up in Baton Rouge when it was waiting there to pick (Spurrier) up and take him home," Alabama's coach said.
"I've known Steve for a long time," Saban said. "I know his wife (Jerri) as well and so does Terry and we have a good relationship with them."
Maybe it's the similar paths they've traveled or each one's unwavering drive to succeed.
Spurrier blitzed through the SEC for six conference titles and the 1996 national crown at Florida from 1990-2001. Thinking he could take his high-flying offense anywhere, Spurrier stunned his alma mater when he left for the Washington Redskins in 2002.
After two forgettable NFL seasons, Spurrier walked away and sought another chance at the college game, which came in 2004 at South Carolina.
While there haven't been championships, Spurrier's steadily built the Gamecocks into potential contenders. Earlier this season, South Carolina gained their first victory over a top-five team in 28 years, defeating then-fourth-ranked Ole Miss 16-10.
Saban also built an SEC power at LSU, winning the BCS title in 2003. He, too, felt a longing to try the NFL and took over the Miami Dolphins in 2005. But after going 6-10 in 2006 - Saban's only losing season as a head coach - he returned to college with the Crimson Tide.
Saban's team was No. 1 in the country for much last season and is again in the running for a national title.
"I put him in the top four or five coaches in the country," Spurrier said of Saban.
Spurrier said Saban's a success because he attracts the best prospects. "He's one of the best recruiters in the country and that's why he's one of the best coaches," Spurrier said.
Alabama's defense might be the best Saban has had. As Spurrier put it, "they don't want to concede a 2-yard run."
Saban's former defensive coordinator at Alabama, Kevin Steele, said his old boss is relentless at chasing excellence. "He's demanding," said Steele, who holds a similar position at Clemson. "But what people perceive as a war zone, a dictator, that's not it at all. It's a huge misnomer."
Saban is certainly loud and tough with players and coaches.
"I'll be honest with you, I don't know where people get the idea that you have to apologize for being committed to excellence and you demand it and you expect it of other people and you demand them to strive for it and if they let up, you call them out on it," Steele said.
Spurrier has his critics, too. In his Florida days, he routinely made headlines with cracks like calling Florida State "Free Shoes University" or that "you can't spell Citrus without U-T" when the Vols struggled to keep up with the Gators.
Spurrier, less brash at 64, said his focus is on improving South Carolina's young players in perhaps the biggest matchup of his five seasons.
Spurrier commands as much respect as ever, Crimson Tide linebacker Cory Reamer said.
"He's really turned this South Carolina program around," Reamer said. "He's still doing some great things up there."