Chris Harry: On behalf of Gator Nation, thank you, coach Spurrier

BY foxsports • October 13, 2015

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Not sure how many times I've told the story, but today of all days seems like the right time to tell it again.

Steve Spurrier called my home in 1994 looking for me, The Tampa Tribune beat writer at the time (yep, that's us at the right). A few hours earlier, the Florida Gators had wrapped a less-than-impressive scrimmage. My wife and I were at the movies and our baby-sitter, Christine, answered the phone. Her boyfriend was a starting offensive guard for the Gators. She recognized the voice.

"Is this Coach Spurrier?"

"Yeah. Who's this?"

"My name is Christine. I'm baby-sitting. I'm Jeff Mitchell's girlfriend."

"Jeff Mitchell's girlfriend? Jeff Mitchell jumped offsides today!"

It's one of my go-to anecdotes when the subject turns to the greatest football coach in Florida history. Maybe the greatest coach in Southeastern Conference history.

Did I just write that? You bet.

With all due respect to Paul "Bear" Bryant, yes, the case absolutely can be made. Spurrier's career record as an SEC coach of 228-89-2 (and winning percentage of .732) doesn't match Bryant's mark of 292-69-15 (.796), but Spurrier not only dominated the league during his time at Florida -- six SEC championships in 12 seasons, including four straight -- but completely turned the league upside down by bringing a Star Wars brand of football to a league still playing offense in the Stone Ages.

He did it with an unapologetic brashness that endured itself to Gator fans. Confidence, if you were from Florida. Arrogance, if you were from anywhere else. So be it.

Now take your 51-10 beating and go home.

Here's what South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said before introducing Steve Spurrier at his "resignation" news conference Tuesday.

"He changed the culture, brought a swagger and a champion's mentality."

If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the very same foundation Urban Meyer came here for and Jim McElwain is looking to reestablish. The bar is high. All Spurrier did was go 122-27-1 over 12 seasons, claim those half-dozen SEC banners and the program's first national championship, all the while maintaining the high road relative to NCAA rules.

"I talked to him this morning and he sounded good," UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said Tuesday. "Obviously, he's going to be missed in college football. But what he did for this university? Everybody says they know and they think they know, but I'm not talking about just winning games. I'm talking about changing a culture. That's what he did. We were an institution that forever and ever and ever talked a good game, wanted a big game and wanted all these SEC titles, and for whatever reason could not bust down that door -- until he came down here."

My first year covering Florida was 1990, the same year Spurrier returned to his Heisman Trophy alma mater, by way of Duke, which the season before won the Atlantic Coast Conference title (its only one in the last 52 years, by the way). At the time, the Gators had very little historic success to lean on, but you wouldn't have known it by the fan base.

Legendary Texas columnist Dan Jenkins put it this way in the 1980s: "Florida fans have the arrogance of Notre Dame backed by the tradition of Wake Forest."

It was true and Spurrier knew it. At his introductory news conference on New Year's Day, Spurrier said UF had every resource necessary -- academic reputation, recruiting base, facilities, weather, conference affiliation -- to win championships. And yet, remarkably, Florida and Vanderbilt were the only SEC programs (10 at the time) to never win a crown in football.

Yes, Vanderbilt.

"The Gators were always good about finding excuses for not being successful," said Spurrier, who knew first-hand of those so-called excuses because he lived them as a UF quarterback who came close (like so many other Gators) but never won a championship in his playing days. "So, we're done making excuses around here. There are none."

From that moment, Florida football changed forever.

Example: At the time, there actually was a groundswell among some UF fans to move the Florida-Georgia game out of Jacksonville. The Bulldogs had won six straight and turned the rivalry into a mockery. Spurrier found the notion laughable.

"We drive 90 minutes to get there, Georgia takes a plane," he said. "We're playing in Jacksonville, Florida, in a place called the Gator Bowl. You kidding? Why wouldn't we want that every year?"

This was the same era, of course, when there was concern over playing Auburn and Georgia back to back every season. Unfair, Gators cried. Too hard, they complained.

To Spurrier, it made no sense. Just more excuses.

So in 1990, his first season on the sidelines, the Gators whacked No. 2 Auburn 48-7, then went to Jacksonville a week later and pounded the Bulldogs 38-7.

So much for that barrier.

In '91, UF beat Alabama 35-0, handing the Crimson Tide its worst shutout loss since 1957, and went on to 7-0 mark in the SEC for the program's first league title. Two weeks later, the Gators followed that up by stopping a four-game losing skid against Florida State with an epic 14-9 home win amid an electrifying atmosphere that gave Spurrier an offseason idea.

"Let's call our place 'The Swamp,' where only Gators get out alive."

Um ... it stuck. He lost five home games -- FIVE! -- in 12 years.

Want more?

In '93, the Gators obliterated LSU 58-3 at Tigers Stadium, still the worst loss in school history. How 'bout a 31-0 road shutout of Tennessee, the Volunteers' worst home loss in SEC history and worst overall defeat since 1924.

Included in a seven-game winning streak over Georgia from 90-96 was a 52-17 embarrassment of the Bulldogs in Athens, Ga., in '95 while the Gator Bowl was under renovation. Spurrier called for a touchdown pass in the final minute and was grilled afterward about daring to run up the score, as boos rained down from what few Georgia fans remained.

"We read in their media guide where no opponent had ever come 'Between the Hedges' and got 50, so we figured we'd do it," he said. "Pretty nice ball yard, too!"

As far as Spurrier was concerned, some long-standing SEC bills were coming due.

And not only did he run it up on the scoreboard, he did it off it as well.

Ray Goof. Can't spell Citrus without a U and T. Free Shoes U. Oh, and that one about fire at the Auburn library ("Shame of it all, 15 of the books hadn't even be colored in yet.").

They were all big-hit, booster-club headliners at the time and remain vintage to this day. For me, even more entertaining were the real-time, unrehearsed zingers spoken from his Gator heart and oftentimes while basking in the orange and blue glow of the moment.

Take these from the 1996 national championship season alone, all gleaned from stories I wrote after moving on to The Orlando Sentinel:

-- "These kinds of games don't prove all that much. Just proves we're better than Kentucky," Spurrier said after a 66-0 smashing of the Wildcats.

-- "They said it was going to be really loud up there and I have to admit it was -- during pre-game warm-ups," Spurrier crowed after UF took a 35-0 second-quarter lead and went on to beat Tennessee in a No. 2 vs. No. 3 showdown in Knoxville.

-- "Hopefully, LSU's defensive coordinator won't be giving any more clinics on how to stop the Gators all next offseason," Spurrier said after hanging 635 yards on the Tigers in a 56-13 rout, the year after struggling for a season-low 327 in a win at Baton Rouge. "Oh yeah, we get the Louisiana papers around here. We know what's going on and what's been said."

-- "Run it some more! You got no class, Spurrier!" one Arkansas fan yelled as the Gators left Razorback Stadium after a 42-7 win. "Thank you! Thank you!" Spurrier shot back. "We love it when you accuse us of that!"

-- "I remember when fans used to say, 'Coach, are we ever going to beat Auburn again?' " he roared after a 51-10 beatdown of the Tigers that marked their worst loss since 1948.

And, of course ...

-- "We're not going to try and hurt their quarterback, but maybe with some of their defensive players who take their shots we just may have to find some way to retaliate. We have to. We're not going to take the same crap we did up in Tallahassee."

They didn't.

#52-20

In 1997, Spurrier gave me a copy of the book "The Art of War," by Sun Tzu, and suggested I read it. It was written 500 years before the birth of Christ by the Chinese warrior and philosopher who ruled his region of the continent -- according to the book's jacket -- using a strategy that stressed invincibility without battle and unassailable strength through understanding of physics, politics and psychology of conflict.

In his heyday, Spurrier was Sun Tzu with a forward pass.

"Sun Tzu believed there was a right way and a wrong way to prepare for battle," Spurrier explained to me at the time, thumbing through the book and finding one of his favorite passages.

If your opponent is of choloric temper, seek to irritate him.

"In other words, if the enemy is comfortable, shoot some arrows over there and make him move," Spurrier said. "Upset his plans, agitate him a little. Most people in sports don't pay much attention to irritating remarks."

He smiled.

"But some do."

Ask Phillip Fulmer.

In 2010, South Carolina came to The Swamp and destroyed the Gators 36-14 to win their only SEC East Division title en route to their first of three straight 11-win seasons.

"Apparently, Gamecocks get out of here alive, too," Spurrier said.

Foley told that tale Tuesday morning and laughed about it, as relived some classic moments of Spurrier's UF past.

Then he was asked about Spurrier's UF future.

"One day -- one day soon -- the University of Florida will honor him the right way," Foley said. "He's the greatest coach in Florida Gators history. We've had some good ones and we have a good one now. But what Urban did and what Coach Mac is building is on the foundation of Steve Spurrier. Great coaches leave footprints and leave trademarks. We said the same thing about Billy Donovan a few months ago. Well, Steve did that for us."

Whatever the Gators are and ever will be is because of the tracks Spurrier put down. What a ride it was.

I feel fortunate to have been a passenger with a first-class seat.

Thank you, Coach.

And thank you too, Jeff Mitchell.


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