Now is the time for Steve Spurrier to call it a career

When Stephen Orr Spurrier was in the process of winning the 1966 Heisman Trophy at Florida — 30 years before he’d coach a Heisman winner, Danny Wuerffel, in 1996 — a sportswriter at the Atlanta Constitution wrote, “Blindfolded, with his back to the wall, with his hands tied behind him, Steve Spurrier would be a two-point favorite at his own execution.”

That memorable line, authored nearly half a century ago, said so much about the essence of Spurrier as a competitor and as a thinker. Clever and creative, but often stubborn, Spurrier has been a natural fit for college football. The sport welcomes creativity in a way the NFL — culturally — rarely has. It has enabled Spurrier to put himself on the Mount Rushmore of SEC coaches, alongside Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught, and Robert Neyland. (If you had to take four, it would be those four. Nick Saban needs to win a couple more SEC titles to displace Neyland.)

Spurrier put his “Fun and Gun” stamp on the University of Florida. A decade later, he realized that zone-read concepts were the best way to use Connor Shaw’s diverse assortment of talents. He’s been able to adjust in the college game as a player, coordinator, and head coach. Yes, he did have Dan Snyder as an owner in the pros, but to be honest, his style and approach just didn’t cut it with the Washington Redskins, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that Spurrier didn’t make it in the NFL because of other people. He didn’t make it because he didn’t come particularly close to finding solutions to his problems on the field. He failed in D.C., not anyone else.

In college, though, from 1966 to the present moment, whenever Steve Spurrier has found himself in a bind, he’s found a way out.

In 2009, many of us in the college football punditocracy were saying (or at least thinking), “Ya know, this South Carolina thing just hasn’t worked out. Spurrier gave it a run, but after five seasons, he has nothing to show for it.”

He proceeded to win the school’s first SEC East title… and then 11 games in each of the next three seasons, all with bowl victories and triumphs over Clemson.

To add to Spurrier’s legacy and credentials, realize this: If Spurrier had coached under the current New Year’s Six postseason structure, the Gamecocks would have made an Orange Bowl and a Sugar Bowl, or perhaps the souped-up version of the Peach Bowl. The Bowl Championship Series’ limit on teams per conference is what locked South Carolina out of a prestige bowl from 2011 through 2013, all while Clemson — with inferior teams — was able to make the Orange Bowl on multiple occasions. When you add that historical shaft job to the stripping of Spurrier’s 1990 SEC title at Florida — in his first season, without any need for a “transitional year” or “rebuilding process” — it becomes a lot harder to deny just how successful Spurrier has been in both Gainesville and Columbia. The official historical record tells you that Spurrier has accomplished a lot. The unofficial historical record tells you that Florida was the SEC’s best team in 1990, and that South Carolina should have been in a prestigious bowl game in at least two of the three seasons from 2011 through 2013.

Spurrier — over the span of roughly half a century — has escaped from trouble to become one of the foremost figures in college football. That he’s entertained fans and writers with legendary press conferences and quips and all sorts of facial expressions on the sidelines has only added to the fun.

Moreover, even now, it doesn’t seem that any ounce of the essential Spurrier has vanished. HE, the competitor, is still there.

Yet, this counterintuitively shows why Spurrier — though he has every right to leave on his own terms — might need to consider stepping down sooner rather than later as South Carolina’s head coach.

Irony rhymes with “witch,” after all.


Earlier this year, Spurrier told Tony Barnhart — a man whose prominence as an SEC football writer has coincided with the arc of Spurrier’s illustrious SEC coaching career — the following: “I’m going to get out some day but I don’t know when that is going to be. Maybe when I get old… But I’m not old yet.”

You might think that after Georgia, this past Saturday, returned the favor for 1995, the game has passed Steve Spurrier by.

You might think that after Georgia hung “half-a-hundred” on Spurrier, 20 years after the Head Ball Coach did the same thing Between the Hedges — with Brian Schottenheimer, a member of that 1995 Florida team, calling the plays for the Bulldogs — Spurrier has again lost the ability to coach, as many felt was the case in 2009.

No, that’s not the argument being advanced here. When Spurrier got Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton and the aforementioned Mr. Shaw into the fold, he won big with them. Spurrier can still “coach ’em up real good,” but he needs top-tier players to coach.

The real reason Spurrier should consider stepping down at South Carolina is not that he’s too old. It’s not that he’s lost the ability to coach or connect with players. It’s not that he’s suddenly less clever or that he doesn’t have Connor Shaw. (Spurrier won SEC titles with quarterbacks other than Wuerffel, his prized pupil.)

The problem is that while Spurrier doesn’t seem old — he does remain young at heart and as feisty as ever — the rest of the SEC has been able to convince recruits that Spurrier’s numerical age (70) matters. Moreover, Spurrier’s own way of approaching his work has come back to bite him in the backside, lending a cruel irony to this final stretch of a remarkable and highly influential coaching career, one which changed the face of SEC football forever.


The essential irony at the heart of Steve Spurrier’s grim situation — the execution at which he doesn’t seem like a two-point favorite anymore; he’s now an underdog — is that while he’s not old in heart, mind, body or spirit, past versions of the Head Ball Coach did not think he’d stick around this long in the profession.

If Spurrier has set a positive example for his brother coaches over the years, it has been to not get too absorbed in the job. Spurrier’s cardiovascular and overall holistic wellness stand in marked contrast to the many coaches who have been consumed by stress and have allowed their work to diminish their health.

Spurrier has set the example of working smarter and not harder, something a lot of coaches have bristled at, but for multiple decades in a cutthroat profession, Spurrier has made this approach work. Yet, underlying said approach is a belief in not allowing work to negatively affect quality of life, to respect the limits the profession and its effects on holistic health.

This, to put it bluntly, is why Spurrier said he’d coach two or three more years at South Carolina. It was authentic Spurrier, putting a few more really good years into his work but then stepping away while still on top, still leading South Carolina to 10- or 11-win seasons.

There was just one problem with that remark, as candid and honest as it was: The rest of the SEC found a way in which to negatively recruit against Spurrier.

There’s nothing unethical or immoral about it; it’s just a plain fact of life. If a coach says he’ll be around for only two or three more years, and a player wants to play for a coach for four seasons, it’s only natural that competitors will say, “Hey, you’re not going to get four years of Spurrier. I’m going to be here. Come to our school instead.”

That honest statement about staying just a few more years has created a substantial shift in the recruiting climate in South Carolina. The Clowneys and Quarleses and Hamptons that were flowing into the program, giving the Gamecocks their best years, are nowhere to be found. South Carolina’s players were in position to make tackles against Kentucky; they just didn’t make them. South Carolina’s defenders were slow in responding to Georgia’s play-action and the Bulldogs’ various concepts this past Saturday. The addition of Jon Hoke — Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida in the early 2000s — has done nothing to improve what was a bad defense in 2014.

If South Carolina can’t gain a massive infusion and upgrade of talent, the program will flatline… and that’s the exact opposite of how Spurrier wanted to orchestrate his exit from college football.

The two-or-three-year remark was so damaging that Spurrier hastily called a press conference this summer to say he was not stepping down anytime soon. Months earlier, Spurrier had to say — as a matter of necessary politics — that he was going to stick around for a longer period of time. Yet, it seems the cat was already out of the bag: Steve Spurrier isn’t tired, but he has never been the kind of person who lets work cast too long a shadow over the rest of his life. It was very much in his nature to want to coach two or three really good seasons and then get out while the going (and the getting) was good.

Now that everything’s changed, however, can Spurrier last four more years if a new Clowney and a new Quarles — and a new level of 2013-style defensive depth — don’t return to the Gamecock program?

Spurrier might not be old at heart, but the recruiting business has decisively cut against him, such that the Gamecocks’ place of prominence in the SEC is being eroded, substantially and rapidly.

It’s not really fair, and it’s not really the product of anything he did on the field as a coach. Steve Spurrier, simply because he was honest to himself — and wanted to coach only two or three more years — has unwittingly unleashed forces that have swamped the man formerly known to Beano Cook as “The Swamp Fox” at Florida.

If he can recruit his way out of trouble in the coming offseason, he would re-establish himself as a two-point favorite at his own execution.

If he can’t, however, and the reality of his situation is as plain as day, Stephen Orr Spurrier should take the pebble from the hand.

It will be time for him to leave… even though that’s not what he intended.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |