MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Steve Spurrier hung up the ol’ visor in October, but he has his fingerprints all over the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl.
He served as Chief Mentor to Bob Stoops.
He served as Chief Agitator to Dabo Swinney.
Perhaps neither would be here without him.
Clemson fans might be chuckling right now, considering the constant barbs the two traded over the years, leaving many to wonder whether they disliked each other or were putting on a grand show. We will get to their relationship in a bit.
The connection to Stoops is far more obvious, of course. Stoops coached under Spurrier as defensive coordinator at Florida in 1996-98 and patterned his entire program at Oklahoma based on what he learned from the HBC. The two remain close friends “as much as anything,” Stoops says.
“He was big on putting me out there. After his press conferences, he would have me go speak on the defense, so you get that exposure to everybody,” Stoops said. “At the time, I was fortunate and very lucky to walk into a great team, a great program and team that had just competed for the national championship, and we won it in '96 together so it put you on that stage where people are aware of you maybe more and recognize you more.”
His turn at Florida led him to Oklahoma, the only place he has ever served as a head coach. Though he learned under greats Hayden Fry and Bill Snyder, it is the way Spurrier relished road trips to hated rivals such as Tennessee and Florida State that had a lasting impact.
“Going to Florida State and playing at Tennessee, it helped shape me more and that competitive environment -- watching him, observing him and how well he did it," Stoops said. "I’ve said this a lot, I don’t know that I’ve ever been around an individual that couldn’t wait to get there on Saturdays more than him, especially the opposing stadium. Just relished it. That grows on you. He influenced me in a lot of ways.”
Spurrier and Stoops still talk weekly. While many wondered whether Stoops had lost his touch after last season, Spurrier was not one of them.
When asked what he thought about the season Stoops put together this year, taking the Sooners to the College Football Playoff, Spurrier is quick with a reply:
“He’s won nine conference championships in 17 years. That’s pretty doggone good,” Spurrier said. “Winning the national championship is not the easiest thing in the world but he did get one his second year at Oklahoma. They’re consistently very good at Oklahoma.”
Stoops loved coaching alongside Spurrier in rivalry games, and he relishes his rivalry games in the Big 12 even more because of that. But Swinney … well, let’s just say there was nothing to love about the rivalry experience.
There was no mentor relationship here. Spurrier was his nemesis -- not only with the constant jabs but with the victories on the field, too.
That was one of a few things holding Swinney and Clemson back before this season: They had no answer for Spurrier and South Carolina. Swinney had to face down the Gamecocks when they produced some of the best teams in school history. Spurrier spearheaded those efforts.
But, as any coach will tell you, competition among elite players on his team fosters a better team. Did competition against an elite in-state rival make Swinney into a better coach?
“No, I think it just happened,” he said. “The times we beat them the five years in a row, we won the turnover battle every game. They, for some reason, did not play their best, so that was a big reason. Of course we had better teams back then also. Our team talent-wise was not quite as good this past year or two. But Dabo’s done an excellent job there.”
Swinney, tormented for so long by Spurrier and South Carolina, is now on a two-game winning streak over the Gamecocks. He got past Spurrier-less South Carolina this year, along with ACC rival Florida State. No coincidence that wins over those two teams this year helped to land the Tigers in the playoff.
It was the first time since 2007 that Clemson beat Florida State and South Carolina in the same season.
“When you have a big-time rival in your state, that’s part of your competitive nature in building your program, but you’ve got to go undefeated to win our division,” Swinney said. “We’ve had our hands full within our league, and that’s a season of its own when we play South Carolina, and they’ve been a great team."
Swinney and Spurrier maintain they have a friendly relationship. Removed from the rivalry, Spurrier has nothing but praise for Swinney. “He’s built it the right way, from the ground up through recruiting,” Spurrier said. “He gets good players and they develop them. They recruit well.”
Spurrier might have had a more direct influence on Stoops, but his indirect influence on Swinney should not be discounted.
“Obviously, [South Carolina] didn’t have a great year this year," Swinney said, "but they’ve been a great team for several years so I think the league we play in, over the seven years of stepping out of our conference and playing these types of games -- our guys understand all of those things are critical as you build your program.”