Thursday, October 18, 2012
High stakes for Spurrier's return to Swamp
By Chris Low
For those who watched Steve Spurrier take Florida football to unprecedented heights in the 1990s and, in the process, change the way football is played in the SEC, it's still surreal to see him on the visitor's sideline in the Swamp.
Yes, this will be his fourth trip to Gainesville as South Carolina's coach, and the novelty isn't nearly what it once was.
But this is the Head Ball Coach. He is as much a part of Gator lore as the Gator chomp. He won a Heisman Trophy as Florida's quarterback in 1966 and brought the Gators their first SEC championship (six of them before he was finished) and their first national championship in 12 memorable seasons as coach of his alma mater from 1990-2001.
The Swamp was born under Spurrier, literally and figuratively. He coined the nickname for Ben Hill Griffin Stadium after his second season at Florida.
Spurrier's explanation was simple: "Only Gators get out alive."
But Spurrier didn't just name the Swamp. He's the one who put the magic into it with a 68-5 home record as the Gators' coach.
On Steve Spurrier's last visit to the Swamp, the Gamecocks clinched their first-ever trip to the SEC championship game.
He is trying to bring that same magic to South Carolina, and even though he won't say it, you know winning this game Saturday against the No. 2 Gators would rank up there among his favorites.
A win would put South Carolina in the driver's seat in the East Division, and it would further validate the No. 7 Gamecocks as one of the elite teams in this league.
Spurrier won the last time he was in the Swamp, clinching the Gamecocks' first-ever trip to the SEC championship game in 2010. He was given a victory ride on his players' shoulders.
It was the kind of scene that made you rub your eyes and wonder if it was all real.
Spurrier, in his vintage oh-gosh style, insists that going back to the Swamp as the opposing coach isn't that big of a deal.
"I don't think it's much of a storyline now that it's eight years that we've played each other, the fourth time I've been down there coaching," Spurrier said. "I guess it is a little unusual to be on the other team when you come into the ballpark and your name's on the wall up there, but I think everybody handles it very well. It's our team against their team.
"This is a game between the players. As coaches, we try to direct them a little bit, but these players are going to pretty much decide who's going to win this thing."
The reality is that most of Florida's current players were too young to remember seeing Spurrier's Gators pitch it around the ballpark in the Fun 'n' Gun days and win four straight SEC championships from 1993-96, a dizzying run that culminated with a national championship.
As Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel noted this week, he was more worried about watching cartoons at the time.
What Driskel does know is that Spurrier remains an icon.
"I drive by his statue every day," said Driskel, referring to Spurrier's statue that sits just outside the Swamp alongside the statues of the Gators' other two Heisman Trophy winners, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow. "He's definitely a Gator great, but it's not really anything that's going to bother us. Our players here didn't play for him or weren't here when he was around. So it's definitely bigger for the media and the fans."
Maybe so, but the guy who'll be on the Florida sideline Saturday doesn't need any refresher on the impact Spurrier has had on Florida, the SEC and college football.
Will Muschamp was a player at Georgia in the early 1990s when Spurrier was just starting his championship run at Florida.
"Being an SEC guy and growing up in this part of the country and being a huge fan of the Southeastern Conference, there are really two coaches that come to the forefront of your mind as far as what they have done for this league, and that would be Bear Bryant and Steve Spurrier," said Muschamp, who owns a deep respect for Spurrier and what he has meant to Florida.
There's no question that Spurrier has already etched his rightful place on the Mount Rushmore of SEC coaches.
Bryant is up there too, and sculptors are quickly gathering up pictures of Alabama coach Nick Saban. They're the only two coaches in history to win SEC championships at two schools.
If Spurrier is going to have any chance of joining them in that exclusive club, this is probably a game he needs to win Saturday. He'll be 68 in April and isn't going to coach forever.
While Spurrier will always be a Gator at heart, he is rooting for Florida to finish second in the East this season.
It's only fitting that perhaps the climactic game in that race will be played at the Swamp, where only Gators -- and maybe Gamecocks -- get out alive.