Steve Spurrier winning at football, life

Head Ball Coach works modest hours, plays golf, speaks his mind, makes history

Originally Published: August 27, 2014
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Bob Stoops' cell phone was buzzing last November. Only hours earlier, he'd passed Barry Switzer to become Oklahoma's all-time winningest coach with a 41-31 win over Kansas State.

It was a given that he was going to hear that night from one of his closest friends and the godfather of his twin sons.

It was Steve Spurrier on the line. And boy, did Stoops hear from the Head Ball Coach.

In his familiar twang, he heartily congratulated "Stoopsy." In Spurrier-speak, just about everybody has a "y" at the end of his first or last name, and sometimes both.

"He let me [enjoy] it for about 10 seconds, let me soak it in just a little bit and then says, 'Now, Bobby, you have to leave and go do it somewhere else like I did,'" recounted Stoops, laughing so hard he could hardly finish the story.

"That's him. There's nobody else like him."

Not even close. Spurrier's so incredibly unique that we're not likely to see another one quite like him ever again in college football. He is the antithesis of coaching convention, an island in a sea of Nick Saban wannabes.

He doesn't sleep in his office, plays as much golf as he can stand in the offseason and demands that his coaches have a life outside of football. He's a walking sound bite in a profession full of stock quotes. If he thinks it, he usually says it, and worries about providing bulletin-board material about as much as he worries about where he finishes in the recruiting rankings.

Spurrier, the all-time winningest coach at both Florida and South Carolina, hasn't just gone against the coaching grain. He has scoffed at it every step of the way, and now as he bears down on the ripe, young age of 70, he's also bearing down on coaching immortality. He might even be around long enough to challenge Bear Bryant's record for SEC wins, once thought unbreakable.

"There's a lot of ways to skin a cat," said Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who worked as Spurrier's defensive coordinator at South Carolina from 2008 to 2011 and has spent time at five different SEC schools. "Steve has the advantage of having developed his own offense, so he doesn't have to spend four or five hours a day deciding what he would do with formations or play-calling.

"I've learned over my 40 years that sometimes the genius in genius is simplicity."

• • •

Although fiendishly competitive, Spurrier revels in the fact that he has never allowed football to consume him. He's home just about every night eating dinner with Jerri, his wife of 47 years. There are Easter egg hunts for the coaches' kids, trips for the coaches and their wives to the coast, and, yes, staff golfing excursions to the Dominican Republic.

"My old coach, Pepper Rodgers, used to say, 'The woods are full of fired coaches who told everybody how hard they worked,'" Spurrier said. "I guess I could come in and stay all day and work all night. I guess we'd find something to do, watch tape or something.

"My favorite coach, philosophy-wise, was John Wooden. I read most of his books and most of his good sayings and never in any of them was his key to success outworking the other guy by hours."

On Sunday nights during the season, the entire Spurrier clan, at least all of the kids and grandkids living in the Columbia area, gather at the Spurrier homestead for dinner. And on Wednesday nights, all of the coaches and their families eat together at the South Carolina football complex. Both of Spurrier's sons, Steve Jr. and Scottie, are on the Gamecocks' staff.

Spurrier works out religiously and has the energy of a 5-year-old. He also requires his coaches to get physicals every year and has been known to ask them during the course of a meeting if they've worked out that day.

The truth is that I consider him a friend. Our wives were extremely close, and I always admired that he did things the right way. He didn't cheat. He's a good guy. He really is ... until you put a camera or microphone in front of him.

- Former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer, on Steve Spurrier

"He colors in every square on the calendar," said Jerri, who met Spurrier when they were students at Florida in the mid-1960s. "He doesn't waste any time. We're always doing something or going somewhere. It's always something fun, and he allows his coaches to also have a life, which is a blessing to everyone."

While Spurrier might be a creature of habit, he's anything but regimented. If spring practice is supposed to start that week on a Wednesday and the weather happens to be gorgeous on Monday, Spurrier might drop it on the staff on Monday morning that they're starting practice later that day.

"Be flexible," he likes to tell young coaches.

And occasionally, practice might even get pushed back a bit during the spring while Spurrier is in Augusta taking in a round at the Masters.

South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward calls it "organized chaos," and acknowledges that some assistants are slow to adjust.

"My linebacker coach, Kirk Botkin, worked for Bobby Petrino, and my defensive line coach, Deke Adams, worked for Larry Fedora, and at some point, they both came up to me soon after getting here and said, 'We ain't going to win like this,'" Ward said. "I was like, 'Trust me. His way works, too.' They were just so used to working all these long hours and never going home.

"If I'm ever blessed to be a head coach, I'll pattern a lot of the things I do after Steve Spurrier."

One of the stories Stoops loves to tell is being at Spurrier's beach house in Crescent Beach, Florida, bodysurfing during an open date, which fell the week before Florida's annual September showdown with Tennessee -- and Peyton Manning.

Out in the surf, Spurrier looks over at Stoops.

"Bobby, you think those boys at Tennessee are bodysurfing right now?"

Stoops had just arrived as the Gators' defensive coordinator in 1996 after working under Bill Snyder at Kansas State. Nobody is more regimented or works longer hours than Snyder.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/Perry BakerSteve Spurrier, holding court after beating Florida in 2005, is popular among people holding microphones.

"I think he was amazed," Spurrier said. "Our first year together, we won the national championship, and he and his wife were walking back to the hotel from the Superdome. He said, 'You know what? I feel refreshed. Usually, at the end of the season, we're pooped, burned out, staying there to midnight and all that, but I still feel fresh and ready to go.'

"He learned there's other ways to get the job done."

• • •

This offseason, Spurrier and Jerri took trips to Nova Scotia and Costa Rica. He even took in a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park and plays every year in the American Century Celebrity Golf Tournament in Lake Tahoe, California.

He gets back just in time from Lake Tahoe to hop a ride on the Florida plane with Will Muschamp for a round of ESPN interviews with the SEC coaches in Connecticut. It's an arrangement Spurrier made with his old boss, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, a few years back.

"I don't know why more coaches don't do that," Spurrier said. "I told Jeremy, 'Your plane's going to fly right over me here in Columbia. Why don't you drop in and scoop me up?'"

On his way to winning six SEC championships at Florida, Spurrier changed the way football was played in the SEC. He also turned his news conferences and booster club speaking engagements into reality TV before there was reality TV. Entering his 10th season at South Carolina, he still doesn't have a filter.

"He would say things and I would go, 'Oh my gosh, he can't say that.' I'd go back around and say, 'What he really meant was this,' trying to take the edge off," Jerri said. "And then after a while, I'd just say, 'No, he meant every bit of it.'"

Even some of Spurrier's perceived fiercest rivals never viewed his needling as anything other than Spurrier just being himself.

"A lot of people always thought that Steve and I didn't get along," said former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, whose Vols were a frequent target of some of Spurrier's most enduring barbs.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier, Phillip Fulmer
AP Photo/Wade PaynePhilip Fulmer's Tennessee teams were often on the receiving end of Spurrier's jabs, but Fulmer considers Spurrier a friend.

"The truth is that I consider him a friend. Our wives were extremely close, and I always admired that he did things the right way. He didn't cheat. He's a good guy. He really is. Until you put a camera or microphone in front of him."

Those who know Spurrier best insist the whole Head Ball Coach persona really isn't a put-on.

"He gets a bad rap because he tells it like it is," said PGA golfer and good friend Chris DiMarco. "People want coaches to tell the truth and be honest, and then when he does, they chop him down for it. I love his candor. It's one of the many things I love about him. He has no problem stepping up and telling it like it is. If you don't like it, too bad."

Spurrier has outlasted an entire generation of coaches, many of whom weren't always fond of his willingness to mock the old-school way of doing things. But now, there's a whole new generation of coaches out there, and many of them revere the fact that the Head Ball Coach still has his fastball.

"I used to idolize him and wanted to be like him, and I guess I still do in a certain way," said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who also dons a visor on the sideline. "I think it's refreshing that you see a guy who has seen it all, been through all the battles and has remained true to himself. He is who he is, and he's comfortable with that."

Spurrier's penchant for irritating, as Jerri refers to it, is almost as legendary as his penchant for calling just the right "ball play" at just the right time.

"In the offseason, why can't it be a little lighter? It's not life or death. I try to have a little fun, but all of my comments are true. I don't lie. If they get mad at me for saying something that isn't true, then tap me on my shoulder and say, 'That isn't true.' "

- Steve Spurrier

Most recently, Spurrier has drawn the ire of Alabama fans for suggesting that Saban should be winning at the rate he's winning at with all the blue-chip recruits he rakes in every year.

Spurrier, who says he and Saban are friends and that Saban knows it's all just a bunch of talk, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. Over any of it.

"In the offseason, why can't it be a little lighter? It's not life or death," Spurrier said. "I try to have a little fun, but all of my comments are true. I don't lie. If they get mad at me for saying something that isn't true, then tap me on my shoulder and say, 'That isn't true.'"

And nobody is spared, especially on the golf course.

Stoops and Spurrier were playing at Whistling Straits just after the PGA Championship was held there in 2004, and former Chicago Bears All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher was a part of their foursome.

Stoops had absolutely butchered a hole and was trying to gather himself.

"I was down a cliff and in the high grass and was lucky, really, to even get it up on the green," Stoops recalled.

As he's walking away to the next hole, he grumbles that he had a 10.

Without batting an eye, Spurrier turns to him and says, "Actually, Bobby, I think it was an 11."

Virginia Tech associate head coach Shane Beamer, who worked under Spurrier for four years at South Carolina before joining his father in Blacksburg, made the mistake of shooting a 79 (one of his best rounds ever) soon after being hired by Spurrier.

Sure enough, Beamer was in Spurrier's group that next day. He double-bogeyed the first hole and shanked his tee shot on No. 2 into the water.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier, Dabo Swinney
MCT via Getty ImagesSpurrier's legendary competitiveness may even be more pronounced on the golf course.

"I hadn't even walked off the second tee box yet, and he's already kicking me out of the bet," Beamer said.

And the last thing you ever want to do under Spurrier is even think about shaving strokes or, worse, improve your lie.

"He's a man of integrity," Beamer said. "If you make a 12, you're writing down a 12. It's the same thing in recruiting. He tells his coaches, 'If you cheat, I'm going to fire you.' That's always registered with me because you hear stories of other coaches saying that if you're not cheating in recruiting, then you're not working hard enough."

• • •

Fans aren't off limits, either, for Spurrier.

He was in Panama City Beach, Florida, in the spring of 1998 speaking at a function. Afterward, he and his longtime football operations director, Jamie Speronis, were walking up the beach toward a man who was sporting an orange Tennessee Vols shirt.

The Vols, who were a top-10 program at the time, couldn't get over the hump against the Gators and had lost five straight, similar to South Carolina's recent dominance of Clemson.

So as the man approaches, Spurrier pipes up and says, "How them Vols gonna do this season?"

The fan, amazingly enough, didn't recognize Spurrier. He held up his index finger and said defiantly, "National champs."

Even today, Spurrier gets a kick out of that exchange.

"I'll be damned if he wasn't right," Spurrier said. "They did win it that year."

How many coaches would engage a rival team's fan, walking down a beach? Then again, how many coaches would've dared to take on the South Carolina job?

When Spurrier decided to get back into college coaching after two forgettable seasons in the NFL with the Washington Redskins, he was advised more than once to be patient. He didn't coach anywhere during the 2004 season, but soon settled on South Carolina even though those close to him urged him to sit tight, telling him that other higher-profile opportunities (LSU, in particular) were likely to come open.

Spurrier had made up his mind, though. He was going to South Carolina, which had gone a combined 0-12 in the previous three seasons against its four biggest rivals -- Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

"I always let him decide where he was going to go coach. I never got involved," Jerri said.

But when Spurrier came to her that November in 2004 and announced that they were going to South Carolina, she looked at him with a blank stare.

"Steve, you realize we're going to have to play Florida every year, Georgia every year and Tennessee every year, don't you?" she asked.

"Yep, that's why we're going," Spurrier said.

Spurrier has gone a combined 13-3 over the past four seasons against those four teams.

Spurrier's legacy on the field and behind a microphone is one thing. But Jerri said she sees a side others don't get to.

A few years ago at the SEC spring meetings, he proposed that coaches contribute money out of their own pockets to help players get a piece of the ever-expanding pie in college football. He even warned his fellow coaches that he was going to tell the "media boys" who agreed to sign his proposal and who didn't.

"He gives more money to more things than he would ever admit to," Jerri said. "Nobody knows what he does, as far as that goes, because he won't tell anybody. He doesn't want anybody to take pictures and make a big deal out of it because that's not why he does it. He does it because it's important to him and because he can."

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier, Nick Saban
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainSteve Spurrier and Nick Saban take drastly different routes to get similar results.

And it's his balance, and passion for things like golf that keep him from obsessing over football, even when it comes to his own legendary résumé.

DiMarco, whose nephew, Patrick DiMarco, played for Spurrier at South Carolina, recalled a story when he came to Columbia to watch a game with his son Cristian.

Spurrier invited the family to his office afterward, and when they arrived, Spurrier was in there tinkering with a new putter.

"Yep, DiMarc, I think I've found something here with this club," Spurrier said, eager to talk shop with the golf pro.

But DiMarco had his eyes on something else -- pointing out Spurrier's Heisman Trophy sitting in the corner to his son. But Spurrier rushed over to intervene.

"Don't look at that. This is the one you need to look at," said a beaming Spurrier, holding a plaque commemorating him making a hole-in-one.

• • •

DiMarco, who still talks to Spurrier regularly, is convinced that Spurrier isn't close to walking away from football. Even Jerri says she can't fathom what their lives would be like if her husband wasn't coaching.

"I hope we never have to face that. I don't know. I guess I'll get a job," she said.

Is that a hint that he might coach long enough to make a run at Bryant's record of 159 SEC wins, which is perhaps the Holy Grail when it comes to SEC records?

Two years ago, Spurrier was adamant that he would have stayed at Florida had he wanted to pursue a bunch of records.

But now, with 128 SEC wins in his pocket and the Gamecocks recruiting as well as they ever have, it doesn't seem quite as far-fetched that he could catch the Bear. Spurrier would need to average just more than six SEC wins a year for five more years to reach it. He won at least six conference games in all 12 seasons at Florida, and in each of the past three years at South Carolina.

While breaking records has never defined Spurrier, he's a numbers guy. He can recite scores, statistics -- really just about anything -- from games that were played decades ago.

Pressed further about staying around long enough to make a run at Bryant's record, Spurrier grabbed a pen and started scribbling on a sheet of paper.

"Ah, I don't know," he said, his head cocked and a sheepish smile emerging. "One thing that's neat is that when I became second to him [passing John Vaught and getting to 107 SEC wins in 2010], we beat Alabama."

If we know anything about Spurrier, it's that he won't hang on longer than he should. He'll know when it's time to hand it off to somebody else. Nobody will need to drop any hints.

"My job's not nearly as stressful as a lot of people think head-coaching jobs are, so for now, we'll just keep on keeping on," Spurrier said.

How could anybody ever argue with the blueprint ... or the results?

Chris Low | email

College Football

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