I’m thinking about Steve Spurrier in October of 1966, on the sidelines of a football game between Florida and Auburn, staring down a head coach named Ray Graves, prevailing in the kind of willful battle of egos that would come to define Spurrier’s entire career. The score was 27-27, and Spurrier insisted on kicking the game-winning field goal even though he was primarily a quarterback for the Gators, even though he reportedly hadn’t even practiced a single kick in the weeks leading up to this game. And Spurrier put on a square-toed shoe and booted a 40-yard field goal to win both the game and, eventually, the Heisman Trophy.
“It wasn’t that long,” Spurrier would say. “Most guys can kick 40.”
I’m thinking about Steve Spurrier nearly 50 years later, suddenly and abruptly withdrawing from the sport that he came to define as much as it defined him, resigning without warning as the head coach at South Carolina just a couple of months after insisting he wasn’t going to resign anytime soon. And I already find myself missing the sly irony that attended his very presence. I’ve never laughed more at press conferences about things that may or may not have been intended to be humorous than I did when I watched Spurrier’s. (Even his most controversial public moment feels like a Will Ferrell sketch in retrospect.)
And I’m sitting here, a few hours after the news came across my phone, trying to think of how Spurrier will be remembered and how he should be remembered. And here’s what I want to say: There have been better coaches than Spurrier, but there have been none more culturally important than Spurrier. He excised the reverential bullshit from a sport long buried in its own self-importance; he infused college football with a layer of pure irreverence that lingers to this day. He did for football, both in terms of personality and style, what David Letterman did for late-night television, and what Frank Zappa did for rock and roll. Would Baylor be putting up 70 points every week without the freeing influence of Spurrier, whose Fun ‘n’ Gun offense revolutionized the Florida program in the 1990s, when he returned to the Gators as head coach? Would the Air Raid offense exist, and would Urban Meyer and Mike Leach and Chip Kelly have had the liberty to engage in their own creative flourishes at the college level, if Spurrier hadn’t come before them?
There are legendary college football coaches who will be remembered as hard-driving drill sergeants, and there are legendary college football coaches who will be remembered as schematic savants. There is only one football coach I can think of who will be remembered as both a stylistic genius and a Warholian performance artist; there is only one coach who could pose for a photograph at an Arby’s soda fountain, Instagrammed by an All-American defensive lineman, and turn it into a snapshot of such quintessential American cool that it looks like Annie Leibovitz shot the thing for Vanity Fair.
I’m thinking about Steve Spurrier the asshole, the self-proclaimed “shit disturber,” because there is no doubt he could be a towering dickhead when he chose to be. He could be petulant and immature and unreasonable (his own wife once called him a brat); he took out his frustrations on his quarterbacks and on reporters and on opposing coaches. “I don’t look at him as overly arrogant,” former Florida quarterback Terry Dean once admitted to Sports Illustrated. “Maybe egomaniacal.”
He was a bully and a pre-Internet troll and he was so adept at issuing undermining one-liners that a Florida sports columnist compiled a book of them. What is my favorite Spurrier noodge of all time? Maybe it’s the time he was informed that a dormitory fire at Auburn had destroyed 20 books, and he replied, “But the real tragedy was that 15 hadn’t been colored yet.” I mean, I have nothing against Auburn, but that’s A-list Don Rickles material right there. (Is it any wonder that the best college football blog on the Internet, founded by a Florida graduate named Spencer Hall, was essentially crafted in the likeness of Spurrier?) And so I imagine if you or the football program you happen to adore ever wound up on the receiving end of a Spurrier barb, you probably hold him in lower regard than you otherwise would. But allow me to channel the Head Ball Coach himself for a moment and tell you that’s a stupid thing to do.
Here’s the thing so many people miss about Spurrier: At some level, he recognized he was playing a game. His only true enemy was the earnestness of a sport that often doesn’t allow for the fact that it’s a sport. If there is one thing most football coaches are guilty of, it’s taking their place in the world too seriously. Spurrier never did that. He showed up shirtless at NASCAR races; he cut out early to play golf during the summer. He refused to work long hours, because what was the point of that, he figured, other than to engage in some sort of reckless masochism that didn’t apply to someone with his natural gifts? Why, he would imply, should contrarian geniuses labor as hard as everyone else if they don’t have to?
“My first season at Florida was 1990,” he told ESPN The Magazine. “… What surprised me was that the same mentality was still there: You gotta run the ball and play defense to win the SEC … So I worked really hard not to act like those other coaches, especially how I talked. Coaches like to use the word ‘great’ all the time … I made it a point never to use that word.”
Sometimes it felt like he was the only person in the room — and I’m including media and fans — who seemed to understand that this whole thing was a television show. Spurrier never shied away from crafting that television show in his own image. He loosed football from the tyrannical chains of 3 yards and a cloud of dust, from the overarching conservatism that had come to define it for more than a hundred years. He was going to throw the damned ball, whether you liked it or not. Without Spurrier, college football as we know it would be more buttoned down, more closed off, and way less interesting. Post-Spurrier, college football is a fascinating jumble of stylistic contrasts and outright weirdness, a mélange of trick plays and 55-52 final scores, a game that is far less polished than professional football and a hell of a lot more interesting.
I’m thinking about Steve Spurrier and failure, because this is the thing he never dealt with particularly well. He failed as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, in large part because his style wasn’t tailored for the rigidity of the NFL; and he failed in his final years at South Carolina, in large part because he couldn’t connect with his quarterbacks the way he did when he was at Florida, where he led the Gators to the national title in 1996. The lingering image of Spurrier and failure is that of the Head Ball Coach hurling his visor to the ground in disgust. He would berate his quarterbacks on the sideline because they weren’t doing it the way he used to do it, and then he would put in another quarterback and call another pass play until he found what he was looking for: someone who played like him.
Eventually, in these last couple of seasons at South Carolina, it became apparent that Spurrier wasn’t going to find what he was looking for anymore. His teams weren’t as interesting as they’d been; his quarterbacks were scattered and unreliable, which may have been as much his fault as it was theirs. He got older, he turned 70, and he started to care less, because what more did he have to prove? He’d already recrafted an entire sport in his own image. The revolution had been both televised and won.
In retirement, then, Spurrier stands as the most purely interesting coach of his era, and maybe of any other, because he refused to abide by the proscriptions of those in charge. He is a quintessential American stylist and provocateur, and without him, college football would be nowhere near as great as it is. So maybe it’s true what Spurrier said; maybe a lot of guys can kick 40. But most of them don’t transform everything they touch into a show.
Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.