Each player entered somber and left smiling. That seems to be the effect Steve Spurrier has on people.
On Monday October 12, the Head Ball Coach announced his resignation from the University of South Carolina. At the age of 70 though, resignation does seem to be a fancy word for retirement. Because of that, numerous articles and stories will be written this week about Steve Spurrier’s impact on college football, the changes he wrought and the impact he made. They’re all true, but the greatest legacy we leave is seen often in the lives of those people we touched along the way.
With that in mind, former players from his tenure as head coach for the Florida Gators gathered for what was billed as an interview with local media. As is often the case with Spurrier memories though, it didn’t take long for it to become story time. Reporters sat down around these Spurrier products, just a stones throw from The Swamp as the wound back the clock to what many called “the greatest years” of their lives.
As the HBC prepares to “ride his golf cart off into the sunset”—as former linebacker James Bates says—it is these stories that show Spurrier’s legacy more than anything. So at this point we turn it over to those players and the stories that only they can tell.
Shane Matthews was a quarterback for the Florida Gators from 1990-1992 and SEC Player of the Year in 1990 & 1991. He played 14 years in the NFL. When Spurrier came to Florida, Matthews was 5th on the depth chart and ready to transfer. It didn’t take long for the HBC to change that.
“The first time [Spurrier] got the job, I’d never even heard of him. Growing up in Mississippi, but even when you got here, they didn’t have all the trophies and stuff displayed. I’d never heard of Steve Spurrier. Didn’t know who he was. And then when he was named the head coach, my dad and I watched the All-American bowl, when Duke played Texas Tech and was like ‘man this is right up your alley.’ But you never know if a coach is going to give you an opportunity and he said in that first meeting that he didn’t care who you are and what you’ve done around here, that everybody was going to get an equal opportunity to show what you could do. And it was true. I mean really I would not have played 14 years in the NFL, if not for him.
Well I found out [I was the starter], I think he was at the Jacksonville Gator club, and I don’t know if he announced me but he said whoever the quarterback is will lead the league, be all SEC, something along those lines. And I know when he named me the starter, there was no social media like there is now, but there were a lot of boosters that were like ‘What the hell are you doing, this guy’s never taken a snap.’ And it was great though, because I remember in the locker room before the Oklahoma State game like it was yesterday, he’s not a rah-rah type of guy, never has been never will be; he just walks around talking to guys while they’re getting dressed and he asked me ‘What do you want to start with?’ and I was like ‘I don’t know, maybe a screen, draw, something like that.’ And he goes ‘Shoot, they didn’t pay me all this money to come down here and run the ball.’ And we threw Blue Side Z-Cross—a deep crossing route—to Ernie Mills for about 35 yards and then about four plays later we were in for a touchdown.
Outside of my father, [Spurrier is] the most influential person I’ve ever been around. He impacted so many players. You know, 14 years in the NFL, you’re always talking about your college career with other players and your coaches, and I’m 100% sure all Florida players, there are a few players that kind of butted heads with him but there was always great stories; and just a guy that you enjoyed playing for. And just the stories, things he says, whether it’s in press conferences or in meetings or on the field, there’ll never be another guy like him.
My favorite quote [is], ‘It’s not your fault, it’s my fault for putting you in the game.’ Now he adds a few things into that, but it’s just the greatest quote of all time. He never said it to me but he said it to a bunch of other players, and he’d say it in meetings all the time…I coach high school ball with two other guys that played for him, Johnny Nichols and Cooper Carlisle. And during the game we’re on the headset and we’ll say stupid things like that. It’s our fault, we put the guy in the game, and he shouldn’t have been in the game. We always talk about Spurrier stories, some that you can tell publicly, some that you can’t…And he always tried to distract, well just take all the attention away from the players when they’d make mistakes. And it’s kind of weird how it all happened [Monday]; it kind of took a lot of attention away from here [with Will Grier getting suspended].
He likes to take jabs at people and some of them were very clever. I mean you can’t spell Citrus with UT; that’s when we were dominating Tennessee and they had to go to the Citrus Bowl every year. And the Free Shoes University, that’s another great one. There’s plenty of them, and like I said Bates knows them all, but he’s just a unique guy and there’s a lot of people out there that can’t stand him from other schools, for whatever reason. I think it’s because he says what’s on his mind. But he’s really a great guy.
I think he is [done coaching] but what I like the best though is before he started [his press conference] he wanted to thank “Mr. President.” That’s just classic him. I don’t think he’s going to coach again…When he makes up his mind about something, that’s it…I’d like for him too, heck he can come coach my son in high school, that’d be great.
He’s going to be involved somewhere, doing something. He cannot sit still. He can’t stay at the beach for more than two or three days. His golf game’s not very good anymore. So I don’t know what he’s going to do. I don’t think you’ll see him on TV as an analyst. I just don’t see, I could be wrong. But it’s a sad day in college football.
James Bates was a linebacker with the Florida Gators from 1992-1996. He has been inducted into the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame and now serves as a sportscaster for Fox Sports South while also creating unique pieces of art centered around college football. He is known amongst former teammates and Florida fans as being the best Spurrier storyteller, complete with Spurrier’s twang. For that reason, we present Batesy’s stories to you mostly in video form.
But first, he provides a quick note on how appreciative he is for Steve Spurrier.
“I can’t even begin to describe how fortunate I feel to have been apart of one of his teams and what he had going on when he was at his prime right here. So much of what I am, what my family is, my whole world, has so much to do with my time at the University of Florida and Coach Spurrier gave me that chance and I’ll always love him for it…that’s my guy.
Him and his wife Jerri, what a special couple and the fact that they know what it’s like to be Florida Gators, they know what it’s like to love this area…and everything about the orange and blue and everything about Gator Nation. It’s just so tough to put into words how much he has meant to who I am today and a lot of it has to do with the success we had on the field too.”
Mike Peterson played linebacker for the Florida Gators from 1995-1998 and was named an All-American. He was a second round NFL draft pick and has now returned to the Gators football staff.
“I remember the first time I met [Spurrier], he came to my house it was recruiting. I heard he was in town; the town’s real small of Alachua, so I heard he was in town before he actually got to the house. He stopped off at one of the local gas stations there in town and I started getting the calls, you know Coach Spurrier’s in town. Of course we ran in the house and tried to get everything together. That first meeting I had was the same as the last meeting, the last time I spoke to him. He’s the same guy, same guy, that’s probably one of the reasons I fell in love to him and became a Gator. There’s no gray area to him. It’s black and white and whatever he felt, you were going to hear it in the next ten to fifteen seconds. Type of guy you want to play for.”
Did he ever try to flip you to defense?
“No, and I still hold a little grudge against him. I came in as an athlete/quarterback and felt I was going to get a snap. Coach Spurrier you never gave me that one snap I wanted but I think I’ll forgive you for that. We got a few rings on the way so I’ll look past it.
We joke about it all the time, if you played defense here at Florida, Spurrier probably didn’t know your name until your senior year, and probably was true to a certain extent. But competitive; he wanted to win every drill on the practice field, which drove us to become one of those top defenses in the nation because we were going up against one of the top ball coaches every day in practice.
I tell people all the time, my college years were probably the best time of my life. Football was good, I was a hometown guy playing for the ole ball coach, and it was great.
[He influenced me] just as both a player and a person, his competitive nature. He’s a guy that we competed in practice; he demands that from his players; that competitive nature that he has every day, and that trickles down to the players. We often get asked ‘How did you guys have so much success in the ‘90’s?’ The first thing I think of is we just mimicked our head coach. He was very competitive, borderline cocky, but that’s what you seen on Saturday from the players.
I think it was maybe my senior year and the offense wasn’t doing as well and he called for the punt team on 3rd down, 3rd and 38 it was, he said ‘Punt team, punt team’ and we just looking at him like Coach, what? And he was like ‘Just punt it, just punt it.’ I don’t know if you can take that as a defensive compliment, like you guys go get the ball for him, I’m sick of watching this. But that’s Spurrier though, you never know what you’re going to get.
Oh I’ve got a couple more stories but I’m going to try to keep it clean. The one I probably remember the most was after we won [the National Championship] in ’96, you do the tour of the White House and we went in and had a chance to meet the President, President Clinton at the time. And we were taking the group photo and I was standing right there behind the president, feeling good. And we presented him with a jersey; on the front it had Gators and on the back it had Clinton and the President was holding his jersey up and in classic Spurrier, he told the President ‘Ahh turn it around, turn it around, we want to see the other side’ and the President was like ‘Okk’ but that shows you the classic Spurrier. He’s going to say what he wants at any time. He was showing the Gator side. Coach Spurrier wanted him to turn it around to show everybody we had Clinton on the back.
Chances of him staying still for long?
Not at all, not one chance of it. I can see him competing at whatever. Spurrier’s the type of guy, I can see when he hits 95 I can see him playing checkers or playing BINGO and being all ‘AHH’ and throwing the visor in the BINGO game. I can see him being that type of guy.
[My Spurrier-ism] You see mine it’s the visor. That’s classic Spurrier. When I put it on on Saturday’s, that’s the first thing I think about, this is the Ole Ball Coach. And the new Gators they may not be familiar, they see it as just a hat, but to me, this symbolizes the Ole Ball Coach.
Mark Campbell played defensive tackle for the Florida Gators from 1992-1995. He was selected in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft and now serves on the strength and conditioning staff with the Gators.
“He was a real confident guy and a lot of players believed in the message that he was bringing to them. They told us the offense was really nice and didn’t think he cared about the defense as much. But he just brought confidence to the whole team he brought confidence to everybody. You hear everybody talk about the swag in the ‘90’s and he instilled that in us.
He cared about his players. He really cared about us and wanted us to do well. Anything we could get, he wanted us to have it but he doesn’t publicize that. He’s always like ‘Oh I’m just the Ole Ball Coach.’ There’s guys looking in like ‘Oh he knows football’ but there’s more to Coach Spurrier than just football.
When [his wife Jerri] was here, I got my cookies on my birthday every year. Can’t forget the cookies. Giant cookies. Every player on birthdays, they got cookies. Just a good person. She needed him, but really he needed her.
Us former players, we’d love [for him to return to Florida]. Just something about the Ball Coach being here. He did good things for South Carolina but there’s nobody that can tell me he looks as good in a Carolina uniform or a visor on and he does with a Gator on. He is a Gator. That’s all I see Coach Spurrier as. He was a good coach at South Carolina but I’ll never call him a Gamecock… He’ll find his way back. There was a time when he came in the weight room a couple of years ago that nobody knew about it. But he is a Gator.
I think all Gator fans would be willing to accept him with open arms to come back. In fact I’m sure they’d love for him to walk in that stadium so they can cheer for him…this is his school.