As has been written a lot this week, the SEC prior to Steve Spurrier was kind of a bleak place. The games featured fewer points and were much less exciting than the brand of football this league puts on display now.
Steve Spurrier rightly deserves, and has gotten the credit for dragging the SEC into the modern age. There isn’t a lot more to be written specifically on that subject. However, it is probably worth pointing out why this conference used to love boring football.
The thing about low-scoring games is they are a lot more likely to remain close. A team may win, or a team may lose, but it isn’t likely to get blown out. And more importantly, because the games were close, few coaches were ever made to look foolish. This was very appealing to the coaches of the past. There is nothing they loved more than protecting their reputations.
It was not just low-scoring games that protected the good names of the coaches either; it was also the conference schedule. Before the time of Spurrier, the SEC only played a six-game league schedule, and there was, of course, no conference championship game. Many of the best programs rarely had to play each other, which was just fine with the coaches who enjoyed their jobs being as easy as possible.
So when Spurrier entered the SEC as coach at Florida in 1990 he brought with him a much-needed dose of competitive fire that quickly became infectious around the league.
His high-scoring “Fun ‘n’ Gun” offense didn’t just make SEC football more entertaining, it also put his opposing coaches on notice. If they were not fully prepared, Spurrier would embarrass them.
At first this was uncomfortable for a league full of respected coaches that all of a sudden seemed out of fashion. But over time, Spurrier’s rivals benefited from his presence.
When Spurrier came to the SEC, the league had not claimed a national championship in a full decade. But just two years later, Alabama won a national title after beating Spurrier’s Florida team in the first SEC championship along the way.
Three years later, Spurrier played for a national championship of his own, and then the following season his Florida team won it all. The SEC was once again a league synonymous with competing for national championships, and Spurrier should be credited with the major role in making that true.
However, it was not just Spurrier’s offensive play calling that made the league better. Often it was also his offensive rhetoric.
No one can forget the jab Spurrier took at Tennessee saying, “You can’t spell Citrus without U-T.” This was a reference to Tennessee’s habit of finishing its seasons as a runner-up to Spurrier’s Florida team, and continually being invited to a bowl that was essentially the SEC’s consolation prize.
It was a joke, but like most good jokes had some elements of truth. Is it any doubt that the Tennessee program took that good-natured ribbing to heart? And in 1998 when Tennessee won its national championship, isn’t it likely that the Vols had been pushed to that moment by a desire to prove Spurrier wrong?
It wasn’t just be Tennessee and Alabama that drove itselves to match Spurrier.
The arms race within the SEC that started when Spurrier joined the league reached its full peak a decade later. By that time, Spurrier’s competitive fire and dynamic play-calling were no longer unique. Every SEC coach resembled at least some aspect of what had originally made Spurrier famous. And those SEC coaches used those traits to claim seven consecutive national championships.
Of course, no one can know for sure how much recent SEC history was truly shaped by the presence and personality of Steve Spurrier. However, it does seem difficult to overstate his impact. His ego and accomplishment made him a popular enemy around the conference.
And as other SEC coaches took aim at bringing Spurrier down, the entire league was raised up.