When Doug Johnson arrived with the Falcons in 2000 as an undrafted free agent quarterback, veteran Chris Chandler came to the rook and offered a head’s up.
Be prepared for Dan Reeves, kid, because he is one hard coach.
“I used to laugh at him and say, ‘Dude, you have no idea what tough is,” Johnson said.
Because he had played quarterback for Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier, who abruptly quit at South Carolina on Monday, is known for many things. He made football fly at Duke. He won a national championship and six SEC titles at Florida. He’s the all-time winningest coach at two programs, Florida and South Carolina. He was Fun-and-Gun in an era of run-and-numb; snarky in an age of shallow coach-speak.
Johnson, a high-spirited collegian who had ample conflicts with his coach at Florida in the late-1990s, now speaks ruefully of Spurrier’s departure. “It’s a sad day for college football,” he said. “He’s done more for college football than pretty much anyone I can think of in the way he changed the game offensively. He was a courageous play-caller. He demanded excellence, was never satisfied with last week’s success.”
Perhaps the dominant image of Spurrier at work — even if it is a cartoonish one of his own design — is that of the mad sideline visor-hurler, his face contorted in anger toward some poor quarterback.
If you were going to play quarterback for Spurrier, it was helpful to have the hide of a Nile crocodile. He was famous for his fickleness, changing his signal-callers like a Vegas janitor changes light bulbs. Unsparing in his reviews of their work, impatient with their flaws, Spurrier pushed players at that position — his position — like no one else.
None of his guys made a significant splash as a starter at the NFL level. One — Danny Wuerffel at Florida — won a Heisman Trophy, as had Spurrier 30 years before him. But they all shared the personal victory of having played for the Ol’ Ball Coach and lived to tell about it.
So, who better to flesh out the portrait of one of the most polarizing coaches of our time than the ones who performed in the eye of his storm? Only those few, those happy few, that band of brothers known as Spurrier’s quarterbacks.
Steve Slayden was quarterback at Duke in 1987, Spurrier’s first in the college head coaching ranks. Slayden today is a realtor in Charlotte, N.C.
On his relationship with Spurrier: “He was great. I was a quarterback, he was a quarterback, so we were on the same page. He threw his visor down and got mad a lot, but at the same time I’ve always told people he would put his arm around me before the next series started, had a good play called and we were right back out there.”
On Spurrier’s short leash: “He benched me when we went to Clemson. Sixth game of the year. We had just played Rutgers in the Meadowlands. It was the worst weather I had ever played in, 40 mph wind, right at freezing. They beat us in the last couple minutes with a touchdown, 7-0. I kind of blamed the conditions. He sat me down.
“He put me back in after the Clemson game. Those last four games were the best games of my college career. At the end of the season, I was the MVP of the team. When he was giving (the award) to me he credited himself for benching me for how good I played those last four games.”
On the softer side of the Spurrier legacy: “The day he accepted the Florida job, Dec. 27, 1989, was a day after I had brain surgery. He came to the hospital and spent five hours with my parents right after the surgery. My dad (who played basketball at Auburn) knows all these Auburn and Alabama fans and he told everybody, ‘Spurrier’s going to revolutionize how the SEC plays football.’ And he did.”
Blake Mitchell, who is from LaGrange, Ga., was a sophomore when the new coach showed up in 2005, and was the Gamecocks’ main quarterback through Spurrier’s first three seasons. Mitchell works for Roofing Supply Group in Greenville, S.C.
On a tough time with coach: “Playing Florida my senior year. I checked a play the wrong way. I came to the sideline, and (Spurrier) keeps coming by me saying, ‘That’s why I can’t put you out there. That’s why you can’t play.’
“I was so mad. Finally I was like, Coach, that’s enough, that one play is not the reason we’re losing the ballgame. We got an interception about the time we were having that conversation, and he was like, ‘All right, let’s go.’”
On looking back on it all now: “It was a lot of fun. There were definitely ups and downs that every quarterback who ever played for him went through. Because if you’re not on, he was quick to sit you on the bench. But you learned a lot through those ups and downs. It helped you in life to deal with the highs and lows.”
On Spurrier’s uncompromising personality: “We had a 10-year reunion of all the players who played for Spurrier before the spring game this year. They wanted to take a picture with the quarterbacks. So all the guys, whether they were a walk-ons or whoever got in the picture. Then after that, Spurrier was like, ‘Hey, let me get a picture of the guys who played.’ Talk about making somebody feel good — you guys who didn’t play, you get out of the picture. That’s him. That’s who he is.”
Dave Brown was Spurrier’s quarterback during his final season at Duke, 1989. Brown played 10 seasons in the NFL with the Giants and Arizona. He lives in New York, where he is a private equity advisor at Moelis & Company.
On his most memorable Spurrier visor toss: “We played North Carolina, and we beat them 41-0 at Carolina. I threw for 479 yards that game, which I think is still a school record. Late in the third quarter, I missed a swing pass to a running back that probably would have gone for a touchdown. As I’m walking off the field you could see the visor go past me. He threw it at me as I was walking off the field.
“We clinched the ACC, I threw for 479 yards and three touchdowns and I can remember after the game not feeling great about it because his point was that you missed so much, we could have had so much more. That’s the way it was. He was a perfectionist, but in a good way.”
On Spurrier’s inventiveness: “My first start was against Wake Forest. Everyone assumed when I got in, the first play of the game would be a rushing play and then we’d work into the passing game. We sat down at breakfast before the game, and he literally pulled out a little box of Cheerios and drew up a play with the cereal. He said you’re going to fake it to the back and you’re going to throw it deep to Clarkston Hines. And sure enough that was the first play of the game and we threw it for a 77-yard touchdown.”
Shane Matthews enjoys the distinction of being the one starter at Florida never benched by Spurrier (from 1990-92). He had a 14-year NFL career, mostly as a backup. He is retired, living in Gainesville and acting as a volunteer high school coach.
On his coaching similarities with Spurrier: “I do (wear a visor). And every now and then it does go flying, but I’ve tried to calm down.”
On how he dealt with his emotional coach: “That’s what people don’t understand. Yeah, he showed his emotions on the sidelines. Especially early in his career, coaching at Florida, because he expected a lot out of his quarterback. As an athlete, I don’t care what sport you play, you should expect a lot out of yourself; you shouldn’t have to worry about a coach getting on you.”
On how Spurrier left South Carolina in the middle of a season: “I’m a little bit (disappointed). He was never a rah-rah type guy in the locker room, but he always said — and I preach this to the kids I coach now — keep playing. There are going to be good things that happen and bad things that happen throughout the course of the game, but keep playing to the end.
“But then again, the way his mind works, if someone’s not getting the job done, you’ve got to make a change. Like alternating or benching his quarterbacks. Well, it’s kind of like he benched himself here.”