Steve Spurrier: A great but graceless winner
Five or six more years: That’s how long Steve Spurrier was telling recruits he’d be at South Carolina after it was suggested – by this correspondent, but not only by this correspondent – that he wouldn’t stick around much longer. He made it through six more games, four of them losses. Then he quit.
He’s not sticking around the way he’d told those recruits he would. He’s not even seeing out this season with the players he’d taken to camp in August. He’s gone-daddy-gone. He’s gone because he’s Steve Spurrier, a graceless winner and a terrible loser. He’s gone because, even as he was becoming one of college football’s best-ever coaches, his triumphs were about the greater glory of Stephen Orr Spurrier.
In his farewell comments Tuesday, he made it a point to say he’s not retiring. He’s resigning. He might, he said, go coach a high school team. He said this as he was quitting on the team he’d assembled.
I’m sorry. I know this will come off as mean-spirited. I know I’m supposed to be like everyone else in the media community and say, “I’m really going to miss the Head Ball Coach.” And I will, kind of. But even as we’re sifting through our Favorite Spurrier Moments, please note the common denominator: Everything was done with a smirk.
To wit: ESPN.com compiled a list of 16 memorable Spurrier quotes; of those, a dozen were jabs at someone or something. (Not one for self-deprecation, our Steve.) This wasn’t just his public persona. This was – and presumably is – Steve Spurrier.
Apologies for dropping names, but I visited with Vince and Barbara Dooley while in Athens on Monday. Spurrier’s name arose. We spoke of how wretched South Carolina was this season and wondered how much longer he’d be around. Not long, we agreed. Little did we know …
Vince, who actually likes Spurrier, told this story: He and Barbara were in New York several years ago for the College Football Hall of Fame banquet and were sitting with Mr. and Mrs. Spurrier. (Barbara describes Jerri Spurrier as “a saint,” FYI.) The four were having a pleasant conversation when Spurrier, apropos of nothing, said to Dooley, “I’m closing in on your SEC record.”
Dooley was then third, behind Bear Bryant and Johnny Vaught, in career conference victories; Spurrier would indeed pass him and Vaught. But that’s not the point. This is: What successful coach speaks that way to a peer? Did Mike Krzyzewski say to Bobby Knight, “I’m closing in on your record for wins?” Successful coaches tend to let winning speak for itself.
Only Spurrier would have said such a thing. It wasn’t enough for him to win: He had to keep reminding us of how much he’d won. Even after losing to Georgia 52-20 in Athens last month, he mentioned that South Carolina had still beaten the Bulldogs four of the past six years. You know, just in case anyone had forgotten.
Over the past few hours, I’ve seen Spurrier characterized as “a class act.” He wasn’t. He was a great coach, but he wasn’t a classy one. He ran up the score. He chortled at the loser’s expense. His press conferences were often described as “hilarious.” They weren’t. They were amusing, yes, but they weren’t fall-down-laughing funny in the way a Jim Valvano briefing could be. (That line about the Auburn library fire and the coloring books is older than Spurrier, who’s 70.)
What was striking about a Spurrier session wasn’t the quality of wit but the rarity of what we were seeing/hearing. For both better and worse, nobody else did what he did. I say again: What successful coach tweaks his vanquished opponents? Does Krzyzewski gig Wake Forest? And if your opponents were so dim-witted, doesn’t that diminish the achievement of vanquishing them? Why couldn’t a coach of such surpassing excellence be content with being surpassingly excellent?
It stood to reason that any coach – not that there are any quite like Spurrier – who flaunted winning would be hypersensitive to losing. Sure enough, the two times things didn’t go Spurrier’s way, he did what coaches are forever urging their players never to do: He quit. He bailed after two losing seasons with the Washington Redskins. Now he’s gone after six games, four of them losses. As long as he was winning and strutting, coaching was a gas. When it became clear he couldn’t win/strut, he’d head for the beach.
What I wrote/said over the summer was misconstrued, mostly by Spurrier himself. I never suggested he was too old to coach. I wondered if he could stand to lose big, and I was pretty sure I knew the answer. He conceded the point Tuesday, essentially saying he was leaving because losing was no fun. Imagine that.
It’s weird, but one of the few times I’ve ever been right just happened to be about the Evil Genius. I guess I should thank him for that. So here it is: Thanks, E.G. And I will miss you, kind of. But you did lose two of your final three games against Georgia.