I never wrote – or said, or even thought – that Steve Spurrier would quit coaching soon because he’s too old. What I wrote/said/thought was that Spurrier would quit coaching soon because of the losing.
You might think that’s splitting hairs. I don’t. There’s a reason coaches – especially the very best coaches – get crabbier with age. Watch a tape of Mike Krzyzewski in Duke’s 1986 NCAA championship loss to Louisville, and you’ll note that he’s not whining about every call. Watch him today in any game anywhere, and he’s griping about everything.
It was the same with UConn’s Jim Calhoun before he retired. Heck, the sainted John Wooden threw a tantrum as he was winning his 10th NCAA title at UCLA. Dave Meyers had incurred a technical foul for slapping the floor after being called for charging. “You crook!” Wooden yelled at ref Bob Wortman. Had the Wizard of Westwood not announced two days earlier that the 1975 NCAA final would be his last game, he’d surely have been T’d, too.
Why, I once asked a man of my acquaintance, can’t a coach of surpassing achievements shrug off perceived slights and say, “Ah, well. Even if we don’t win this one, I’m still in the Hall of the Fame”?
And Vince Dooley – once a national champ, six times an SEC champ and a College Football Hall of Fame inductee, class of 1994 – said: “Because the older you get, you realize that losing hurts more than winning feels good.”
Dooley retired as Georgia’s coach at 56. Bear Bryant stepped down at Alabama at 69. Spurrier, who’s 70, was a terrible loser when he was on the sunny side of 50. To this day, he believes his first Florida team should have been anointed the 1990 SEC champ — even though the Gators were on probation and knew full well they couldn’t claim the title
The 1990 Gators finished 6-1 in conference play; Tennessee went 5-1-1 and was the champ. Over the summer, the league’s coaches were gathered at a function. (This story was told to me by a man who was in the room.) Tennessee’s Johnny Majors was playing ping-pong. Spurrier started needling him: “I can’t believe you had the nerve to claim that title.”
Majors’ priceless comeback: “Yeah? Well, we beat your (butt).”
(Indeed. The Vols whipped Florida 45-3.)
The jawing escalated. The man who was in the room swears Majors — no shrinking violet — nearly climbed over the ping-pong table to get at Spurrier. They were separated by fellow coaches. Oh, for camera phones and YouTube back in the day.
More than a decade later, we media types were gathered at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va. Spurrier was about to be introduced as Washington’s coach. We were handed a release crediting Spurrier with seven SEC titles. (The correct number was six.) Cried Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel: “He’s still claiming 1990!”
(Here we note that the great college winner quit after two failed NFL seasons. I say again: He’s a terrible loser.)
We move to 2014. Watch Spurrier’s press conference, which is available via YouTube, after South Carolina blew a late lead and lost to Tennessee. But don’t blink.
“We’ve had about three or four like this,” Spurrier said, “so I guess I should be getting used to it by now. But I have a tough time getting used to these kinds of things.”
He took no questions. He got up and walked out. But in those 56 seconds, he underscored a great truth: Coaches who’ve won big have a tough time getting used to not winning big.
Back in July, Spurrier held a hastily assembled media session because he’d read words I’d spoken to Josh Kendall of The State. What I’d said: “It’s hard for me to envision him coaching much beyond this if he doesn’t think he has a chance to win. And I’m not sure he’s going to have a chance to win the next few years.”
Were South Carolina still capable of winning 11 games every season, I could see Spurrier coaching into his 80s. But the Gamecocks were 7-6 last year, and they’re lucky not to be 0-2 headed to Georgia. I have no doubt the man can still coach. I just don’t think his players are good enough to win many games. And he can’t handle losing.