Spurious Steve: Just what the NFL needs

He may be a jerk, but coaching genius Steve Spurrier will make a big splash in the pros.

Published January 9, 2002 8:04PM (EST)

There's a story about Steve Spurrier that sounds apocryphal but I'll bet is true. Apparently when he began his coaching career at Florida he delivered a speech about his intentions and coaching methods to a small gathering of influential Florida Gator backers. Afterward, a local sports columnist jumped on the speech as "poorly organized" and "unimpressive," or words to that effect. Anyway, over the years, Spurrier was not averse to pulling out either a copy of his speech or a copy of the columnist's remarks. As the years went by, more and more people began to ask him for copies of the speech -- or at any rate, that's how Spurrier tells it. Why would people want copies of a bad speech? "Well," Spurrier would say, "after I coached a few seasons, that speech just sounded better and better."

I don't want to force any meaning into that story, but Spurrier's point is well taken: A coach's performance should be judged by the results, not by the coach's words. Thank God for Spurrier that some people are willing to take him at this level, because God knows in print he has often come across as the biggest asshole in college football. I've often thought so myself, but then I'm an Alabama fan, and Florida under Spurrier usurped Alabama's role as the dominant team in college football's most competitive conference. It's entirely possible that if Spurrier had coached at Alabama instead of Florida I wouldn't regard him as so big an asshole. Well, on second thought, that's not true. I'd probably feel exactly like Groucho in "Animal Crackers" when Margaret Dumont says, "You wouldnt love me if I was poor." "I might," says Groucho, "but I'd keep my mouth shut about it."

In truth, I've never really thought that Spurrier was obnoxious in the same way as, say, the old Ohio State coach Woody Hayes or, more to the point, Bobby Knight. I'm not sure exactly what the distinction is between Spurrier and assholes like Hayes and Knight except to say that with Spurrier the delusions of genius were less of a delusion. I mean, Steve Spurrier really is the best coach in college football, or has been for the last dozen years, and he really is a genius in the narrow silly little world of college football offense. Most of what's called coaching at the college level is simply recruiting and creative scheduling. The modern college coach seldom approaches the game at the same level as Notre Dame's Knute Rockne or Stanford's Pop Warner or Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson or Alabama's Bear Bryant, of whom it was said he could take "hizz'n and beat your'n, and then take your'n and beat hizz'n." Most modern coaches can't even take hiz'n and beat anybody until he's got an entire staff of coaches to tell him what to do. Most modern coaches don't even coach players anymore, they coach coaches. (How many times after a close defeat do you hear the head coach say that he wasn't even "aware" of the play that was called at the crucial moment?)

I guess one of the reasons why I've always been willing to cut Spurrier some slack is because he takes the credit for the wins and the blame for the defeats. He's a realist who knows that great coaches ultimately prove their greatness by their willingness to learn from their mistakes, adjust and win on the rebound. Florida State's Bobby Bowden, God bless him, is a finer human being than Spurrier will ever be, but one only has to see him staring in bewilderment at the debacle of a big game loss (such as the humiliating shutout to underdog Oklahoma in last year's national championship game) to understand the difference between a recruiter and a head coach.

How should Steve Spurrier do in the NFL? I don't know, but I do know that most of the reasons I'm reading on why he may not do well don't make much sense to me. It is being said that Spurrier won't be able to control the media in an NFL town the way he did in Gainesville. Oh, I don't know, it's probable that he'll stay in Florida anyway, and in any event, what NFL city isn't willing to take a lot of crap from a winner? It's being said that in the NFL he won't have the same stockpile of talent that he had available at Florida. Well, so what? Instead of, say, an 11-2 season, suppose he goes, say, 14-5 and wins the Super Bowl? Is that OK?

The most popular theory is that there is no room for a man with Spurrier's enormous ego in the National Football League -- which is one of those remarks that ought to be immediately followed by a burst of laughter. NFL coaching egos out of hand? Well, there's a shocking exposé! The words "National Football League," "head coach" and "ego" are so closely intertwined that they ought to be listed on the same page in the dictionary, preferably under a picture of Mike Ditka. Talk about delusions of genius.

And, of course, we're hearing how tough it's going to be for him to get the modern NFL star, particularly the hot-shot quarterback, to defer his ego to the coach's. The cure for all of these potential problems, of course, is winning, and if Steve Spurrier can win he'll become the most colorful and widely discussed character in pro football -- in other words, exactly what he has been for the last decade or so in college football. Oh, yes, and I left something out: His teams are going to be fun to watch. As a football strategist, Spurrier makes Bill Walsh seem like Bill Parcells.

I can predict right now that the most anticipated and highest-rated games of the next couple of seasons are going to be the ones between Steve Spurrier and whichever unfortunate souls he chooses to recognize as his major rivals. Will he badger, bait and otherwise make life hell for his opponents -- conjuring conspiracy theories and contriving charges against them? Gawd, I hope so. I tell you they should skip this year's Super Bowl so we can get to the start of the next football season a little sooner.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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