Memo to Florida: Call Spurrier
The one man who can fill Gators' massive void is the Ol' Ballcoach himself
Posted: Tuesday October 26, 2004 4:44PM; Updated: Tuesday October 26, 2004 5:28PM
Here's an obvious word of advice to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley as he kicks off another search for the Gators head football coach: Get Steve Spurrier on board. Kneel at his feet and appeal to the crying need of his alma mater if you have to. Promise to re-name Florida Field in his honor. Throw whatever coin it takes to get the Ol' Ballcoach back pacing the sidelines.
If Foley likes his job, he better convince Florida faithful that he wooed Spurrier like the football God they deem him to be. He needs Spurrier to publicly turn down the job, if nothing else. And if Spurrier isn't biting, he best line up his hearty endorsement of Urban Meyer, Bobby Petrino or whoever eventually is hired to replace lame-duck Ron Zook.
Now, we're only offering Foley our pearls of wisdom because the last time he tried replacing Spurrier, Foley made like Ed McMahon, popping up on the doorsteps of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops and Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan with a smile and a fat check. Twice rejected and his sights lowered, the Gators boss struck on career assistant Zook, whose hiring he proceeded to try justifying with a nearly $1.5 million a year contract.
A panic hire? That's not how Foley saw it almost three years ago.
"I had a plan and I stuck to my plan,'' Foley told me then. "Whether my plan works or not, time will tell. I know football is too important at the University of Florida to make a decision in haste. I hired Ron Zook because I know he can win here.''
Well, sorry, Zook didn't win. He lost too often and in too many baffling ways. He lost SEC games and bowl games. And he lost Saturday to Mississippi State, a 24 ˝-point underdog -- which cost him his job and is ample proof even college administrators aren't oblivious to point spreads.
So where does Foley turn now? Steve Spurrier, Steve Spurrier . . . Steve Spurrier. While Spurrier weighs the pros and cons of a Gainesville comeback, Foley is left to sit and study is backup options.
The list right now is headed by the season's hot names: Meyer of Utah ($600,000-a-year, plus a $480,000 buyout if he leaves) and Louisville's Petrino ($800,000-a -year, plus a $1 million bonus if he stays through 2007), both of whom likely could be nicely slotted into Zook's salary. Foley might make another run at Stoops, but there's still no reason to leave Oklahoma and the Sooners can match Gator money. Or he could try throwing $2 million-a-year at the likes of Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Ralph Friedgen of Maryland or Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech. Or go against the Gator grain and take a flier on someone such as Bobby Pruett of Marshall (a former defensive coordinator at Florida) or TCU's Gary Patterson.
Whatever, we know Florida isn't afraid to pay -- actually, overpay in a lot of cases (i.e. hoops boss Billy Donovan) -- and the in-state recruiting base and chance to compete for national titles makes it a premier job. "You're talking about a place that has players,'' offered a Division I-A head football coach who'd gladly take a call from Foley. "Zook has done a good job of recruiting and they have a great quarterback [Chris Leak] coming back. Hell, you can go in there and compete for the national championship right away.''
The head coach and three other prominent folks with ties to college sports we spoke with -- an athletic director, an agent for football coaches and a headhunter who assists college sports program in coaching searches -- said it was a no-brainer, that Foley can't begin a serious search until he feels out Spurrier's interest in returning. The suspicion is Spurrier, 58, three years removed from the job and perhaps rejuvenated, could well be swayed if Foley and Florida boosters strike the right chord.
His name has already been linked to a possible opening with the Miami Dolphins, but the thinking is Spurrier would be more likely to return to the college game and the Gators. Those close to Spurrier said even before his foray with the Washington Redskins he'd spoken openly of going after the big money the NFL offered, suggesting the door would always be open for his returning to Florida.
"I'm sure the first person Foley will talk to is Spurrier,'' offered the headhunter. "All the Gator fans want Spurrier, so Foley is in the position where he has to at least be able to say, 'I talked to Spurrier.'''
What kind of reaction he'll get is anyone's guess, though he clearly hasn't ruled out a possible return. Spurrier is known to keep his own counsel and stunned his Foley when he called to reveal his resignation on a January morning almost three years ago. He walked away from the Redskins last December with three years left on a $25 million contract.
Another intriguing question here is why the quick hook. One theory is Zook had to be out of the way before Spurrier's interest could officially be gauged, with Foley needing his answer before the season is over in case he needs to pursue other candidates. Or having reached a decision to fire Zook, Florida officials didn't want to take a risk of his pulling out wins against Georgia and Florida State.
"I can't believe it is solely about losing on Saturday [to Mississippi State],'' offered an athletic director. "It has got to be a pattern, a concern, direction of program. Secondly, it may be a situation where they felt like regardless of how the season turns out, 'We're going to make a change.' Or they had some conversations with their football coach and sometimes the coach pushes the issue. In other words, they might have said look, 'We're going to make a change.' He may have said, 'Well, do it now. I don't want to be having the watch every week.'
"Or somebody might be thinking if they truly are going to talk to Spurrier, maybe they would want to have the appropriate amount of time to do just that, whether he takes the job or not. You don't want to be talking to another coach while they got one under contract.''
Now, to the delight of Gator faith, Foley is free to officially dial up the Ol' Ballcoach.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.