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A definite maybe

Impossible to predict whether Spurrier will return to Florida sidelines

Posted: Friday October 29, 2004 2:55PM; Updated: Friday October 29, 2004 4:37PM
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Steve Spurrier
Will Steve Spurrier don the Gators visor yet again?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

So I said to myself, "Self, is the Ol' Ball Coach coming back to Gainesville?'' Well, on the one hand, yes. On the other hand, maybe not. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first blush. If it was, Steve Spurrier would have a Super Bowl ring by now and defensive coordinators around the NFL would be trying to figure out how to defend the deep fade.

On the one hand, the man is a Gator. He is more a Gator than people who paint themselves orange and blue and get drunk at 7:30 on Saturday morning outside The Swamp. He is more a Gator than the fat cats whose egos may or may not allow the school to bring him back. He is the Crocodile Dundee of Gators. When he first came back from Duke to Florida in 1990 and began building the mountainous powerhouse that would run roughshod over the SEC in the 90s, he would stand on the sideline and cry when the crowd sang We Are The Boys From Old Florida. You could look right down at the bench and see him swaying from side to side, moist-eyed like the old Homecoming King, the Heisman Trophy winner from back in '66. When he put on the blue shirt and visor on Saturday afternoon, he wasn't just a mercenary, he was one of the people. He wanted to win for all the Gators out there.

On the other hand, he's not a kid anymore. He's 59 years old. Nobody that age should refer to himself as a reptile.

On the one hand, he loved coaching his Florida Gators. Loved everything about it. Back in the winter of '02, I visited Spurrier in his office at Redskin Park, out in a lonely green sanctuary in rural Virginia. In the middle of our chat, one of his assistants walked in, and Spurrier introduced me. "Ol' Tim here was with us when we won the championship in '96. Beat the Seminoles that night. That was some night, wasn't it, Tim? Yessir.'' It was some night, all right. Spurrier's offense carved up Bobby's 'Noles and rolled to a national title in the Sugar Bowl. I walked with Spurrier and his family from a hotel ballroom to their suite in the Hilton that night and seldom have I seen an athlete or coach more at peace with a victory. Not in a champagne-spraying sort of way. It wasn't like that. Spurrier had brought a title back home to Gainesville and beaten Florida State to get it. It was as serendipitous a match between man and moment as I have ever seen. It doesn't get any better.

On the other hand, it doesn't get any better. It can be argued that Spurrier should never have left Gainesville. He was as good a college football coach as there's ever been. But he's a smart, competitive guy, and he needed to know if his ball plays would work in the NFL. (Answer: Not without the right personnel). He needed to take a shot. But if he comes back to Florida, it won't be the same. Oh, he can win again. Probably will win again, once he gets the ship in order. He'll throw the visor and burn through quarterbacks and program some absolutely brilliant game plans and beat the snot out of Tennessee. But it won't be quite the same. He left once. That changes things.

On the one hand, the NFL Jones is gone. Patrick Ramsey couldn't do what Danny Wuerffel did. Hell, Danny Wuerffel couldn't do what Danny Wuerffel did. Now he knows that the NFL isn't for little boys in short pants. The siren song will now sound a little more like fingernails on a chalkboard.

One the other hand, I can't believe Spurrier is satisfied with failure. Rick Pitino left college basketball to coach the Knicks. He won a little but not enough. Went back to Kentucky and won everything and then went back to coach the Celtics, because, well, because it was the Celtics. The next call to Spurrier might be from a team with a smart general manager and lots of cap room. He's different from Pitino, but he's got to think he can do better the next time.

On the one hand, Spurrier rescued Florida the first time, when nobody knew how good he really was. Sure we knew he won a few games in the USFL, and he won an ACC title at Duke (a miracle). But nobody knew for certain if he could pull Florida out of the morass of NCAA violations and win games. Everything beyond respectability was gravy, and Spurrier just kept piling it on. Florida became an every-year powerhouse, and the Ball Coach was a genuine character, running up scores and torching opponents with his plays and tongue. "I saw they kicked a field goal right before halftime,'' he said once after crushing Tennessee. "I figured that was good for us, 'cause we don't kick many of those.''

On the other hand, even at the end of his tenure, SEC titles were no longer a given. He had begun to chafe a little at the expectations. He had grown a little tired of recruiting. It will be different the second time. There is no gravy this time. Spurrier wins national titles, or he's failed the Gators the way he failed the Redskins. Georgia and LSU are better than they were. Tennessee is still good. It's not quite the same type of fun as teeing it up for 36 a day at your finest golf courses.

So I say again to myself, "Self, is the Ol' Ball Coach coming back to Gainesville?'' And I'm not so sure. I'm thinking it's better than 50-50 he takes the job, but in the end, I'm not so sure you can go home again. Again.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden weighs in with a Viewpoint every Friday on SI.com.