"I think everything is competitive," the Reverend Graham Spurrier says. "You want to be as successful as you can possibly be." Steve's father is 81, retired now, but he still finds the energy to preach when needed. He found his Presbyterian faith in high school in North Carolina and remembers fondly the day when fellow preacher Billy Graham came by and the two knelt in the Spurrier house. "I am a great admirer of Billy Graham because Billy has gone all out," he says. "He travels the world, and I watch him as much as I can. I think he has a great soul."
Graham Spurrier uprooted his family constantly: They lasted a year in Miami Beach, where he and his wife, Marjorie, had Steve, the youngest of their three children, before going to Charlotte and then moved from Charlotte to the hills of eastern Tennessee, alighting in Athens and in Newport before settling in Johnson City. He coached Steve's Little League and Babe Ruth baseball teams, opening one season by telling the kids, "Those who think the object is not to win or lose, but how you play the game, raise your hand." Most of the kids did. Steve didn't; he knew what his father was getting at. "They wouldn't keep score if the object isn't to win," the reverend told the children. "You might as well stay home if you don't come to win." Those Tennesseans angered by Steve's 25-point victory margin over the Volunteers this year should talk to Graham, who still gives Steve and Steve Jr., now on staff at Florida, coaching tips. When Steve would play sports, he says his father "was never overpraising me. He would say, 'How about that shot you missed in the corner? How about that incomplete pass? You always could've done a little bit better.' "
"He was Steve's coach, and whatever Steve did was never good enough," says Jerri, who married Steve in 1966. "He pushed and pushed and pushed. That doesn't work with everybody, but Steve could handle it."
Graham may have pushed his son, but Steve's talent and, more important, his confidence and ability to see plays develop were gifts he uncovered on his own. In 1966, with Florida and Auburn tied 27-27, the Gators had a chance to kick a game-winning 40-yard field goal—out of range for their regular kicker but not for their quarterback. Spurrier, who hadn't attempted a kick in six games, persuaded coach Ray Graves to let him try. He nailed the field goal—and with it, many observers believe, the Heisman Trophy.
When Spurrier hit the NFL, everything changed. He spent most of the next decade backing up John Brodie on the San Francisco 49ers and then earned the ignominious honor of piloting the only 0-14 team in NFL history—the 1976 expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He wasn't, by his own admission, a hard worker, but his time spent staring from the sidelines made him the coach he is now. "Coach Spurrier can stand on the sidelines, with or without headset, and look at the defense, and 95 percent of the time he'll pick a play that's going to work for us," says Brian Schottenheimer. "The way he sees the whole field is amazing."
But when he came to work at Florida the first time, in 1978, Spurrier lasted only a year; then-coach Charley Pell didn't like the fact that Spurrier, his quarterbacks coach, wasn't interested in 20-hour workdays and marathon film sessions. Spurrier moved on to Georgia Tech the next season, to tutor the quarterbacks for Pepper Rodgers, before getting a huge break in '80, when Red Wilson offered him the offensive coordinator's job at Duke—and promised to hand him the keys. "I told Spurrier, 'We'll do what you want, we'll leave you alone,' " Wilson says. Tech assistant Norm Van Brocklin told Spurrier not to take the job, telling him that Duke would lose "and he'd get fired and he'd be out of coaching."
Luckily for everyone Spurrier had no other choice. Quickly Wilson found himself turning to Spurrier for support; during games Wilson would ask Spurrier what play he was calling. "Touchdown, Coach," Spurrier would reply. "And dadgumit," Wilson says, "it was a touchdown."
But scoring wasn't what pushed him, not nearly as much as the alternative. Mention how much he loves to win, and Spurrier instantly corrects, "No, I hate to lose." And all along, Spurrier remembered every slight, every insult. "See that," he says, pointing to a news clip on the wall in his office. "From 1977 I was released by three NFL teams; I wasn't kept by Charley Pell or Bill Curry [at Georgia Tech]. I was cut loose five times in 2½ years." Every time he plays Kentucky, which Curry now coaches, every time he visits Georgia Tech, he remembers. "I'll show those people they were wrong, the ones who didn't keep me as a coach," he says. "We all like to prove people wrong who say we're no good."
It is past 8:30 at night, darkness has fallen over Florida Field, and there are signs that Steve Spurrier has begun to mellow. He still flings his visor when his team blows a play, but Jerri says that he's making the kind of effort to help raise their eight-year-old adopted son, Scotty, that he never made with their three older kids. Already today he has actually gone out of his way to praise both Bowdens, bestowing on each the ultimate Spurrier accolade: "Ball coach." And earlier tonight, as he sat in the icy TV studio doing his weekly call-in show, shirttail out under his jacket, someone called to tell him he's a "wizard," and Spurrier mumbled, "Well...not really."
No one expects humility from Spurrier. In a sense he is the truest picture of college football, a big-money game that likes to hide behind a veneer of amateurism, a win-at-all-cost contest that everyone likes to pretend is a nice display of something once called school spirit. He's all out there. There's no mistaking Spurrier's taste for the cutthroat thrill of the game: Being No. 1, jockeying for position, letting everyone know you are better than the other man.