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Grateful Gators
Tim Layden
January 13, 1997
A shift in strategy by Florida coach Steve Spurrier finally brought his alma mater a national title
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January 13, 1997

Grateful Gators

A shift in strategy by Florida coach Steve Spurrier finally brought his alma mater a national title

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In the small hours of last Friday, Florida coach Steve Spurrier rushed toward a fourth-floor suite of a New Orleans hotel with his family in tow and college football at his feet. A surreal 52-20 Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State that was chilling in its ease and convincing enough to earn Florida its first national title lay two hours behind him. Free, for the moment, from the worshiping Gator masses and alone in his private circle of family and friends, Spurrier trundled forward, taking gulps on a celebratory Coors longneck, feeding off the energy of the evening. Lord, how he had wanted this game, this small piece of revenge, this first title after resurrecting his alma mater and branding its program with his perfectionist's zeal.

His Gators had reached the doorstep one year before, only to be punished by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, and this autumn they had turned over their No. 1 ranking to Florida State after a bitter 24-21 loss to the Seminoles on the last day of November. Given new life with the Sugar Bowl invitation to New Orleans, Spurrier had attacked his work as never before. Now, in the early bayou morning, Spurrier let the joy wash over him as he punched the air with staccato bursts. "Been excited about a lot of games, been involved in a lot of them," he said, running his hand through his boyish brown hair, still tousled from a hurried postgame shower. "But we wanted this one very, very badly. Golly, it's a thrill for Gators everywhere."

This had been the consummate match of man and contest, as if Spurrier had been born 51 years ago just so he could stand in the Superdome and coach this game. The loss to Florida State had seemingly killed the Gators' national title bid, yet in the weekend that followed, the dominoes of competition and politics had fallen wildly, leaving Florida reborn. The rematch, which in many ways would define Spurrier's place in history, pushed all of his buttons: ego (his beloved offense was held to three touchdowns in the first Florida State game), intellect (how to outscheme the Seminoles' ruthless defense with an offensive line scarred by injuries), loyalty (no Gator, including Spurrier, class of '67, likes to lose to his hated rival in Tallahassee) and passion (he has a deep affection for his quarterback, fellow Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel, who took a pounding in the first game). Raising the ante even further, Spurrier had spent the month between games accusing Florida State of playing dirty.

In short, the stakes could not have been higher for a coach in need of a validating national title. A victory would certify his genius, a loss would leave him empty and sullied. In the weeks leading to the bowl he became single-mindedly possessed. "Thirty-two years I've known him, and I've never seen him so involved," said Allen Trammell, a college teammate and close friend of Spurrier's, the day before the game. To wit, Trammell's son, Allen III, was married on Dec. 21 in Orlando, yet after accepting an invitation to the wedding, Spurrier canceled in a last-minute phone call to Trammell. "He said his game plan just wasn't quite right and he had to stay in Gainesville and work," said Trammell. "I understood. He was living bigger for this one. It was huge to him."

When the rout was finished, and as Spurrier was being shuttled from one interview to the next in the belly of the Superdome, his wife of 30 years, Jerri, leaned against a concrete wall and folded her slender arms across her chest. "I've never seen Steve like he was for this game," she said. "It had to do with a lot of things: Florida State, the offensive line, the fact that it was Danny's last game." She paused, breathing deeply, her eyes moist. Jerri was married to Steve when he won his Heisman in 1966, married to him when he quarterbacked the 0-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976, married to him when he accepted the Florida job before the 1990 season. "So many different things about this year," she said in the Super-dome. "So much emotion."

The war of words began on Sunday, Dec. 8, the day the rematch was made. Wuerffel had been knocked down 32 times by the Seminoles the weekend before, and in the emotional minutes after the win one Florida State player had said that the Seminoles had tried to knock Wuerffel out of the game. Then Spurrier went on the attack, Hogging the issue in the media for three weeks. What's more, he accused Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews of condoning headhunting.

When Bowden met with his team on Dec. 21, before a four-day Christmas break, he shouted at them, "If I wasn't a good Christian man, I'd tell every one of you to go out and kick Steve Spurrier's ass." Upon arrival in New Orleans, Bowden largely played the court jester, spinning jokes from Spurrier's accusations while growing privately bitter that Spurrier had made the issue personal. "Don't know why he had to do that," Bowden said. "I wish he hadn't. I guess I should be used to that with him by now."

Spurrier was also getting personal with his team. The Gators have a reputation for brilliant finesse play, but questions have long persisted about their toughness, and those concerns only intensified after the 62-24 Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska, in which the Cornhuskers treated them as if they were the Marching Gators. Florida State similarly dominated Florida in the Nov. 30 game. "We got pushed around up there," Spurrier reiterated in the weeks leading up to the rematch. "My message to the team was, Don't let that happen again. Don't get pushed around."

The emotion fueled by both coaches spilled onto Bourbon Street three days before the game. On Dec. 30, Florida sophomore tackle Zach Filler, who had missed the first game with a sprained right leg but who would start the Sugar Bowl, stood outside a bar, the Cat's Meow, and lobbed trash talk at Florida State junior defensive tackle Julian Pittman.

"He was just running his mouth," Pittman said the next morning. "He was talking about how he couldn't wait until [the Seminoles' All-America defensive end] pete Boulware tried to put an inside move on him so he could get him." Pittman relayed Filler's boast to Boulware, who deadpanned, "It figures Piller would talk; he didn't even play in the first game."

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