Steve Spurrier sighs when asked to talk about the flaws of his sophomore starting quarterback. Where to begin? "He's not yet competent checking off at the line of scrimmage," Spurrier says. "He tends to run to the right rather than forward, and he's not very good about getting on his own fumbles." Later Spurrier adds, "He's got to get better in practice, and, no, he's not a great student."
Yet Rex Grossman has started 17 consecutive games for Florida, a streak that's longer than that of any other Gators signal-caller since Danny Wuerffel, whose final season was 1996. Grossman has set four school records, including the mark for consecutive games with 300 yards passing (nine and counting after his 302-yard performance in Florida's 54-17 rout of South Carolina last Saturday); he leads the nation in total offense and passing efficiency; and he has a chance to become the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. To stay on the heels of front-runners Eric Crouch of Nebraska and Ken Dorsey of Miami, he'll probably have to lead the fourth-ranked Gators (8-1) past Florida State on Saturday and Tennessee on Dec. 1. He'll also have to do something much tougher: stay on the good side of Spurrier, a fickle puppeteer who keeps his quarterbacks on extremely short strings.
Grossman breaks into a sly, knowing grin when asked about the tough love he receives from his coach. During a four-interception outing against Auburn on Oct. 13 (the Gators' only loss of the season), Grossman got more than an earful from an incensed Spurrier. "It's not as bad as it looks on TV," Grossman says. "In all the criticism there's always a positive message. I'm able to filter out the good from the bad."
That may be the biggest reason that the 6'1", 218-pound Grossman has thrived in Gainesville. The ability to deal with Spurrier is a skill that only a few in the coach's long line of gifted quarterbacks have developed—most notably Shane Matthews (1989 to '92) and Wuerffel, both of whom play for the Chicago Bears. Grossman has also flourished because he has range and touch reminiscent of his idol, Brett Favre, and a receiving corps that Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner calls "the best in the SEC, if not the land."
" Coach Spurrier pushes Rex and Rex plays better," says Florida's running-game coordinator Jimmy Ray Stephens, whose son Chris is the third-string quarterback. "And Rex is pretty laid-back, which rubs off in a positive way on Coach."
Rex Daniel Grossman III developed his thick skin playing peewee football in Bloomington, Ind., for his father, Dan, who calls Spurrier "a warmer, fuzzier version of me." According to Mo Moriarity, Rex's coach at Bloomington South High, "intense doesn't even begin to describe" Dan Grossman, a prominent eye surgeon and a friend of former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight. The family home is a 100-acre farm that produced the Arabian horses that Rex's mother, Maureen, and older sisters Ashley and Amy rode to national equestrian titles. In that king-sized backyard, Dan helped his only son—who quickly bored of riding-develop his long-range weapon of an arm and his love for the game.
Even before Rex's first game—in which, as an eight-year-old running back for the Stone Ridge Arabian Cowboys, he ran 60 yards for a touchdown on his first play—the elder Grossman saw exceptional athletic talent and a keen competitive spirit in his son. He was convinced that the boy would follow in the steps of Dan's father, Rex, a linebacker and kicker with the Baltimore Colts from 1947 to '50. "If you are a Grossman in Bloomington, you're going to be a football player," says Dan, who, with younger brother Dobby, quarterbacked Bloomington High to 30 straight wins, from 1968 to '70, before starting at quarterback and linebacker for Indiana. "But Rex had something special."
Dan coached his son's teams from the second through the sixth grades and developed a reputation as a demanding field general in the Monroe-Owen County youth league. "Dr. Grossman was a real, real tough coach," says Steve Sutherland, who played behind Rex from fifth through 12th grade and is a backup quarterback at Ball State. Dan was toughest perhaps on his son, whom he sometimes sent on predawn five-mile runs when Rex failed to meet expectations. As Rex puts it, "My dad has always gotten the very best out of me."
Rex quarterbacked Bloomington South to three conference championships and one state title, but he wasn't exactly a model of discipline. "He's more of a Joe Namath-type guy who likes to have fun," says Moriarity, recalling that Grossman had to miss the first 20 minutes of practice the afternoon before the 1998 high school state semifinal game against Ben Davis while serving a detention for being tardy to class. "He's a good kid, but he's ornery. He's that kid who comes to school late and parks in the principal's space."
When it came to football, though, that fun-loving kid morphed into the most focused player that Moriarity has coached. "The higher the pressure, the bigger the game, the better he plays," Moriarity says. Some of Grossman's best performances were against Martinsville ( Ind.) High, whose fans were so rabid that a few of them turned the stadium lights out in the middle of a Bloomington South drive. ("They were meaner than hell—it was great," says Grossman.) He was even better against Ben Davis, the perennial Indianapolis powerhouse, which Bloomington South beat three years in a row during Grossman's high school career. After the 1998 matchup, in which Grossman threw for 186 yards and three touchdowns, Ben Davis's Dick Dullaghan, one of the winningest coaches in Indiana Class 5A football history, called Grossman "the best quarterback to ever play in Indiana." Named the state's Mr. Football that year, Grossman finished high school with a 42-4 record and 7,518 passing yards, the fifth-best career total in state history.