SI Vault
 
Meet Mr. Humble
KARL TARO GREENFELD
August 22, 2005
Chastened by his failure in the NFL, STEVE SPURRIER is trying to turn South Carolina into an SEC power as a kinder, gentler ball coach--for now, at least
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 22, 2005

Meet Mr. Humble

Chastened by his failure in the NFL, STEVE SPURRIER is trying to turn South Carolina into an SEC power as a kinder, gentler ball coach--for now, at least

View CoverRead All Articles

Nothing prepared him for nothing. For months and weeks of nothing. For days and days of nothing. And, hardest of all, for hours and minutes and seconds of nothing. For waking up in the morning, pouring a cup of coffee, grabbing the paper and sitting out on the deck behind the four-bedroom, two-story house in Hamilton, Va., and having nothing to do but stare at the distant hills before wandering into the kitchen and asking his wife what's for lunch, and her answering--because she had errands to run and volunteer work to do at Scotty's high school--"Nothing." � Until that spring and summer of 2004, Steve Spurrier's life had been lived as if God's grace depended on how many SEC titles you won or yards you threw for or pass patterns you devised. He'd been cramming for football as if expecting St. Peter to administer a gridiron final before raising his hands to signal you'd broken the plane of the Pearly Gates. A minister's son, he played quarterback at Florida, where he could run, pass, punt and even kick game-winning field goals, as he did to beat Auburn and secure the 1966 Heisman Trophy. After that came the 10-year NFL career. Successful coaching stints with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL, Duke and, of course, Florida. The 1996 national title. The seven SEC titles. The nine Top 10 finishes. The best conference winning percentage of any coach in SEC history. He truly had become, as Auburn coach Shug Jordan had anointed him two generations ago, Steve Superior. And now, for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, he wouldn't be playing or coaching football. � His life had become a jumbo version of a common American journey. We live in a free-agent society--employment for life is a Japanese thing. Americans are peripatetic, striving, up for a challenge. So we move and upgrade and stretch ourselves. The days of a college football coach's staying in one place for 20 or 30 years have gone the way of pension funds, Joe Paterno yielding to Coach Paycheck. So Spurrier switched jobs mid-career, abandoned a comfortable satrapy in Gainesville to stride upon the grandest football stage of all, donning headphones and a burgundy windbreaker as head ball coach (his expression) of the Washington Redskins. Isn't that what we're all supposed to do? Follow the money, right?

Sometimes, Spurrier believes, you never really understand what's happening to you until it's already hurt you. Spurrier knew that pro football was different from the college game he'd mastered; he'd played a decade for the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The NFL, of course, had repeatedly come calling, drawn by his high-flying air attack, which had sent footballs spiraling through the humid, buggy air of the Southeast until he had persuaded a whole region to embrace the forward pass. Yet he had refused the professionals' entreaties until the Redskins and their five-year, $25 million offer. "If this is what you really want...," his wife, Jerri, had said when he told her about the deal on the table, and before she had even gotten the words out, she could tell by his nodding that yes, this was what he really wanted. The potential pitfalls and obstacles--well, wouldn't they be overcome like everything that had gotten in Spurrier's way before?

"Football," says Spurrier, "is coaches and players and guys all pulling together and working together and loving each other and all striving for a common goal, and then, away we go." He says this a lot--"away we go"--and always in relation to football, as if in the perfect execution of hitches and outs and buttonhooks there is potential transcendence, that we will be transported by our common striving to a better, purer place. He recalls each of his seven SEC championship teams as examples of that sort of attainment, the pooled energy of all those players being infinitely greater than the sum of the individuals. He expected the NFL to offer the same possibility for enlightenment.

What he found instead was a collection of individuals, an enterprise in which free agency, big money and the demands of owner Dan Snyder precluded the possibility of such pigskin nirvana. "When you're the head coach in college, the athletic director and president are your bosses, but they do not come in and tell you how to run the football program," Spurrier says. "In the NFL there's the head coach, and usually there is a general manager. Usually the owner hires the G.M., and he and the coach work together on personnel, staff--and away they go. We didn't have a G.M. where I was. The owner was making those decisions, and the players knew it ... and if you're not in charge of the guys, they don't listen to you. If you can't cut 'em and get rid of 'em, then they're never gonna listen to you. It's as simple as that."

Still, he takes the blame for what went wrong, realizing he should have had it in writing that he would have control over personnel. "I'm not trying to make excuses," says Spurrier. "I wasn't in charge, but it was my fault I wasn't in charge."

Yet critics of the Spurrier era in Washington point to his insistence on throwing the ball more than 55% of the time when he had a team featuring Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis that appeared to be better suited to the ground game. "What the hell are we doing on offense?" Redskins players at the time were complaining to reporters. Spurrier's offenses at Florida had revolved around dependable quarterbacks who kept mistakes to a minimum. Yet the quarterbacks Spurrier had in Washington-- Patrick Ramsey, Rob Johnson, ex-Gators Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews--hardly made Redskins fans forget Sonny Jurgensen or, for that matter, Mark Rypien. "Looking back," Spurrier says, "we probably should have run more. Anytime you throw too much and lose, you probably should have run. I probably had too much confidence in the passing game.... I was coaching like I used to coach--throw the ball in the end zone when you get a chance. We'd throw it in there, and they'd pick it off on first down."

Then, as if he feels he's conceding too much, he adds, "But we weren't nearly as good a running team as people said we were."

"There always seemed to be an excuse," says Redskins offensive tackle Jon Jansen. "We didn't have the right quarterback, the receivers, the scheme. When you have that many excuses, it's just a whole lot of bull----."

Whatever the cause, Spurrier's 12-20 record in his two seasons in Washington was the worst span in his coaching career. During the second season, relations with the players had broken down to the point where, Spurrier admits, "there were several of the players I didn't like being around very much, and they didn't like being around me."

Jerri kept on encouraging him, believing that if he could just win a game or two, tweak the system a little, it would all turn around. "He became very quiet," Jerri recalls. "I insisted on pushing him. I just thought if he would set his mind to it--I've seen him take on so many situations. He always works them out."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6