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In a big game, Spurrier is an opponent to be dreaded. He is 6-0 against the Gators' most-hated SEC rivals, Georgia and Auburn. He has displayed a Midas touch with the Florida offense—as he did with the attacks of the USFL Tampa Bay Bandits, whom he coached from 1983 to '85, and Duke, which he coached from 1987 to '89 and took to its first bowl since 1960. According to former Blue Devil quarterback Ben Bennett, Spurrier was so restlessly inventive that he once drew up a play in his breakfast oatmeal on a Friday morning before a game.
Actually, Spurrier is a man to be dreaded in any game. He is a scratch golfer who insists on playing from the back tees, needles his opponents and refuses to yield the shortest gimme putt. In games of Ping-Pong in his own home, he does not let up even against his wife, Jerri. His competitive fire belies the fact that he is a preacher's son from Johnson City, Tenn.
That Florida Field has become one of the most deadly environments for visiting teams is largely attributable to Spurrier's competitiveness. He purposely cultivates a certain amount of hysteria among the fans, and off the field he has not hesitated to use his godly status as a tool. He insists that whole rooms of grown men sing that game-day favorite, We Are the Boys of Old Florida, at the conclusion of Gator Club meetings. He unretired his old number, 11, so that he could award it to a player he felt deserved it. And a couple of years ago, when former Gator defensive back Jarvis Williams, now with the Miami Dolphins, said publicly that he didn't care about Florida's football fortunes, Spurrier was outraged. He had Williams's picture removed from the wall of honor where photos of all Gator All-Americas hang, and he kept it down for a year.
"There are a lot of Gators more rabid than I am," says Spurrier. Indeed, one reason he decided to bench Dean in favor of Wuerffel was that Spurrier couldn't trust the Swamp fans not to boo Dean following the near disaster against Kentucky. Spurrier thought that Dean's confidence had been badly shaken by the four interceptions he had thrown against the Wildcats and that being reviled by his home fans might ruin him altogether.
That is how the Gator fans treat their own. Here is how they treat others: The last time the Vols traveled to Florida Field, in 1991, when they lost 35-14, some Gator fans cussed the wife of coach Phillip Fulmer (then an assistant) and attempted to fondle her. Shuler, then a red-shirt, was assigned to screen other players on the bench from debris being hurled from the stands. Florida students reportedly leaned over railings and tried to spit in the Vols' water supply. One fan urinated in his beer cup and then threw it at a woman wearing Tennessee colors.
After the game, Spurrier issued an apology. The Gators' conduct led the SEC to set a policy last year that forced the student section at all schools to be moved to at least 25 rows above the field.
The Gator fans' excesses may result from a lack of things to celebrate. The truth is that until recently, Florida had a long, undistinguished history in the SEC. The Gators joined the conference in 1933 but didn't finish first in the league until 1984—and then couldn't claim the title because they had been found guilty of NCAA rules violations. The Gators' growling has a ring of neediness.
Perhaps Spurrier's drive to win is his way of compensating for losses during his long-ago college career or for the frustration of sitting on the bench behind John Brodie for the better part of his nine years with the San Francisco 49ers. Or perhaps he is simply a born coach who reflexively looks for ways to win. In the 1966 Sugar Bowl the Gators were trailing Missouri 20-0 when Spurrier performed what may have been his first bit of coaching. He began to improvise, engineering a dramatic second-half comeback by drawing plays for his teammates in the dirt. The comeback, however, fell short, 20-18.
Spurrier is still drawing plays. "I burn to win," he says. "Maybe because the memory of those losses is so great. I just try to give our players some plays that will win."