Open Modal
On Air
Sun: 09:00 AM - 10:00 AM Sat: 12:00 PM - 04:00 PM

Steve Spurrier is back home at Florida

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Steve Spurrier propped himself against a drink crate in one of the north tunnels of the stadium that he so famously dubbed "The Swamp" more than two decades ago.

He rubbed his chin anxiously and fidgeted with his hair. By nature, the Head Ball Coach is a world-class fidgeter, especially on a rainy day like this that wreaks havoc with his neatly combed hair.

But this was no ordinary day. This was his day, the day he was officially welcomed back to Florida — as Head Gator Ambassador — and he and his family soaked in every bit of it, starting with a two-hour autograph session at the UF Bookstore to promote his new autobiography "Head Ball Coach: My Life in Football" and ending with one stroll after another down memory lane as Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium became Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

"I think about my life path and how blessed I've been," said Spurrier, gazing out onto the field and watching the final few minutes of the first half in the Gators' plodding 24-7 victory over UMass. "It's just amazing to be here and to have had all the great things that have happened to me. When Doug Dickey brought me back here to coach quarterbacks (in 1978), we got fired after one year. I was done. I didn't know where I was going or what I was going to do. At one point, my assistant coaching record was 10-24-1.

"But I guess all roads just sort of keep leading back to Florida."

Yes they do, for Spurrier, anyway. And it's clear that even though he was gone from his alma mater for the past 14 years during coaching stops with the NFL's Washington Redskins and back in college with South Carolina, his alma mater never really left him.

"It was hard seeing the greatest Gator of them all not be a Gator," said Danny Wuerffel, Florida's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in 1996 and one of Spurrier's favorite players ever.

Even as a 71-year-old ambassador who walks with a familiar limp thanks to a surgically replaced knee, Spurrier still scurries at a pretty good pace. And it turns out that he still has a few moves, too.

As part of the Steve Spurrier Field dedication before the game, he led the Gators' traditional Mr. Two Bits cheer with a rousing performance and then a Usain Bolt pose to close the deal.

"Is that not just like him?" Spurrier's wife of 50 years, Jerri, said. "Where did the (Bolt pose) come from? He didn't tell me he was going to do that."

Spurrier, the unquestioned king of the one-liner, shot back: "That's because you would have told."

To Jerri, Spurrier isn't "Steve" or the "Head Ball Coach." He's simply "Orr," which happens to be his middle name. And she wasn't about to concede this little verbal joust to Orr, either, as they watched the Gators while surrounded by family members from high atop in their suite.

"You're trying to tell me that I talk too much?" Jerri quipped.

Even Spurrier knows when it's time to stop. And while he isn't the emotional type, he admits that he nearly lost it as he stood on the field just before the game when the Florida band started to play the alma mater Saturday.

"But I held it together," he said. "I had too much talking to do."

There's also a different tone, a much more tender tone, anytime he mentions Jerri, who's been a part of his life since the Spurrier legend was born at Florida more than 50 years ago as a player. They met when they were students at Florida and have been inseparable ever since.

"Nothing would have happened in my coaching or playing career without Jerri," Spurrier said.

All day long, his former players flocked around him. They all have their favorite Spurrier stories, and most of those stories only get better with him.

Wuerffel can still hear Spurrier telling him in that familiar twang after Wuerffel would throw an interception early in his career, "That's all right, Danny. It's not your fault. It's my fault for putting you in the game."

Spurrier's 1996 national championship team was honored on the field at halftime. James Bates was a linebacker on that team and has remained close to Spurrier, so Bates had a feeling the Head Ball Coach would spice it up some with his Mr. Two Bits performance. Bates and Wuerffel had talked, and Spurrier asked Wuerffel if he improvised any during Wuerffel's guest appearance as Mr. Two Bits.

"I figured we'd see a little freelancing," said Bates, who does a spot-on Spurrier impersonation. "I'm just glad he's back. This is where he belongs."

One of the neatest things about Spurrier is that he treats and talks to people like he's known them his whole life.

"What's going on, my man," he tells the guy running the elevator in the press box and gives him a fist bump.

The Head Ball Coach isn't particularly big on shaking hands. Too many germs out there, so he's been more of a fist bump guy now going all the way back to his days as the Gators' head coach.

He spots somebody with a vintage Spurrier visor and asks, "What year is that? Is that 1993?"

Steve Spurrier's return to Florida was an even bigger deal than he imagined. "I'm not sure he really believed that he's been missed by the Florida people as much as he has," said Amy Moody, Spurrier's daughter. "After today, I think e believes it now." Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

And his memory, expressly his ability to recall the most obscure details from years ago, is uncanny.

One of the most priceless conversations of the night occurred with his longtime football operations director, Jamie Speronis, who's still in that same role at South Carolina and drove to Gainesville with his wife, Kristy, to be a part of Saturday's festivities. Speronis was wearing the same white coaching shirt he wore in 1996 for the Sugar Bowl national championship win over Florida State.

"See it still fits," said Spurrier, who remains in great shape and works out religiously.

But as the two longtime pals sat in that north end zone tunnel and began reliving all of their memories at The Swamp together, Spurrier started counting up how many games he'd actually won and lost there. The truth is that he knows the exact number as well as he knows his wedding date.

"Yep, only lost two games as a player, five as head coach," Spurrier said.

And if you throw in a freshman game against Georgia in 1962 and a flag football game (yes, a flag football game) against the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity on campus a few years after Spurrier had been out of school, he won 83 games. Remarkably, he can still remember the score and details from that flag football game.

"Some fraternity boys wanted to play a bunch of us former players, so we cut off half the field here at The Swamp and played them," said Spurrier, talking as if he were recalling an SEC championship game. "We beat them 20-19, helluva game.

"So if you count that one and the freshman game, I was 83-7 here."

Some of the best interaction with Spurrier came with the fans, who crammed into the UF Bookstore to buy his book and then wait in line to get an autographed copy. Buddy Martin, who co-authored the book with Spurrier, was there helping to direct traffic and said he'd never seen Spurrier, admittedly not a huge autograph guy, so giddy to sign for so many people.

They all had a different story to tell the Head Ball Coach when they got up to the table, many of them defining time with their first memory of Spurrier and the Gators. They recounted memorable Florida wins with him, several reminding him that he never lost to Peyton Manning, and one man told him he thought Spurrier's most impressive accomplishment was standing up for the 1990 team, which had the best SEC record that year, but was ineligible to win the SEC championship because of NCAA issues.

"They won the SEC. They didn't get credit for it, but they did from me," Spurrier said of his first Florida team. "They're the ones who started it all."

One girl told Spurrier her first memory as a 3-year-old child was him holding up the 1996 national championship trophy.

"How old are you?" he asked.

When she told him she was 23, he said, "I've got a grandson who's 23."

Another guy told Spurrier that he met him at the 1997 Citrus Bowl, and Spurrier immediately turned around to Martin and others and winced.

"After all the grief I gave Tennessee about going to the Citrus Bowl all those years, and we went that year," Spurrier said with a sheepish smile. "I remember standing on the field before the game and Tennessee had a plane fly overhead with a banner that read: Tennessee wants to welcome Florida to the Citrus Bowl.

"Somebody standing beside me said, 'That's not very funny,' and I looked at him and said, 'Yeah it is.' "

Steve Spurrier strolled down memory lane, delivered some one-liners and mostly just savored being back home at Florida. "I think about my life path and how blessed I've been," he said. "… But I guess all roads just sort of keep leading back to Florida." Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

Alex Santos and his daughter, Gretta, came from Orlando to see Spurrier.

"I was in school here in the 1990s when he transformed the SEC," Santos said. "We won championships and had fun doing it."

Matt Torrey came from Chatham, New York and would have stood in line for two more hours just to spend a few seconds with Spurrier.

"I was a Syracuse fan and a little bit Notre Dame living up there, but still remember him kicking that field goal to beat Auburn," Torrey said. "You just don't do stuff like that … a quarterback? But he did, and I've been a fan ever since."

Spurrier even signed books for future Gators who've yet to be born. Cody and Chelsea Fowler came from Mobile, Alabama. Chelsea is 19 weeks pregnant, and the couple stood in line for Spurrier to sign a book to Caden, the name of their unborn baby boy.

After two hours of signing books, it was difficult to tell whether the fans were happier to have Spurrier back or if he was happier to be back. He joked that he would stay busy "ambassadoring."

Sure enough, one fan asked if Spurrier could help him with his game-day parking, and Spurrier cocked his head and said, "Well, that's not in my duties as ambassador, but I'll see what I can do."

Florida has been searching for an athletic director to replace Jeremy Foley, who's scheduled to step down in October. One man asked Spurrier if he would be willing to take the job.

"No way, too much work," Spurrier chortled.

Even though it was a long day, it was a day Spurrier and his entire family will cherish. He's big on winning, big on having fun and big on family. Except for Steve Spurrier Jr., who's a member of Oklahoma's staff and couldn't be there, everybody else was there to share in the celebration, including daughters Amy Moody and Lisa King and youngest son Scotty Spurrier.

"I'm not sure he really believed that he's been missed by the Florida people as much as he has," Moody said. "After today, I think he believes it now."

Spurrier spent the remainder of the night with his family in the suite, as they watched the Gators pull away in the second half to win. He's still rocking the old flip phone and was continually checking messages and also checking on other scores from around the SEC.

"Why can LSU not get it right on offense? Every year, they have as much talent as anybody in the SEC, and that's including Alabama," Spurrier said.

And speaking of Alabama, Spurrier joked that he told Nick Saban recently that he better not coach too much longer because he's bound to have a three-loss season at some point.

"It happens to everybody, especially in this league," Spurrier said. "He told me he didn't know what they would do to him around there if he ever lost three games. I can already hear it, people saying that he's lost it, but he sure does have that thing rolling."

As the Florida game wound down to its final minutes, Spurrier's fidgetiness kicked back in. It was time to go. And if you really know Spurrier when it's time to go, it's time to go.

"Come on, Jerri, let's go," he bellowed as he stood up and stretched.

But not before Spurrier got one last hug from his 11-year-old granddaughter, Lauren. He might be the Head Ball Coach to the football world, but to Lauren, he's just granddaddy.

"I love you," he told her as he squeezed her tight.

Truth is there was a lot of love to go around Saturday at the Swamp. The Head Ball Coach is back home.

Related Posts

On Air
Sun: 09:00 AM - 10:00 AM Sat: 12:00 PM - 04:00 PM