Wiedmer: Spurrier getting older and better

Wiedmer: Spurrier getting older and better

June 16th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Steve Spurrier reacts during an NCAA football game in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Even for the guy who authored the infamous line "You can't spell 'Citrus' without a U and a T,' it seemed an unusually cruel tease.

Yet here was the Ol' Ball Coach Steve Spurrier on Saturday evening at the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Sunset Gala fundraiser, taunting a crowd whose blood mostly runs pale orange with the following statement: "If the Tennessee job had come open when I was available, that might have been fun."

Could you twist that knife a little deeper, Visor Boy? Because the only thing worse for the Big Orange Nation than losing to Spurrier during his earlier days at Florida and his current job at South Carolina is knowing that all those other SEC schools could have been losing to the Vols because of Spurrier.

Not that most of the 200 or so well-dressed souls in attendance at the Museum Center in 5 Points seemed the least bit perturbed by Spurrier's rascally remark, though UT's victory over the Gamecocks last October might have had something to do with that.

Either way, by the end of the evening the event had raised more than $123,000 for the civic club's charities of choice, at least part of that generosity no doubt due to the coach's great wit and charm.

And much of that charm was smartly aimed at Bradley County all-time athletic great Steve Sloan, whose life story includes everything from starring at quarterback for Alabama and the Atlanta Falcons, to becoming the head football coach at Vanderbilt, Texas Tech, Ole Miss and Duke, to running the athletic departments of Bama, Central Florida and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga before reviving his considerable golf talents in retirement in Florida.

"Steve and I have crossed paths many times," Spurrier said during both his Gala talk and earlier media interviews. "He was an all-state quarterback at Bradley my junior year at Science Hill. Then I was the all-state quarterback after he graduated.

"Steve was also the player who showed me around during my visit to Alabama my senior year in high school. Alabama was really where my dad wanted me to go, but they had Sloan and some guy named Joe Namath, so I went to Florida."

That wasn't the last time Sloan had an impact on Spurrier's career path, however.

"After the USFL folded, I didn't have anybody calling me," he recalled. "I was unemployed in January of 1987 and Steve was the head football coach at Duke. His job wasn't in jeopardy or anything, he was doing well, but Alabama wanted him to become its athletic director and he took it. That's how I got the Duke job. If he hadn't left Duke, who knows what I might have done."

What he's done is become one of the best coaches ever, going 219-79-2 heading into his 26th season as a college head coach, all of it without a hint of scandal.

"They have rules, and I try to obey them," said the 69-year-old son of a Presbyterian minister.

This is the side of Spurrier that's often underplayed. The honorable side. The caring side. A side he no doubt inherited from his father, J. Graham Spurrier, and his mother, Marjorie.

Ron Baker, the former McMinn County and Ooltewah High School basketball coach, was classmates with Spurrier during their elementary school years in Newport before the the family moved to Johnson City in order for the elder Spurrier to pastor a church there.

"Steve was actually a better basketball player than a football player back then," said Baker. "But he was good in everything, and competitive, too. He could get under your skin back then, too."

But Baker also recalled how, years later, when his mother was in terrible car crash, Steve's father came to visit her not once, not twice, but three times, even though the Spurriers had long ago left Newport.

"And he didn't even know it was my mom at first," Baker said. "He just knew someone from Newport had been in this awful crash, and he wanted to comfort them."

As for his buddy, Baker recalled how he and Spurrier had the same fifth grade teacher, a Mrs. Williams, and how she told the class that she wanted the first one to make a million dollars to send her a $100 check.

"Years and years later we had a class reunion of that fifth grade class at a Cracker Barrel," Baker said. "And Steve came back. Mrs. Williams was in her 90s then. The minute she saw him she thanked him for the $100 he'd sent her but told him he was No. 3 of those sending checks. We're still trying to figure out who the other two millionaires are."

How much longer Spurrier will keep adding to his own riches with his $4 million annual salary is uncertain. When he left Florida after 12 seasons he said, "I simply believe that twelve years as head coach at a major university in the SEC is long enough."

But he's also less than happy with his highly respected golf game at the moment, saying Saturday, "My golf has not been as good this year. I shot 86 the other day, but at least I was low man."

In another nod to Sloan, Spurrier said of his contemporary's golfing skills, "Yeah, Steve's better than me. I think I've beaten him one time in my whole life. It was the Brunswick (Ga.) Invitation in 1974 or '75. I think they called it the Golden Isles Invitational back then. But Steve's really good."

The Gamecocks have been really good the past three seasons, winning 11 games each fall, an accomplishment Spurrier never achieved at Florida, despite winning the 1996 national championship.

So how much longer might Stevie Superior coach?

"There's no time line," he said. "As long as you're in good health and you enjoy it. One of my goals as a head coach was to never get fired. I think I'm going to make that now."

True, but Spurrier's continued success may keep weakening the job security of South Carolina foes. And to think it could have been the Big Orange having all that fun if only UT had needed a coach when Spurrier needed a job.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com