Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mr. C and the Ole Ball Coach - Steve Spurrier

Watching my Florida State Seminoles defeat Steve Spurrier’s U of South Carolina Gamecocks the other night reminded me of my up close and personal encounter with the Ole Ball Coach.

Few American sports figures draw the ire or admiration of fans as much as Steve Spurrier.  Ire for his sideline antics, admiration for his impressive achievements.  Any sports fan reading this already knows the reasons for the ire and admiration, but for those of you who don’t, a quick primer.

Admiration:  Heisman Trophy winner as a senior quarterback at the University of Florida.  Successful, but not stellar, career as an NFL quarterback.  As coach, transformed totally non-existent Duke University football team into a conference champion and national contender.  As coach, transformed dysfunctional U of F football team into a Southeastern Conference dynasty and national champions.  As coach, transformed lowly U of South Carolina football team into conference contender and national prominence.  Respected by friend and foe alike for his genius as a play strategist.

Ire:  Famous for his grimaces, facial expressions and visor throwing during games as well as visually chewing out players, coaches, referees and anyone else within earshot.  Intense is not too intense a word to describe his game demeanor.

My first encounter with Steve came during his senior year in college.  I had just gotten out of the military and took a job as a photographer at a local TV station.  Part of my job was assisting the film crew of the University of Florida’s football highlights program, “The Ray Graves Show.”  As such, I attended all of the games and sometimes traveled with the team.

Although it was Steve’s Heisman Trophy year and he garnered a lot of media attention, I don’t recall a single off-field incident to make him stand out from any other player.  He was just another member of the team and never sought or demanded any special attention that I could tell.

My second encounter was of a different nature altogether.  I was in development at the local Public Broadcasting station and for several years produced fund raising programs centered on University of Florida, Florida State University, and University of Georgia football.  They were pre-season shows and basically featured interviews with coaches and players, analysis of the upcoming season, and the past season’s highlights reel.  Each University had its own evening and the local athletic booster clubs manned the phones, taking donations from fans supporting their team.  It was a lot of fun and raised considerable funds for public television.

The U of F football program had gone through some hard times and Steve Spurrier was hired as head football coach and savior of the Gator Nation’s self-respect.  Especially since, at the time, that girl’s school over in Tallahassee was beating them like whipped cream on a regular basis.

The biggest highlight of my programs, and for me personally, was my interview with the head coach, where we would go into depth about the team’s prospects for the coming year.  (BTW  Those coaches included Bobby Bowden and Vince Dooley, a couple of names you might have heard of.)  Well, for weeks my calls for an appointment with Steve went unanswered.  Media days at the universities had come and gone, interviews were in the can and air time was only a week or so away.  It looked like we were going to have to do the show without Spurrier, a great disappointment and a definite blow to Gator Night.

Then, one afternoon I was at my desk when the phone rang.  I picked it up.  The voice on the other end said, “Charleston, this is Steve Spurrier.  I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to get back to you.  I’ve been totally swamped.”  “Listen,” he continued.  “I’m going to be in town this Saturday to meet with the boosters, can we do the interview then?”

It was like manna from heaven.  Hell yes we can do the interview then.  Spurrier was coming to town and we would do the interview in the studio, on the football set.  What could be better!

On the day of the shoot, at exactly the appointed time, the studio’s front door buzzer sounded and it was Steve.  By himself.  No retinue.  No driver.  I went down, let him in, introduced myself and thanked him for coming.

We spent the next hour on the set in relaxed conversation about Gator football, his hopes and expectations.  Half anticipating a fire-breathing, irascible dragon, I was taken aback by his forthright and unassuming manner.   Several times during the interview, sensing my lack of depth, he would elaborate, in yeoman’s language, so that the subject would be as easily understood and viewer friendly as possible.  It was, by far, the best interview I ever conducted and was edited into a thirty minute segment that had the Gator faithful ringing the phones off the hook.

The rest is history, but I will add a couple of things you might not know.  At the time, Spurrier’s  Heisman Trophy was the only one displayed at the university and not in the winning athlete’s home.  One of the first things he did as head coach was to un-retire his jersey and he replaced the artificial turf on the field with real grass.  What a relief.  That rug was so hot the Gators actually used it as a weapon against their rivals who were unprepared for half-time intravenous hydration, something Spurrier thought was way over the top.

Me too.


  1. I know nothing about football, but I have enjoyed a football movie or two (The Longest Yard--original only) and I enjoyed this story, Mr.C.

  2. Punch... yes indeed.

    Doug... thanks. For some reason, I've become more of a football fan as I've grown older. Good to take naps to. Like white noise.

  3. Always fascinating to see what people are like face to face. I was at UF during some of the Spurrier days. He sure was loved by the football lovers, a group to which I do not belong. Personally, a man (or woman) who can't keep his cool is rather unappealing. But I'm glad to know he's a nice guy.


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