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Fierce Competitor : Whether It’s Ping-Pong or Football, Florida Coach Steve Spurrier Shows the Fire That Helped Make Him a Heisman Trophy Winner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Competitive? University of Florida Coach Steve Spurrier is competitive about the word competitive .

He’ll arm-wrestle you over the definition, play tug-of-war with the vowels and consonants.

“Oh, I think that’s blown out of proportion,” Spurrier said of the label. “Come on, I’ve probably thrown my visor two times this year. You know, you get a reputation for being competitive and people think you’re competitive in everything you do.”

Well?

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As Spurrier walked out of ear-shot after Thursday’s practice in the Superdome, two days before Saturday’s Sugar Bowl showdown against West Virginia, a different story unfolded.

“Psssst,” someone whispered. “He’s full of it.”

Not competitive?

In the 1970s, Spurrier, the former Florida quarterback and 1966 Heisman Trophy winner, was honored at his school’s hall of fame dinner.

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Later, in a back room, Spurrier picked up a paddle.

“The room we were in had a Ping-Pong table,” said Norm Carlson, assistant athletic director at Florida and longtime Spurrier friend. “We were playing at about 10:30 at night--his wife and I played Steve and some lady--and we beat them. And he got (upset), because a couple of our shots nicked the edge of the table. That’s just Steve.”

Carlson was Florida’s sports information director in 1963 when Spurrier arrived on the campus at Gainsville.

Carlson said he has never seen anyone take losing so hard.

“Never. No one even close.”

It takes all of Spurrier’s strength to shake an opposing coach’s hand after a victory, let alone a loss. He doesn’t believe in confronting the enemy.

In golf, “he gives you just enough strokes to lose,” a friend said.

His wife, Jerri, refuses to do anything with him that can result in the naming of a winner or a loser.

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After a tough road loss to Auburn this season, Spurrier was unable to sleep. At 3 a.m., he left home and drove to the office to purge the demons, rolling the game tape over and over, each frame another blow to the ribs.

Spurrier’s reputation preceded him.

Joe Biddle, now a columnist for the Nashville Banner, was a childhood friend of Spurrier’s in Johnson City, Tenn. Biddle remembers scoring the winning run to defeat Spurrier’s team in a Babe Ruth League regional championship game.

Spurrier was the pitcher.

“It killed him,” Biddle said.

After Spurrier’s high school basketball team lost a playoff game, Spurrier “did not show his face around town for a week,” according to Biddle.

The combination of fire and football propelled Spurrier to stardom as a quarterback at Florida, where he made winners of Gator teams with marginal talent--and earned for himself the Heisman Trophy.

Spurrier’s professional career did not reach such heights, although he was a first-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers and played professionally until 1976.

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Even when Spurrier was at Florida, people suspected that he had what it took to be a successful coach. In college, he would often discard the play sent into the huddle and draw up his own in the dirt.

In the 1966 Sugar Bowl game, Florida was losing to Missouri, 20-0, and Spurrier wasn’t happy about it. He told the coaches there was no way his team could move the ball with their game plan. Spurrier started calling his own plays and led the Gators to three touchdowns. Although his team lost, 20-18, Spurrier passed for a Sugar Bowl-record 353 yards.

Spurrier’s acumen for offense was apparent. After his playing days, he returned to Florida in 1978 to become the Gators’ quarterback coach. Then, it was a steady rise through the ranks, to Georgia Tech in 1979, to offensive coordinator at Duke in 1980-82 and to coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League in 1983-85.

After the USFL folded, he returned to Duke in 1987, this time as head coach, and on Dec. 31, 1989, was named the 19th coach at Florida, taking over a program hip-deep in an NCAA investigation.

In four years at Florida, Spurrier has led the Gators to a 38-10 record, and his overall record of 58-23-1 ranks him eighth among Division I coaches with at least five years behind them.

This season, he guided the Gators to a 10-2 record and the Southeastern Conference championship. Under Spurrier, the Gators averaged 476 offensive yards a game, 339 passing.

His offense, known as the “Fun ‘N Gun,” sometimes includes five receivers and no running backs. To score, Spurrier will try anything.

His teams have passed for more than 3,000 yards in each of his seven years as a collegiate head coach. His quarterbacks have all led their conferences in passing.

John Reaves, who played quarterback for Spurrier’s Tampa Bay Bandits, passed for more than 4,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

Reaves, now a Florida assistant coach, said Spurrier was the best quarterback coach he ever played for. And Reaves played for Bill Walsh.

It is no wonder that Spurrier, 48, is being rumored to be a candidate for head coaching positions with NFL expansion franchises at Charlotte and Jacksonville.

Of the rumors, Spurrier responds: “It’s the same rumors each year. No one’s offered me any job in the NFL, so they’re strictly rumors.”

The new Carolina Panthers are expected to contact him after the Sugar Bowl.

Spurrier has a clause in his contract stipulating that he cannot coach a professional football team in Florida, but Carlson said the university would not stand in Spurrier’s way if he wanted out.

Spurrier’s contract runs through 1998, but is in the process of being renegotiated. Carslon said the new deal, which will run through 2000, will not contain the clause preventing him from taking a professional position in Florida. Carlson said Spurrier will probably sign his new deal shortly after the Sugar Bowl.

Those who know Spurrier don’t think he will leave Florida, however.

“If you understand his competitiveness, there is no way he’s going to go to an expansion franchise knowing he’s going to get his butt kicked,” Carlson said. “No way. He’d be a basket case.”

Spurrier’s fierce competitiveness knows no bounds. He is notorious for calling reporters on the carpet for misquoting him or taking him out of context.

In a heartbeat, Spurrier will fire off letters to the editor. He is not above calling a reporter at any hour.

After a Birmingham, Ala., columnist called Spurrier a “cheater” in print, Spurrier wrote to the paper’s publisher saying the columnist would never again be allowed on the Florida campus.

When he ran into the columnist at a golf tournament, Spurrier confronted him and did not spare the expletives.

Spurrier expects perfection, even from reporters.

Opposing coaches have also known Spurrier’s wrath.

In the USFL, Spurrier’s Bandits once lost a game to the Memphis Showboats, coached by Pepper Rodgers, after Memphis recovered an on-side kick and scored. In a later rematch, Spurrier’s son, Steve Jr., approached Rodgers before the game and warned that his father had a surprise in store.

After the Bandits scored the first touchdown, Spurrier ordered an on-side kick. Tampa Bay recovered and quickly scored, then kicked on-side again.

“He doesn’t cut anyone any slack,” Carlson said. “He plays to beat you.”


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