He has already won a national championship and six conference titles, whipped Tennessee four consecutive years and raised the hackles of his coaching brethren--but the worst may yet to come for opponents of Florida Coach Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier, at 52, has discovered Sun Tzu, the 4th-century BC Chinese warrior-philosopher whose seminal work, “The Art of War,” has been dissected by generals real (U.S. Army’s George S. Patton) and imagined (Indiana’s Robert Montgomery Knight).
A colleague in the Florida administration gave the book to Spurrier as a Christmas gift, and the Gator coach has been busy implementing the strategies into his workday.
Having already pretty much mastered the modern passing game, Spurrier now seems intent on winning the ancient mind game.
“Those who render others’ armies helpless without fighting are best of all,” Sun Tzu wrote.
To Spurrier, this might be interpreted as “getting under their skin before we throw a mess of ball plays at ‘em.”
Sun also noted, “If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate.”
Irritate? Now, here’s a Chinese philosopher Spurrier can hang with.
Which brings us to Saturday’s showdown between No. 3 Florida (2-0) and No. 4 Tennessee (2-0) in Gainesville.
The Gators have so dominated the series of late, denying the Volunteers and quarterback Peyton Manning ultimate greatness, that there are some who believe that Spurrier has cast a psychological spell over Tennessee.
“I really don’t buy into that much,” said Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer, who is 1-4 against the Gators. “You used to hear the same thing with us and Alabama. I don’t believe that.”
Alabama defeated Tennessee seven consecutive years from 1986 through 1992 before Fulmer turned the tide on the Tide, winning three of the last four meetings. But Spurrier has so influenced the Southeastern Conference since 1990 that the Volunteers’ once-heated Alabama fixation has been replaced by a desperation to exorcise Florida.
Tennessee is 23-3 the last two seasons. Two of the losses were to Florida, the other to Memphis. Two years ago, in Gainesville, the Gators scored 48 unanswered points after trailing, 30-14, to win, 62-37.
Last year, Florida muzzled a record crowd of 107,608 in Knoxville by jumping to a 35-0 lead en route to a 35-29 victory. In a four-quarter spurt spanning two games, the Gators outscored the Volunteers, 83-7.
Last year’s game effectively secured the Heisman Trophy for Danny Wuerffel and lost it for Manning, who threw four interceptions in the first half.
Because Tennessee and Florida play in the same division, the SEC East, the defeats have been crippling to the Volunteers’ national title hopes, because you have to win the East title to play in the SEC championship game--the winner advancing to an alliance bowl.
Spurrier on Wednesday downplayed the influence of Sun Tzu on his coaching, choosing instead to cite former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden as his guiding light.
“I think Coach Wooden was maybe the best coach philosophy-wise,” Spurrier said. “His ideas, his style of coaching just make the most sense to me and our team. We try to emulate a lot of the things he did. Sun Tzu was just a famous Chinese general, 2,500 or so years ago. He had some good solid teachings. Most of us coaches, we look for anything, here, there and the other that makes us a better coach and helps our team be successful.”
Spurrier is more influenced by Sun Tzu than he lets on.
Recently, he told the Orlando Sentinel:
“Sun Tzu talks about how to prepare for battle, how to get his soldiers, his troops, ready to fight their best. When you think about it, head coaches, in a way, are generals of armies. They have to get their players ready, not to go to war, but for battles each Saturday there’s a game. And Sun Tzu believed there was a right way to prepare and he believed there was a wrong way.”
Spurrier’s pregame ploys were never more evident, or effective, than before last year’s national title game against Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.
Seeking to avenge a November loss at Tallahassee, Spurrier dominated the pregame conversation with charges of late hits against Wuerffel in the first game.
The tactic clearly unnerved kindly Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden. Florida easily won the rematch and the national title.
Fulmer’s record against Florida is fast approaching Ohio State Coach John Cooper’s exasperating 1-7-1 mark against archrival Michigan.
It’s probably only coincidence Cooper and Fulmer were raised not far from each other in Tennessee.
“Yeah, it does matter very much to me personally,” Fulmer said of his troubles against Florida, “but it matters a lot more for me for the football team and the program. We’ve done extremely well for the most part, we just haven’t been able to get over that hurdle with Florida, as a lot of people haven’t in the conference and around the country.”
Does Spurrier have Fulmer’s number?
Both teams had a bye last week. Fulmer ordered a rare Saturday practice. Spurrier packed up his car with sodas and chips and went to the beach.
Spurrier’s supreme self-confidence is no secret. After watching film of Tennessee’s close win over UCLA two weeks ago, he reportedly exited the session with a smile on his face.
Spurrier said he does not condone comments his players have made in the days leading to Saturday’s game. Tailback Fred Taylor was reprimanded for saying of Tennessee: “They can’t beat us. They know they can’t beat us.”
Spurrier also had to do damage control after defensive lineman Ed Chester said he hoped to knock Manning out of the game.
“What happens is every little thing that I say, or some of our players say, is interpreted as an insult or a dig at somebody,” Spurrier said. “We sort of know who we are. Every now and then something comes out, only when we’re playing Tennessee, maybe. No, we do not believe in bulletin-board quote stuff. I know a lot of teams do. If my telling Citrus Bowl jokes on Tennessee at the Gator Club during the summer helps fire them up, then they can have a go at that.”
The Citrus Bowl joke?
Spurrier said the main reason Manning came back for his senior year was to become the first quarterback to win three Citrus bowls.
“Steve Spurrier is a great coach,” Tennessee receiver Marcus Nash told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. “He’s just a jerk.”
Ah, but followers of Sun Tzu might think Spurrier’s tactics are all calculated.
Spurrier’s mastery over Tennessee has had a decided impact on Manning, whose career will be defined by his record against the Gators.
“I don’t really feel that way,” Manning said Wednesday. “But I don’t have that much control over that. Probably a lot of people will base it on this particular game.”
Manning insisted avenging three losses to Florida was not the inspiration for his turning down $30 million from the NFL to return for his senior season.
But he did say: “These kinds of games are why you play college football and why you play in the SEC.”
Florida players say they sense Tennessee players have wilted under the pressure.
“In my opinion, they put so much hype on this game, if anything goes wrong against them, it seems to affect them the whole game,” Gator cornerback Fred Weary said.
Manning insists neither he nor his teammates have been psyched out. He says the games have been lost on the field, not in anyone’s cranium.
What if the Gators are trying to play with their minds?
“If they are, they aren’t succeeding,” Manning said. “Obviously, they have all the room in the world to talk. They’re the defending national champions, and they’ve won the conference the past few years, so they can talk all they want because they deserve it. All we can do is prepare hard, keep our mouths shut and go play hard on Saturday.”