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Spurrier Puts the Os in the Xs’ Slots

THE SPORTING NEWS

The season’s first Game of the Century came this weekend when defending national champion Florida played Tennessee.

So it’s time to confess. Steve Spurrier is my all-time favorite football coach. That’s because the Florida genius thinks football is basketball, only outdoors, a philosophy I used during a football coaching class at the Harvard of the cornfields, Illinois Wesleyan University.

For our final exam, given by professor/coach Swede Larsen, I drew up an offensive system that put O’s in places O’s had never been. The poor X’s could have no idea where the ball would go next. Our O’s ran routes of interlocking curlicues, which, in real time, might have required our linemen to hold blocks for 30 seconds while our quarterback moved around, moved around, moved around, waiting for the precise moment when he could fling the hoghide 72 yards on the fly.

From 64 different formations, we threw the ball. Running plays? The Packer sweep was big at the time. Lombardi could keep it. We didn’t need it. We’d throw on every down. Running was for mechanics, flinging the hoghide for artists. Swede Larsen must have been charmed by my boyish ignorance disguised as impetuosity. He gave me an A and wrote across my paper, with a certain sense of irony, I now believe, “Let me know if this works.”

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So I became a Steve Spurrier fan the first time he used a formation that put O’s in places I’d never seen O’s. As it happened, the formation was not a Spurrier original. That’s what I came to love about it. He reached into history for a formation so bizarre that it worked 40 years ago as well as today.

There are no new ideas. There are only inspired thinkers who make old ideas new. The formation was an oddly gapped spread. Tackles were split 15 yards wide with ends beside them. Behind them stood another receiver, leaving only the center, guards, a running back and quarterback near the ball. Seeing this gap-toothed oddity during an SEC championship game, I said to the next man in the press box, “Huh?”

Joe Biddle, a Nashville sportswriter, knew all about it: “I grew up with Steve in east Tennessee when he was scratching those plays in the dirt.”

Biddle said the formation was the “Emory & Henry shift,” created at that small Virginia college in the 1950s. Spurrier didn’t use the formation for show. He used it to gain a critical first down during a touchdown drive in the last six minutes that produced a 24-23 victory over Alabama and sent Florida to the Sugar Bowl.

Anyway, Tennessee goes to Florida this weekend. It’s never a good idea to play at Florida. Spurrier’s teams have lost at home twice in seven seasons. It’s an especially bad idea this year. As good as Florida has been, it may never have been as good as it can be this year.

“Eighty-five of our 88 players are better than last year,” Spurrier has told a friend. He excepted the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Danny Wuerffel, and two departed All-America receivers, Reidel Anthony and Ike Hilliard. The quarterback now is Doug Johnson, a pro baseball player who reported this fall in baseball shape, not football shape. He played poorly in the opener against Southern Mississippi. Florida went into Week 2 with its worst offensive statistics in Spurrier’s career.

“The mighty Gator offense is dead-ass last in the SEC,” someone said. Someone? Spurrier himself sank that barb. Which may have helped produce the next week’s 82-6 victory over Central Michigan. In that game, Johnson threw seven touchdown passes in the first half. One of Spurrier’s former All-SEC quarterbacks, Shane Matthews, has said, “Doug has more ability than either me or Danny Wuerffel.”

All this football stuff is fine, but the charm of Spurrier is that he’s more than just football. “To me, Steve Spurrier is the ultimate fan,” says John Adams, a columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “He says and does things that a fan would do if a fan got to be the head coach. He really enjoys it. He absolutely relishes it. All the winning he’s done, and he never gets bored.”

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A Florida fan is likely to be a Florida graduate, as Spurrier is. Such a fan is likely to stand tall so as to look down upon the rest of pitiable mankind, as Spurrier does. A truly clever and obnoxious Florida fan might say, as Spurrier has, “Half our players don’t know who coaches Georgia, Tennessee and Vanderbilt” -- thereby insulting two hated rivals by putting them in a sentence with the league’s perpetual doormat.

Someone, not Spurrier, made up a mock list of Tennessee’s goals in 1996. It was Spurrier who drew attention to the list. Crossed out as not attainable were National Championship and SEC Championship (both out the window when Florida went to Knoxville and led 35-0 after 20 minutes). Also crossed out was State Championship (a loss to Memphis). The only goal attained, Spurrier noted, was Knox County Champion.

Ouch. When Spurrier mentioned all this, Tennessee fans wanted to slap the genius upside the head.

So what does the ultimate fan do? He calls a Tennessee sportswriter--at home.

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Yes, Spurrier called John Adams and said, “Wondered if you’d want some quotes.” Sportswriters live to quote Spurrier, so Adams listened as the coach said of the Tennessee fussin’, “What they’re trying to do is take attention away from the Lady Vols. Hey, Pat Summitt (the women’s basketball coach) wins national championships and the football team doesn’t.”

Ouch. I have my own ouch, by the way. Spurrier says his Heisman Trophy candidate this year is Fred Taylor. He is not a fellow who flings the hoghide 72 yards. He’s a runner. A brute. Yikes!


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