Roy Exum: The Day Spurrier Quit

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I remember this well. It was early on Monday morning, in the middle of October in 2015, when I got a call around dawn that Steve Spurrier was telling his South Carolina football team that he was abruptly quitting. “That’s a lie … Steve has never quit anything … ever.” I tried to call his cell phone, no answer, and later I confirmed the unthinkable. “The ol’ ball coach” had indeed jumped ship in the middle of the season. In a sport where quitting is never an option, he made it one and what’s more mystifying is that of all the greatest at anything I have known in my life, no human being was more competitive or more about whatever it took, within the rules mind you, than the one I called “Orr.”

Orr is Steve’s middle name, and what his closest teammates called him at Johnson City’s Science Hill High. I couldn’t tell you when it was I stepped inside his inner circle but he became a dazzling friend, one who at the end of a Gator football press conference would yelp, “Ex, let’s get a sandwich.” Back in the last 25 years of the 20th century, I enjoyed some of the best friendships with the Southeastern Conference coaches. Men like Johnny Majors, Pat Dye, Gene Stallings, Ray Goff and Spurrier were exceptionally close and for years people have begged me to “tell what really happened” during this or that. Believe me, I know.

Curiously, I have not seen much of that regal bunch since I got so sick in the first decade of this century and, while I have seen and laughed with Spurrier on several occasions, the timing has never been right for me to tell him when he quit at Carolina. It darn near broke my heart and … well, we’ve played golf and chatted during Friday’s walk-through practices, but his decision to quit when the Gamecocks were 2-4 that October has haunted me. Back in the day when we were always paired together in every golf outing – he was the best player and I was the worst -- we meshed like bread and jam. One day we were walking off a back-nine green in Lexington Ky. and he told me … “I’m gonna’ say something I can’t remember ever saying before but Ex, you ain’t coachable.”

“I thought Dr. Otis Singletary, who was the president of the University of Kentucky, would wet his pants he was laughing so hard. (“Doc O” always tried to play with us and, while far be it for me to speak unkindly of the dead, I was better than he was!) “And one other thing … start calling me ‘Steve Orr’ … when you just say ‘Orr’ with your accent I think you are cussin’ or something!”

Steve was the master at zingers and he got me a lot. (It meant he liked you) “When was the last time you saw Ray Goof … you still hanging around Coach Goof!” he would chortle, knowing I adore Georgia’s Ray Goff. And he was relentless when it came to Tennessee. He once rather famously told Peyton Manning: “I know why you went to UT …. so you could be the MVP in the Citrus Bowl three straight years.”

The inside story was Spurrier desperately wanted to sign with Tennessee. He was actively recruited by every college in the South but something tainted the water in Knoxville. He was offered scholarships by Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, South Carolina, and both Air Force and Army, among a host of other schools. Bowden Wyatt, the UT coach at the time, was struggling and UT did not offer Steve. (Wyatt was fired later that year and died in 1969.)

Ray Mears, the Vols basketball coach, offered him but, after Florida coach Ray Graves sat up with him in the hospital all night when Spurrier came down with the flu during his recruiting visit, Spurrier went to Florida where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966. Spurrier was a backup quarterback in the NFL for 10 years and was then hired as an assistant coach at Florida by Doug Dickey.

Now comes the good part. Several weeks ago Josh Kendall, who covers South Carolina for the great sports website, theathletic.com, got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to talk to Steve about his life and – obviously – Spurrier’s abrupt departure in Columbia was the nuts-and-bolts of a brilliantly written story. Here’s an excerpt from Kendall’s story, “Five years later, Steve Spurrier wants to clear up a few things”

* * *

WHY STEVE SPURRIER QUIT MIDWAY THROUGH THE 2015 SEASON AT SOUTH CAROLINA

(Note: This is taken from a story written on theathletic.com website by Josh Kendall. It appeared on Feb. 4, 2020)

“Let me talk about the word quit,” Spurrier said midway through a two-hour conversation.

Spurrier coached the Gamecocks for 10 1/2 seasons. Those years included the best stretch in the school’s football history, but the end was sour enough that both he and some fans still have a bitter taste in their mouths. The 74-year-old Spurrier is a little grayer than he was when he left the team, but still has the edgy energy that has marked his coaching career. And he’s animated. Ready to go.

“Everybody wants to say, ‘Never quit,’” he said. “Quitting sometimes is good. You quit drinking too much, quit smoking, quit doing drugs, quit arguing and fighting with your spouse or friends, quit eating french fries every meal. There are a lot of things where quitting is the best.

“In my situation, I thought it was like that. In ‘Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun,’ it says, ‘When defeat is inevitable and there’s no way you can win, it’s better to retreat and come back and fight another day.’ Quitting to me has always meant in the middle of a game you have a chance to win and your players or coaches quit on it. That’s quitting. I felt like I was defeated. I needed to retreat, to get out, and maybe somebody (else) could provide a spark that I could not provide for that team. Maybe it was just such that nobody could have helped it much.”

Even though all that is far in the rearview mirror now, it remains important to him to explain himself, important enough that he was willing to go over it all again in minute detail and reveal, in some cases for the first time, his emotions and the incidents that led to his decision. That’s why he agreed to meet a reporter at the office of a friend, just a mile down Bluff Road from Williams-Brice Stadium, to talk about all of it again.

“I looked into the mirror in that 2015 season and said, ‘You’ve become a sorry ball coach,’” Spurrier said wistfully.

That’s a remarkable statement from a man who won 228 games and lost 89 in his collegiate career, but it’s a telling one. This is a story about things that might seem small but loomed large for Spurrier, and ultimately ended one of the most successful careers in college football history.

It started in 2014.

From 2010-13, the Gamecocks won 40 games and an SEC East title. It was the most wins in a four-year period in school history, and it was the high-water mark of South Carolina football. The Gamecocks finished the 2013 season ranked No. 4.

“That arguably was the greatest year in school history,” Spurrier said. “I was just hoping for a top-10 finish, but I remember (former football operations director) Jamie Speronis calling and saying, ‘Coach, we’re No. 4 in the dang nation.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ So we were all feeling really good about ourselves, and I went to (athletic director Ray) Tanner and said, ‘How do you feel about giving all the coaches two-year contracts?’ And he said, ‘OK, we’ll do that.’ One of our coaches even wanted a three-year (contract). … Mistakenly, we did that. It was a mistake.”

Spurrier believes the decision to give the coaching staff more security led to complacency among some coaches, particularly on the defensive side, as it was coordinator Lorenzo Ward who received the three-year contract. The Gamecocks finished last in the SEC and 104th in the nation in yards per play allowed (6.22) in 2014, and gave up a two-touchdown lead in the second half three times — in a span of four games — during that season.

The final time it happened, in a 45-42 overtime loss to Tennessee on Nov. 1, Spurrier walked out of the postgame news conference without taking questions. It was the start of a bad week.

“I tell people I had sort of the ‘Urban Meyer disease.’ You know how when Urban has a loss, it just hits him? Well, it hit me,” Spurrier said. “I forgot the code to my dressing room door at the stadium.” He had to ask equipment manager Chris Matlock how to access the dressing room.

“Ten years, the same code, and all of a sudden … Phone numbers, I forgot them,” he said. “I had never quite had anything like that.”

That loss dropped South Carolina to 4-5 on the season, and it drove Spurrier to a classic moment in any good protagonist’s story: the bargain with God. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Spurrier always has been serious, though not publicly vocal, about his faith.

“I sort of said, ‘You know, I’m a person of faith, a believer, and I know God has really smiled on me,’” Spurrier said. “I prayed, ‘Lord, if I get a chance to get out of this with a winning season, I’ll resign, I’ll hang it up. I’ve had my share of good fortune and that’ll be it.’”

God came through on his end of the deal. South Carolina beat Florida 23-20 on Nov. 15 in what Spurrier called “a miracle win.”

“How often do you block a field goal and a punt in the last four minutes of a game?” he asked. (Current South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp has often wondered the same thing. Muschamp was the Gators’ head coach in that game. He was fired the following day.)

The Gamecocks beat South Alabama the following week and then lost to Clemson before closing out the season by beating Miami 24-21 in the Independence Bowl to finish 7-6.

“So, we’re 7-6, we’ve got a winning season. I got even with Miami. I had been 0-1 against Miami. People ask, ‘Do coaches keep up with that?’ Yeah, I keep up with that,” Spurrier said.

Spurrier called Tanner that week and said, “I think it’s time. Let’s call the press conference.”

But Tanner urged Spurrier to reconsider, which gave other external forces time to go to work on him.

“Of course, (wife Jerri Spurrier) didn’t want that,” Steve said. “She loved living here. She loved hugging the players. She loved everything about it. Of course, I had two sons on the staff (assistant coach Steve Spurrier Jr. and analyst Scottie Spurrier). They didn’t want to go for that. Then (Florida radio host and longtime friend) Buddy Martin, he called up and he says, ‘Steve, do you realize you have a chance to do something that has never been done in the history of college football, win 100 games at two schools?’ He said, ‘You’ve got 84, all you need is 16.’”

Spurrier had always thrived on firsts. He relished every time he did something that had never been done before, which he did a lot. He won the first national football title at Florida, and he left a laundry list of firsts at South Carolina, where he is the all-time winningest coach with an 86-49 record.

The possibility of doing something for the first time in the history of the game? Well, that was too much for Spurrier to pass up.

“I sort of got greedy a little bit,” he said. “I said, ‘That’d be neat. I’m not in that bad of shape, am I?’ One thing led to another, and all the coaches had at least another year left on their deals. And I thought we had a decent team coming back. I really did. We thought we could scrap out eight wins or something like that.”

So Spurrier returned for the 2015 season. The Lord let Spurrier know quickly that it was the wrong decision.

First, three players suffered significant injuries during preseason practice. None of them were starters. The injuries didn’t hurt the Gamecocks on the field, but they upset Spurrier’s idea of how things should be done. For most coaches, practice injuries are considered a price of doing business. For Spurrier, they always were galling.

“Here I am, the head coach, and I told parents, ‘We’re going to look after your sons. We are not going to get hurt in practice. We’re going to protect each other. We know the difference between teammates and opponents,’” he said. “And all of a sudden we’re getting guys hurt in practice, and there’s not a lot of remorse being shown by the players that caused the injuries.”

He began to worry then that he was losing the attention of his team. He would have more reason to worry soon.

“There were some things that happened that let me know for sure that I was not as respected as I normally was as the head coach,” he said. “I had one player call me bro.”

Spurrier declined to name the player, but it was a quarterback on the team.

“I was asking why he did something. It was after a game,” Spurrier recalled. “He actually tried to throw a fade and threw it about 10 yards out of bounds. He didn’t even look at the other side of the field and the play was wide open. I asked him, ‘Did you get the signal from the sideline?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you go to the 92 Hugo side? That was the play.’ He said, ‘I thought I could hit whatchacallit on the fade.’ I said, ‘You acted like you didn’t get the signal,’ and he said, ‘I ain’t stupid, bro.’ Of course, I said, ‘I didn’t say you were, bro.’ I started thinking, ‘I used to be called coach and now I’m being called bro.’”

Just the memory of it still makes him shake his head a little.

And then came what Spurrier called “the final nail.”

Dismayed by a drastic dropoff in attendance at the team’s weekly chapel service, Spurrier addressed it in a team meeting during the season.

“We (usually) had about the whole team there basically. We had our team chaplain Adrian Despres there, and he gave a nice message and that’s just what we did. We did it for 10 years like that. We did it no problem. And all of a sudden that 11th year nobody wanted to come,” Spurrier said. “Instead of 60, there were eight or 10. After about the fourth week, Adrian said, ‘Coach, have I done something wrong here?’ I said, ‘You haven’t, and I’m going to say something to the team about it.’ It’s always voluntary and it’ll always be voluntary but we encouraged people to come. So I talked to the team.

“I said I want to encourage all of you, for 10 years now almost all of us have come to chapel service, and I want to encourage you to come. I’ll be there. My wife will be there. We need to hear his message, 20, 25 minutes a week, I don’t think that’s too much, but it’s up to you. It’ll never be compulsory, but I’d like to encourage you. You know how many came the next week? Eight to 10. Same guys just about. I said, ‘Well, these guys don’t listen to me.’ And really they didn’t.”

More than four years later these might seem like small issues. For Spurrier, they felt like fatal flaws. His players weren’t practicing the way he wanted them to. They weren’t talking to him the way he expected them to. They increasingly seemed immune to his influence.

“After the LSU game, we were 2-4, I said, ‘I’m finished. These guys don’t listen to me.’ I had ceased to be heard,” he said.

This time, Tanner tried to get Spurrier to at least delay his decision until the end of the year, Spurrier said. He couldn’t.

“You can’t fake enthusiasm,” Spurrier said. “I said, ‘I can’t go to practice and pretend I’m fired up to help this team win a game. I don’t have anything left to coach this team.’”

He also didn’t relish the thought of more losses and all the foes who had waited so long to get their crack at him savoring his decline.

“I don’t mind telling you: I hated those camera guys. When the game’s over and I got my butt kicked and they all want to get right in my face with that camera? Like, ‘Here’s Spurrier after we beat them.’ But still, it wasn’t that so much. I had done a poor job with the coaching and the team, a lot of mistakes. I want the fans to know I made a bunch of mistakes that year, and the only way for me to correct them was for me to leave. I couldn’t clean house and start over at age 70.”

With that, the winningest coach of all time at Florida and South Carolina, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner, the man credited with revolutionizing the run-heavy culture of the SEC in the 1990s, and a Hall of Famer as a player and a coach was done with college football.

“I want people to know that I didn’t quit or resign or whatever you want to call it because we were losing, it was because I had lost command of the team somehow or another so I blame myself for it,” Spurrier said. “It may have had to do with my age. I probably shouldn’t have said (in 2014) I’ve got two or three more years, shouldn’t have done that. The guys sensed, ‘He’s not going to be here much longer. We don’t have to listen to him.’ That might have been part of the reason.”

* * *

Spurrier is proud that South Carolina had a winning record against Clemson, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee during his tenure (24-19), and he’s proud that an athletic department that had only one $1 million donor before he arrived now has a handful of big-money boosters, and that he contributed more than $1 million to the school himself in his time there, he said.

“A lot of fans and donors who could give big money to South Carolina saw the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Hey, maybe we can win and win big. We can be relevant in football. We don’t have to look up to Florida and Georgia and Tennessee and all those guys anymore. I think that really helped spur the boosters. My one disappointment is we didn’t sneak in there and win the SEC. It was doable, but we just didn’t get it done.” (written by Josh Kendall/The Athletic.com)

royexum@aol.com


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