Steve Spurrier will die young. At age 56, he has the same side part he wore in 1966, a solid rectangle of hair that starts above one eye and ends at the opposite ear. It's a boy's haircut on a middle-aged man, but on him it seems suitable. Spurrier is still conducting the eternal sandlot discussion, always the most clever one on the field, thinking up new ways to exploit the lax assumptions of his rivals, and sketching them in the dirt.
The new head coach of the Washington Redskins is still an arm-swinger, just as he was as a Heisman Trophy quarterback at the University of Florida all those years ago, and still an energetic T of a man, as he charges up and down the grass. Only a little more stiff-kneed, maybe. But still gleaming, and lucky, and said by his friends to have a "golden horseshoe." There is no visible rust on him. None of the ruin that gets the luckless rest of us.
"You and I both know why we do this," Spurrier told his friend and fellow Tennessee native Pat Summitt, the legendary women's basketball coach, not long ago. "We do it so we can play games our whole lives. This way, we don't ever have to grow up."
It is as succinct a statement of Spurrier's philosophy as he can offer.
Except, maybe, for this. "Losing stinks," he says. Play has always been Spurrier's guiding principle, and anyone seeking to understand him will be sorely confused unless they see him in that context. Spurrier is a gamesman, in an old-fashioned and nearly lost sense of the word.
Gamesmanship is more than a pastime to him; it's the signature to a career.
Gamesmanship is the ultimate act of studied nonchalance that cloaks excellence. Gamesmanship hints at a closet work ethic, with just the right amount of jaundice in attitude. It stamps him as a man proud to possess a certain kind of flair, in combination with beer, and humor. A gamesman knows what is tease, what is insult, what is fair, what is foul, what is worth celebrating, and what is not.
Gamesmanship marked his 12-year tenure at the University of Florida, where he won the nickname Steve Superior in addition to a national championship, and gamesmanship has already enlivened his brief tenure with the Redskins. Well before Spurrier's pro debut against the Arizona Cardinals at FedEx Field on Sunday, he had already challenged opposing coaches with his brand of casual smart-aleck, and with his certainty that he can win in the NFL. If he didn't invent the forward pass, you'd never know it. He is seemingly pressure-free and openly determined to do things differently -- and more playfully -- than those grim workaholics who populate NFL head coaching positions.
Spurrier has never been part of the coaching establishment. "Noooo," he laughs. Coaching circles are primarily made up of wonks, sweat-hogs, or holier-than-thou hypocrites, and they tend to commiserate over lack of job security and the fact that their livelihoods depend on lousy officials. They also like to announce they get to work at 4:30 a.m., for what, Spurrier doesn't know. "I used to know one who watched 'Perry Mason' reruns. I did. Really."
As he says to his son, "There are two ways of doing things. You can do it the way everyone else does it, which means you've got to do it much better than them. Or you can do it different. So if you want to be better, why don't you try to be a little different."
Spurrier is different. But he remains uncertified. The one credential he lacks is success in the NFL, and it's the chief reason he left Florida after 12 years. He itched to see, before he retires, whether his brand of difference could succeed at the highest level. For that reason, the Redskins' season will be very much a personal success or failure for him. He is the sole creator and play-caller of their offense, which he labels the Fun 'N Gun, a scheme that relies heavily on improvisation and experiment. Skeptics argue that he is out of his depth, and will falter against the speed of NFL defenses.
It would be a rare failure. In Spurrier's 19 years as a head coach he has had just one losing season. At Florida from 1990 to 2001, he went 122-27-1, and won 10 or more games nine times, reaching 100 career victories faster than any major college coach in the 20th century. He was famous for both routing and making fun of his competition, and his infuriated rivals weren't sorry to see him go. "I won't miss him," says Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer.
There is gamesmanship, and there is cheating, and the delineation is crucial to any true gamesman. Cheating is when you break the rules.
Gamesmanship is when you find and exploit loopholes in the rules, and the dull wits of your rival. There are a multitude of nuances between them, which may be confusing to others, but not to Spurrier. "It's a very clear, specific boundary that he understands," says Steve Jr. "He knows it and he executes it, and he monitors everyone else, too."
Spurrier doesn't tolerate "fudging," and a victory is hardly worth having if it comes on a bad officiating call. "It doesn't seem like winning," he says. "It's almost like you lose." He is a literalist, almost obsessively so, about rules. In golf, he is famous for counting every stroke, "otherwise, why call it golf?" he says.
To put it another way, cheating is something you do to yourself, while gamesmanship is something you do to the other guy. If Spurrier is a stickler, he is also an inveterate needler. One of his golf partners is Allen Trammell, an old friend and Florida teammate. On many occasions, Trammell has stood on the 18th green, looking at a putt to beat Spurrier. Invariably, the same thing happens. Spurrier stands behind him and begins to murmur, in a nasal southern drawl. "That's downhill, isn't it?" he might suggest. "Remember that twister you missed six years ago?" Trammell backs off the putt. Doubts creep in. He jabs at the putt -- and misses. "He plays with your mind, big time," Trammell says. "He wants you to think he's some kind of psychic."
What Spurrier the gamesman understands is that, to a certain extent, the game is played in the other guy's head. "It's part of a method to his madness, to ratchet things up before the big ballgame," says his former boss, Jeremy Foley, Florida's athletic director. Games, and especially football, to Spurrier are played in a mental space, as much as a physical one.
Spurrier plays games constantly. He plays feverishly, his visor pulled on and off and his hand disheveling that russet hair. He plays forgetfully, with no attention span for anything else, including his bride. "Jerri, get my attention when you're talking to me," he says to her. She rolls her eyes. And he plays maniacally. Two years ago, after a typical winning fall Saturday at Florida, Spurrier was celebrating at a barbecue when he challenged Foley's wife, Molly, to a game of Ping-Pong. The score was 1-1, when she sent a sharp volley across the table. As the ball skipped away from Spurrier, he made a suicidal lunge after it -- and ran headfirst into a window ledge. He spent the rest of the party reclining with an ice pack on his face. The next morning he showed up in the office with a black eye. "He about killed himself," Foley says. "Here he was, going all out on the second point of the game."
So Spurrier doesn't intend to fail in the NFL. He knows some coaches are rooting for him to fall flat on his cocksure face, after tripping on his $25 million contract. "Human nature," he pronounces. But he's not afraid of losing.
A gamesman knows that fear of losing is where failure begins.
Son of a Preacherman
The person who shaped the sensibility if not the somewhat tangled personality of Steve Spurrier was his father, the Rev. John Graham Spurrier.
The Reverend Spurrier, by all accounts, had a finely nuanced sense of gamesmanship himself.
At his father's funeral, Spurrier gave a eulogy in which he affectionately acknowledged his competitive inheritance. By then Spurrier had become famous for the way he would rip off his visor and sling it on the field when he was frustrated during Florida games. The Rev. Spurrier was a competitor in his own right, Spurrier remarked, especially with a tennis racket. "He would compete, and compete, and compete," Spurrier said. "And when he didn't win he wasn't happy, and he used to sling that tennis racket into the net." The congregation broke up laughing. "We could just see it," says Trammell, who was in the church. "We could see the racket. And we could see the visor."
Spurrier's career as a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Florida was an essay in everything his father taught him. He started his first game in 1964 against a national championship Alabama team quarterbacked by Joe Namath. The Gators lost, 17-14, but only after Spurrier lost one tooth completely, and spat out half of another.
At the start of his senior year, he eloped with Jerri Starr, a sorority sister and campus beauty, after an embattled three-year courtship. "He was a challenge," she says. "It was always interesting." One morning they drove to Kingsland, Ga., got married, and drove back to campus in time for his afternoon practice. It was an idyllic year in which they ran down to Crescent Beach with friends, and drank beer and swam in rivers, and counted themselves lucky not to know anyone who went to Vietnam. Instead, they worried about Alabama.
By the end of his collegiate career, the Gators were 22-9 with Spurrier as a starter, and seven of the wins came with fourth-quarter comebacks. Ever the gamesman, the play that won Spurrier the Heisman was not a pass, but a storied 40-yard field goal, which he nonchalantly kicked to beat Auburn, 30-27.
But that's where the myth-making came to an end, and adult reality set in. He threw three interceptions in a loss to Georgia. He flunked two classes and failed to graduate on time. He was drafted out of school by San Francisco, where he sat on the bench behind future Hall of Famer John Brodie.
And that's where he stayed for the next 10 years. When he finally became a starter again, it was with the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976, and he suffered through an 0-14 season. He spent most of it on his back.
It was one of the few failures of Spurrier's career, and failures are not a topic he discusses much. "If you ask him what they were, he doesn't acknowledge at all," Jerri says. But he does acknowledge that the time spent watching, powerless, from the sideline, is what made him into a coach.
"I've felt much more control as a coach than I ever did as a player," he says
Behind Every Coach . . .
In Spurrier's final NFL season he was released by Tampa Bay, Denver, and Miami in succession. He was done. "Suddenly, it was over, and we had no job," Jerri says. "Nobody thought it would ever end." He had three children, Lisa, Amy, and Steve Jr. (They later adopted youngest son Scotty, 14.) The children would ask, solemnly, "What's Dad going to do?" Jerri answered, frankly, "I have no idea." The Spurriers refused to be anxious. He had never grown up with money, and neither had she. "So I get a job and he gets a job and we live like everyone else in the world," she says.
Spurrier returned to Florida as an assistant in 1977. But coaching was hardly more secure than playing. There are 114 Division I-A schools, and only 20 have what might be called successful programs. At all the rest, the coaches worry about being fired. Spurrier lasted one season at Florida. From there he went to Georgia Tech, where he coached quarterbacks for his old friend Pepper Rodgers, who had helped mentor him at Florida, and is now vice president of football operations for the Redskins. But after a year he was let go.
By 1980, the Spurriers were footsore. He had been cut by three NFL teams and fired twice more in three years. It was becoming clear that the competitive fury that made him a gamesman wasn't a perfect virtue -- and it wasn't a virtue that led to a stable domestic life, either. It could have made the Spurriers miserable, had he been married to someone else.
As with everything Spurrier hides his dedication to his family behind a casual demeanor, but his regard for his wife has always been palpable. "She's the push behind him," says Rodgers. And she's been endlessly accommodating, according to her son. "She's been happy everywhere she's ever been," he says. "She stays busy, and she never gets lonely."
The Spurriers coped by making an extended family out of their fellow football vagabonds. Wherever they lived, Jerri would host dinners for teammates and families, inviting all the wives and children. It's a custom they would continue through every job, and have brought -- possibly naively -- to the Redskins. Every Tuesday is "family night," and Jerri has a catered dinner brought to Redskins Park. Also, Spurrier has invited all of his assistants' wives to come on staff trips this season. "The only people who understand your life, really, are these other wives," Jerri says. "We all sit at the table and kids get to talk to their dads. So you don't lose each other in this big whirlwind."
Spurrier was finally rescued professionally in 1980 when Duke coach Red Wilson hired him as an offensive coordinator. Wilson gave him the entire offense to do with as he pleased. Spurrier became a play caller again, and pretty soon there were stories circulating of his exploits. "What's the play?" Red Wilson would ask him. "Touchdown, coach," Spurrier would reply, flamboyantly, and the Blue Devils would score.
Spurrier also had his first embattled relationship with a quarterback, Ben Bennett. Twice, Spurrier benched Bennett, and twice Bennett felt wronged. "If you didn't have a thick skin you were bleeding," Bennett says. Not until Bennett directed a 25-24 upset of Tennessee and won ACC player of the year honors as a junior did he finally make peace with Spurrier. "When I got to Duke I thought I knew everything," Bennett says, "and when I didn't anymore, that's when we started clicking."
One morning before a game against Wake Forest, Spurrier drew up a play in Bennett's cereal. It was a halfback pass. Later that day, it worked for a 60-yard touchdown. "You felt like you'd listened to Nostradamus," Bennett says. It was a pattern that would repeat itself with other quarterbacks, enmity followed by reverence. "I was his first quarterback," Bennett says, "and most of us would step up and take a bullet for him."
Spurrier's urge toward newness made it hard for him to resist an offer to coach in a new league when it came along. The USFL was an experimental rival to the NFL, and the Tampa Bay Bandits made him an offer. His first head coaching job brought out the mischief in Spurrier. The Bandits were a relentlessly gambling, deep threat team that went 35-19 in three seasons, with two straight playoff appearances.
A classic instance of Spurrier gamesmanship was his duel with the Memphis Showboats in 1984. Memphis was coached by Rodgers, who thought he had an insight. "Steve hates to be behind," Rodgers told his team. "So we're going to onside kick and try to score first." The trick worked: Memphis recovered the onside kick, scored first, and went on to win the game.
In a rematch a few weeks later, Rodgers was standing on the sideline just before kickoff, when Steve Jr., serving as a ballboy for the game, trotted on to the field. He stopped to say hello to the Showboats' quarterback, Jim Kelly. "My Dad's got a surprise for you," he said. Kelly ran over to Rodgers and repeated the remark.
Rodgers wheeled around and yelled to the field, "Watch for the onside kick!"
On the opposite sideline, Spurrier had in fact ordered an onside kick as revenge. Tampa Bay recovered it and scored.
Steve Jr. just smiled. "My Dad's got another surprise for you," he said.
It was another onside kick. Tampa recovered, and scored again.
But when the USFL folded in 1986, Spurrier was 41, and he was out of work for the fourth time in nine years. Nobody wanted him. He interviewed at Louisiana State, and was turned down in favor of Mike Archer, who would last two years.
For the second time, Duke came to his rescue, offering him the head job in 1987. Although Florida is the job that made him famous, Spurrier believes that Duke made him. "Everything I am as a coach started at Duke," he says.
Being out of work hadn't tamed him; his first play call of the 1987 season was a double reverse pass. The handoff went to a halfback, who handed off to a flanker, who pitched it back to the quarterback, who threw it to the halfback.
When the Blue Devils went 5-6 in his first season, someone suggested he should be happy to be competitive. "Bullcrap," Spurrier said. "We're not here just to put up a game." Duke went 7-3-1 and 8-4 in next two seasons, and the 1989 team, his last before departing for Florida, went to the All American Bowl. It was the Blue Devils' first postseason appearance since 1960.
When complaints came that Spurrier was intentionally running up scores, athletic director Tom Butters just said, "We've never been accused of that at Duke before. It feels kind of good."
It's only another instance of gamesmanship when Spurrier talks, in folksy way, about "ball plays." The fact is they are made up of sophisticated knowledge, a quicksilver ability to see the geometry of the field and the various permutations of 22 players. His assistant coaches report that his retention and recall are such that he can direct an entire practice without a single sheet of paper in his hand. "He'd make every call and he wouldn't even have a script with him," said Spurrier's former defensive assistant, Bob Stoops, the coach at Oklahoma. "It's all up there in his head."
The Redskins got a dose of Spurrier's know-how, not to mention flair, on his first day of work. Spurrier walked into a meeting room, stood in front of a chalkboard and opened his playbook to begin teaching his offense. He flipped through the book, and couldn't find what he was looking for, diagrams of the receivers' routes. "Well, shoot, I ought to be able to draw it up by now, I been doing it for 30 years," he said.
Spurrier slapped the book shut and began drawing from memory. His hand flew across the board, diagramming, what he wanted in a hitch, a slant, an out, a go. "Just teaching off the top of his head," quarterback Danny Wuerffel says.
It was immediately apparent that Spurrier doesn't have a scared bone in his body. Fear of failure is simply not part of his operating equipment, if it was, he would never have left Florida. "It doesn't frighten him," Jerri says. He certainly didn't seem frightened in exhibition games. If the Redskins' 4-1 performance, scoring over 35 points in four of those games, was ultimately meaningless, it was also suggestive.
Trammell was on the sideline for the Redskins' opening exhibition, a 38-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Osaka, Japan. As they walked off the field together, Trammell said, "Congrats, you got your first pro win. They looked mighty good."
Spurrier shrugged. "It's not something you hadn't been looking at for the last 10 years," he said.
Ask him point blank if he is apprehensive about his professional debut, and Spurrier says, brightly, cheerfully, "We don't plan on losing." Ask him what he intends to do on the first play of the season, and he pauses. You can almost see him sketching out his plans in the interesting space that is his boyish head. "Oh, I don't want to give away any secrets," he says. "But I imagine we'll toss it somewhere."