GAINESVILLE, FLA., OCT. 2 -- Steve Spurrier, who returned home to save the football program at the University of Florida from itself, today found himself not looking to the future but engulfed by the ghosts of Gators past.

The NCAA -- which searched the Gators football program high and low for much of the last 10 years and consistently found something wrong -- recently told the school it cannot play in a bowl game this season because of major rules infractions under the coaching regime of Galen Hall, who was forced out during the 1989 season.

In a curious twist, Spurrier and university president John Lombardi asked the NCAA if it would wait a year and not penalize the 1990 team (currently 4-0 and ranked 10th in the nation), allowing it to play in a postseason game. They suggested taking the punishment in the form of 12 lost scholarships next year.

Today, the NCAA told Florida it would do no such thing, leaving the Gators with no bowl to go to this winter. Southeastern Conference rules say a school that isn't eligible for postseason play isn't eligible for the conference title either. So for another year, the 58th in a row, the SEC football title will not go to Florida.

Which brings us back to why Steve Spurrier -- the only Gator to win the Heisman Trophy, the bright light shining in the darkness that has descended over Florida Field -- was sitting in front of the state's media corps today smiling, winking and trying to put the matter of the Gators' sordid '80s behind him.

"We had a glimmer of hope that the infraction committee might decide there was a more fair penalty for the Gators, but they did not change their mind -- they never have -- so this wasn't unexpected," Spurrier said. "We'll accept the penalty. I don't want anyone feeling sorry for the Gators.

"It's life. It's history. It's over with. A couple of our goals are out the window now. A conference championship is no longer a possibility and a bowl game is no longer one. But we'll restructure our goals and we'll certainly have some high ones. We've got plenty to play for."

The Gators still will be on television this season and they still can play for the national championship awarded by the Associated Press. Teams on probation have won the title before: Oklahoma did in 1974. Spurrier was bequeathed a wonderful defense that was statistically No. 1 in the SEC and third in the nation last year. And on offense? That's Spurrier's specialty.

The Gators average 327 yards passing per game, and already have two of the school's top five all-time passing games: 394 yards against Oklahoma State (third) and 373 against Mississippi (fifth).

All this has been done with a sophomore quarterback, Shane Matthews, who had taken just two college snaps before the season began.

When Spurrier arrived Dec. 31, 1989, he soon found out something disconcerting for an old quarterback: the Gators' quarterbacks didn't know how to call an audible.

"We've been just Emmitt {Smith, the all-America running back now with the Dallas Cowboys} off-tackle for three years," said assistant athletic director Norm Carlson, who mounted the first highly public Heisman campaign when he was Florida sports information director and Spurrier was a senior in 1966.

As current sophomore wide receiver Tre Everett from Washington's Ballou High School said of the previous duties of his position, "We were just little offensive linemen."

How quickly this has changed. In each of his three seasons (1987-89) as head coach at Duke, Spurrier's offense exceeded 300 yards passing per game -- with three different quarterbacks.

"Coach Spurrier really prepares a quarterback for playing in the NFL. The things he teaches you are invaluable," said Anthony Dilweg, the former Whitman High star who played for Spurrier in 1988 at Duke and now is with the Green Bay Packers.

What Spurrier did when he returned to his field of glory was take the quarterbacks out and teach them the basics. Observers have marveled at the minutiae of a Gators quarterback practice. He'll run them through all kinds of drills, including one in which they weave their way backward in diagonal steps, just to practice evading the rush.

"We felt we could coach some offense here," Spurrier said. "I believe in detail. But keep in mind we're 4-0 because this is a good team. Coming in, I knew this team was that good. I inherited a great defense. We're not really surprised right now. Any time you've got a defense like our guys, you've got a chance to beat anybody. Anybody."

If ever there were a golden boy of college football, it was, and is, Spurrier. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he completed the first pass of his college career for 56 yards, took the Gators to two major bowls in three years and led his team to eight come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter.

He was a natural for the Heisman, although no one knew it. Back then, there was little or no Heisman hype. Carlson knew a Southerner was at a disadvantage because there were more Heisman voters up north. So he began to send out film clips of Spurrier to TV stations. The Florida tourism commission called to help and sent out its own promotional film of Spurrier.

"We couldn't ever do that now," said Carlson. "It'd be a violation."

Carlson also worked the phones every Sunday afternoon, telling reporters around the country how Spurrier had done the day before.

"There were no posters, no gimmicks," he said. "I'd known Steve since 1963. We both walked onto campus that fall, me as sports information director, Steve as a freshman. He was a great kid. It was great fun doing this."

Carlson's work -- and Spurrier's play -- paid off. Spurrier won the Heisman over Purdue's Bob Griese, then went off to the NFL and a largely undistinguished 10-year career with San Francisco and Tampa Bay.

It soon became clear to Spurrier that he was born to coach, not to continue playing quarterback. He bounced from assistant jobs at Florida, Georgia Tech and Duke to the Tampa Bay Bandits of the U.S. Football League, where he became a head coach in 1983. He went back to Duke as head coach, then left to come to Florida.

"I really see myself more as a coach than as a former player," he said. "Of course, there are not many former players out there coaching that won the Heisman or even were all-American. Seems like the coaches nowadays are guys that sometimes weren't even starters. You look at Lou Holtz and Bobby Bowden and those guys: they certainly were not star players at all. But now, I see myself only as a coach."

The Gators' faithful were burned once by Charley Pell and then by Hall. Their team has been on probation twice in five years. Being a Florida fan has brought nothing but embarrassment in the '80s.

And now, Spurrier. There were overflow crowds at Gator Booster Club meetings this winter around the state.

"It's like their battery has been recharged," said Carlson, who escorted Spurrier from town hall to town hall. "He represents the era when the program was run the right way."

And that apparently is the way the program will be run again, now that the NCAA has dealt its latest blow to the Gators.

"We've got everything here," said Spurrier, basking in the noontime sun, wearing loafers, sans socks, and looking as if he were headed for the golf course, not the film room.

"If we just do it the right way, if I am able to coach a little ball and if we are nice to people, it will work out here," he said. "We don't want anyone feeling sorry for us. We've got too much going for us for that."