Fourth in a seven-part series
Cars that couldn't squeeze into the parking lot were lined up on the grass alongside U.S. Route 11, and three school buses sat out front to take the visiting team home. Cheerleaders sold programs just inside the front gate for $2 each, and the 50-50 raffle at halftime earned the winner $80. The lights atop six slightly leaning wooden poles kept the field bright but left some of the surrounding areas in shadows after sundown Friday at Waldeck Field, home of the Musselman High Applemen.
Steve Spurrier spotted a familiar face as he walked on the track that surrounds the field, separated by a chain-link fence, and called out: "Don't the Redskins play tonight?"
The Washington Redskins were indeed facing the Atlanta Falcons at FedEx Field in their final preseason game. But that is Joe Gibbs's concern, not Steve Spurrier's, and Spurrier spent his evening at a high school football field in West Virginia, sitting next to his wife, Jerri, at the top of the bleachers and watching their son, Scott, play the opening game of his senior season for Loudoun County High.
"I think if he had his choice, he'd be invisible," Ken Wright, Loudoun's athletic director, said. "He doesn't walk around drawing attention to himself. He just wants to sit and watch Scotty play and enjoy his son. He likes to just sit up there at the top of the bleachers, out of the way."
Spurrier, 59, is doing his best to avoid the spotlight eight months after walking away from the remaining three seasons of his $5-million-a-year contract as Redskins coach. He was a failure as an NFL coach, compiling a 12-20 record in two seasons and often looking overmatched in the pro game. But he will be in demand as a college coaching candidate come November and December, and many of his associates say there's little or no doubt that Spurrier will return to coaching after a one-year sabbatical.
"I haven't talked to him in quite a while, but I think he'll be coaching somewhere," said Hue Jackson, Spurrier's offensive coordinator last season with the Redskins. "There's no question, really. First of all, Coach Spurrier is a good man. He's a good person. And second of all, the things that he believes in are very, very good football concepts. Like anyone else, you just have to be sure you're in a place where your philosophy and your concepts work."
But Spurrier is trying his best to keep a low public profile, perhaps not wanting other college coaches to think he's campaigning for their jobs. "There's nothing to say about me," he said Friday night. "I'm just watching a ballgame."
He was polite, chatting amiably about the game he was watching. "We were pretty good early on," Spurrier said. "I don't know if we can hold 'em off."
But he was firm about not doing any substantial interviews. He has rejected requests even by Florida media members who extolled his every virtue while he was winning 122 games in 12 seasons at the University of Florida before being lured to the NFL.
"I don't want to do any talking like that during the season," Spurrier said earlier last week. "I don't need any publicity right now. I'm just laying low, doing what I wanted to do. I'm just watching ballgames. Scotty is getting ready to start his season. I'll go see Steve Jr. coaching some out at Arizona. No one needs to hear about me right now. Call me in December."
He and Jerri kept their house in Leesburg so that Scott, who played cornerback and wide receiver Friday, didn't have to change high schools. He will spend time with their older son, Steve Jr., who coached the Redskins wide receivers and now is tight ends coach at the University of Arizona.
Spurrier showed up at Redskins Park every so often in the offseason but hasn't been spotted there in months. He visited the Baltimore Ravens' training camp to see former Florida colleagues. Spurrier's friends say that he spends a lot of time on the golf course and they usually can tell immediately by his mood how he played that day. He played Augusta National over the summer with Dan Reeves, also on the coaching sidelines, and Lou Holtz. He is lining up speaking engagements.
"He's managing," said University of Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, Spurrier's former defensive coordinator at Florida. "I think he's handling it quite well. We talk quite frequently. We're still very close. He's very upbeat and positive and enjoying the time to himself. Will he coach again? That's not for me to say whether he will or he won't. I'm sure a lot will depend on how he feels. He's just taking some time to himself, and we'll see how it goes."
Some of those who know Spurrier say he has been hurt by what they regard as piling on in the criticism of him, especially by Redskins players who have called Gibbs's arrival a breath of fresh air because Spurrier's staff was so unprepared. Spurrier's supporters believe that everyone in the Redskins organization, from owner Daniel Snyder down, should share the blame for the failures of Spurrier's tenure.
"He's not one to put blame on other people," Stoops said. "He's not one to make excuses. [But] I think it's fair to say, although he hasn't expressed it to me, that it was his toughest time in coaching. . . . I think it's fair to say there were a number of issues that go to a number of different parties."
Said Jackson, now the wide receivers coach for the Cincinnati Bengals: "People say the way we went about it was wrong and the way we went about it was a bust, but we did have some success. We started off 2-0 last season and could have been 3-0. You think back to the game in Philadelphia and the throw into the end zone at the end, the overtime against the Giants, and you can't help but think about what might have happened if things had gone just a little different. A play here and there can change your season. We certainly didn't do enough good things. But some of the things we did, some things that the NFL hadn't seen before, were very good. We just didn't do enough of them."
Jackson has a difficult time hiding his disappointment that Spurrier didn't stick it out for at least one more season.
"Everybody has got to do what's right for them," he said. "None of us really knows what coach was feeling inside. But I thought we'd be back taking another shot at it, getting that organization back to winning the way it should. There was no question in my mind that we were going to come back and make it work. There are a lot of learning experiences for anyone who hasn't been in the NFL and then comes into the league. I think everyone understands now that the NFL game is a lot different.
"Coach Spurrier is a great coach. His track record speaks for itself. But any time you're used to doing things a certain way, it's hard to change. In the NFL, they say change is the norm. You have to adapt, but it can be hard sometimes."
The swagger of Spurrier's Florida days disappeared during his two NFL seasons but will be back, albeit perhaps in a muted form, when he returns to the sideline, his friends predict. And, they say, he won't abandon the "Fun 'n' Gun" offense that was blitzed into submission by NFL defenses.
"You always learn and you always adjust and do some things a little bit differently," Stoops said. "But I'm sure the team he'd [have] would be the same sort of team he's always had. He's a guy who has had a great deal of success, and I don't think he'd change himself too much. But there are always issues relating to your team where you might make some adjustments here and there."
Spurrier hired agent Jimmy Sexton to negotiate the terms of his departure from the Redskins and could retain him if he goes back on the job market this winter. Some Spurrier associates speculate privately about a list of prospective college destinations that might include the University of North Carolina, one of the jobs to which Spurrier was linked last year, but they declined to discuss the possibilities publicly because they don't think Spurrier would approve.
"I do think it will be next year. Scotty will be out of school. It will be time," said one person who remains in contact with Spurrier. Another said: "He's a football coach. That's what he does. He'll be looking for jobs at the end of this season."
For now, though, Spurrier is a ball coach without a team. He is a football dad and a devoted fan of the Loudoun County High Raiders. He attends some practices and offers occasional tips to the coaching staff, Wright said.
"The kids get excited when he's around," said the athletic director. "It's a thrill for a kid to throw a good pass and have someone like him say, 'Good job.' . . . He'll meet with the coaching staff once in a while and say, 'This is what I'd teach the quarterback,' or something like that. He's a resource."
He and Jerri arrived early Friday and watched the stands fill around them. Sunset was nearing on a gorgeous night and, with summer about to turn to fall, Spurrier had a pullover ready to go with his jeans, golf shirt and baseball cap -- his trademark visor absent. As two young boys walked in, one murmured: "There he is. He's already up there."
"Yeah, he's got on a baseball hat. That's him," his friend replied.
Spurrier signed autographs at halftime for fans wearing green and white Musselman High colors. He clapped politely for good plays by Loudoun. There were plenty of those early, when the Raiders scored touchdowns on their first two drives. But they squandered some late chances to retake the lead and lost, 38-27, and had plenty of could-have-beens to ponder on the drive home. That sort of postgame disappointment has been all too familiar to Spurrier in recent years, but this time he wasn't bracing for the Monday morning ridicule of newspaper columnists and radio talk-show callers.
"Coach Spurrier is a family man, first and foremost," Wright said. "He cares about his children. Scotty is a popular kid. He has a lot of friends. It was important to Steve to let Scotty finish up his last year. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Steve at a major college next year, back on the sideline. But I think it was important to him to see this through with Scotty and enjoy this year with his son.''