KINGSLAND, Ga. — A 73-year-old man lines up at cornerback. Steve Spurrier is only four months removed from back surgery, so he hobbles more than he walks, grimaces as much as he grins. But he has a new offense to coach on this high school field, so he crouches into a ready stance and looks across at his wide receiver.
The ball is snapped, and Spurrier feints right and darts left as if he were 30 again. He smiles.
Spurrier carries loose sheets of paper on which he has written down plays. “I like the ones that his players will laugh about,” says his wife, Jerri, who is standing on the sideline. There was one such play the weekend before, when Spurrier’s Orlando Apollos went for a two-point conversion in the snow of Salt Lake City. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert faked a jet sweep and pitched to running back D’Ernest Johnson. He chucked it high in the snowy air, over a helpless defender, and into the waiting arms of tight end Sean Price. Cameras found Spurrier on the sideline in a ski hat, mid-cackle.
That night, after the Apollos moved to 4-0 in this new minor league, Spurrier’s daughter Amy texted Jerri, “I think God invented the Alliance of American Football just so Dad could coach again.”
Before Nick Saban was intimidating opponents just by walking onto the field, Steve Spurrier was. Before Sean McVay was the trendy coach with the photographic memory, Steve Spurrier was. And before social media was the go-to for subtle digs and side-eyes, Steve Spurrier was. The “Head Ball Coach” was a walking subtweet before Twitter was invented.
“He was ahead of his time, clearly,” says Phil Savage, the general manager of the Alliance’s Arizona Hotshots and GM of the Cleveland Browns from 2005 to 2008. Savage offers two reasons: 1) Spurrier was a near-revolutionary at the University of Florida in his eagerness to pass first and run second; and 2) Spurrier was willing to say whatever he felt whenever he wanted, while other coaches said relatively little.
“He was willing to be himself,” Savage says. “He broke the mold in a lot of respects.”
So while these days we’re used to up-and-coming coaches with bold styles and innovative offenses, Spurrier was borderline heretical when he brought his no-fear, no-apologies vibe to football. Now well into his 70s, Spurrier has a chance to remind everyone how avant-garde he really was.
When asked after Apollos practice about McVay, the 33-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, and his famous recall of plays, Spurrier scoffs: “Sean McVay? Hell, he’s only coached two years as a head coach! I’d hope he can remember all of them! Wait till he gets to 30.” Spurrier then asks to be challenged about some plays from the 1980s: “What game do you want to talk about?”
There are some games Redskins fans don’t want to talk about: Two forgettable years in Washington added a sour coda to Spurrier’s legendary time at Florida. Was he simply not good enough? Or was the NFL not ready for him? “Leaving the Redskins was a good thing,” he explains, “because I got the chance to go to South Carolina and become the winningest coach in school history. You knew that, didn’t you?”
He had a terrific decade with the Gamecocks, but that ended on a bad note, too. “Not making excuses,” he says, “but I had assembled a team … I guess all of us had a bad attitude. It was time.”
Spurrier sort of got lost in a time warp — a semiretired visionary. Now, though, the NFL looks more like his kind of show — full of hold-your-breath offenses that pass first and draw heavily from the college game — and Spurrier is back in the headset for a professional team. Yes, the Alliance is small-time — an eight-team minor league in its first year, with hopes to establish itself as something of a feeder system for the NFL — but media and coaches are watching, and Spurrier still has his sharp mind and sharper tongue. His Apollos are 6-1 and have clinched a playoff spot.
“This Alliance,” Spurrier says, “has given a lot of us a chance to go out a winner.”
‘He’s always trying to win’
This is not the first minor league rodeo for Spurrier. His first head coaching job came in the United States Football League with the Tampa Bay Bandits. “Bandit Ball” was a huge draw, and Spurrier’s high-wire offense made the NFL’s lowly Buccaneers seem even more drab. The team averaged more than 40,000 fans before the league folded.
That didn’t slow Spurrier’s progress, however, and a successful three-year stint at Duke preceded his legendary 12-year run with the Florida Gators, which included a national championship and six SEC titles. He stepped down in January 2002, and a few days later he received a five-year, $25 million contract from Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. At the time, it was the biggest coaching deal in NFL history.
He would stay for only two unpleasant years, recording a 12-20 record. “It was just disappointment,” Jerri says.
Spurrier blames himself … kind of.
“I did a lousy job,” he says. “The GM did a lousy job. He happened to be the owner, so who needed to go?”
More specifically, Spurrier was upset that Snyder “picked the quarterback.” That was Patrick Ramsey. Whether Spurrier would have done better with full control is impossible to know, and he left the job with three years remaining on his contract.
Full control is an understatement now. Spurrier hired himself as the Apollos’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He hired his son Scott as an assistant. Even Jerri walks the field every practice, patting linemen on the back and watching over drills.
There isn’t much of a press corps, and the team has to spend at least half of its practice time in Georgia for insurance reasons, so it camps in Jacksonville and buses across the border every morning to a high school. Instead of grousing, most everyone — including the former NFL players on the roster — sees it as team bonding. And the laid-back approach that resulted in blame in Washington is now a welcomed sentiment.
“It’s a fresh perspective to see something different at this age,” says Gilbert, who is 27 and a candidate for league MVP honors. “I’ve been playing for a long time now, and you don’t see that much. Just the way he sees the game. He’s very good at simplifying things. That certainly helps you as a quarterback.”
Spurrier, a former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, harps on head position and eye position, keeping the widest possible field of view during the five-step drop, rather than focusing on the left or right third of the field. Then, when the last back foot hits the ground, the quarterback can make the best possible choice and fire it.
That, plus the play-calling, is empowering, Gilbert says. There have been several passes thrown by non-quarterbacks already this season and the promise of more to come.
“There’s never a point where he’s trying to call plays not to lose,” Gilbert says. “He’s always trying to win.”
That kind of aggressiveness is far more common in today’s NFL, but it was a novelty in the college ranks as Spurrier rose to national prominence in the early 1990s with his “Fun 'n' Gun” offense.
“If you look at the history of college football up to that point,” Savage says, “the top coaches would have been run-first: Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno, Vince Dooley, Pat Dye. All run-oriented.”
Spurrier certainly was not. “He changed the SEC in terms of the way he played, the way he gambled,” former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley says. “He changed it in terms of the formations he ran.”
Does all this mean Spurrier would have succeeded in the NFL anywhere other than Washington? Or in a later era? Not necessarily. Defense still matters, even in 2019, and many of Spurrier’s teams over the years have had their problems. Gators fans surely remember Nebraska scoring 62 points in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, and losing defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to the Cincinnati Bengals after his first season in Washington was arguably just as devastating as the Redskins’ quarterback wrangling.
But would a leading college-to-the-pros coach have a better shot in today’s NFL, where teams throw on some two-thirds of their plays and incorporate college football elements such as run-pass options and the spread? Let’s just say this is Spurrier’s closing argument.
“The NFL is more wide-open now than it’s ever been,” Savage says.
‘Never been fired’
After practice, Spurrier goes to the hotel weight room in Jacksonville. He does modified push-ups and sit-ups on an exercise ball and talks about his career.
“I’ve never been fired,” he says. “That was one thing that was important to me for some reason is to never get fired. Seems like most coaches now, they get a big contract and hope they get fired.”
He moves to the treadmill and starts walking. He stays on there for 33 minutes, limping along but never slowing down.
“So very few ever can say [they’ve never been fired],” he says, occasionally mopping his brow. “Tom Osborne never got fired. Barry Alvarez never got fired. Frank Beamer never got fired. Sometimes, like Bobby Bowden, people very much hint it’s time to move on.”
He lets out a laugh. It’s clear he has mulled this over before.
But there’s something else here, too. Being fired is a coach’s ultimate loss — someone else saying he’s no longer able. Spurrier walked away from Washington and South Carolina before anyone could pull the plug, even though there were millions in salary left on the table. A less-worshipped coach would have been roasted for bailing. Spurrier even walked away from Florida after his team had just finished third in the final Associated Press poll.
Saying he was “lousy” in Washington and awash in bad attitudes at South Carolina indirectly protects his brand. He may have failed in those situations, but he doesn’t say his offense failed. It didn’t work out in a couple of instances, but that’s far from saying it didn’t work.
This minor league is a major deal to Spurrier in part because it’s the walk-off home run he never had. It’s the last word for someone who always jostled for the last word. “A mulligan in life,” he says.
Even in a meaningless training camp scrimmage before the season, he put his first-team back on the field on fourth and 12 to make sure he didn’t lose a big lead to San Diego.
“They didn’t announce who won,” he says, charging along on that treadmill, bad back and all.
“We all know who won.”
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