Celebrating Steve Spurrier’s 75th birthday: The quotes, the wins and the untold stories

  • College football reporter
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2007
  • Graduate of the University of Tennessee

Steve Spurrier turns 75 today. And for the record, that’s his number, not his age.

In Spurrier-speak, your age is only a number.

Anyway (as Spurrier is fond of saying), we’ll celebrate No. 75 for the Head Ball Coach with a few classic stories — some you’ve heard, some you probably haven’t.

We’ll revisit some of his most memorable one-liners and barbs, too, and maybe even include a few responses from some of the sport’s biggest names as a birthday toast to the guy who won more football games against SEC opponents than anyone not named Bear Bryant.

Ranking the one-liners

There are so many. Where do you start?

• “You know what FSU stands for, don’t you? Free Shoes U.”

• “You can’t spell Citrus Bowl without UT.”

• “You can have good ballplayers and still not win football games. All you LSU fans know about that.”

• “Peyton Manning came back to Tennessee for his senior year because he wanted to be the first three-time MVP of the Citrus Bowl.”

We could go on for days, but Spurrier once told ESPN that his favorite might be his 2012 zinger when asked about the Georgia-South Carolina game being pushed back from its traditional Week 2 slot to later in October.

“I don’t know. I sort of always liked playing them that second game because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended,” cracked Spurrier, who at the time was entering his eighth season as South Carolina’s coach.

The Head Ball Coach loved dogging the Dawgs.

Favorite win over Tennessee

Having grown up in Tennessee, Spurrier reveled in beating up on the Vols — both on the field and at the podium. He was a combined 14-10 against Tennessee as a head coach at Duke, Florida and South Carolina, including an 8-4 mark at Florida.

But he said his favorite win over Tennessee didn’t come as a head coach, but when he was the Blue Devils’ offensive coordinator and they beat Tennessee 25-24 on Sept. 4 to open the 1982 season.

“The World’s Fair was in town, and they had Reggie White, Willie Gault, just a heck of a lot of good players,” Spurrier told ESPN recently. “It was my first game coaching in Neyland Stadium. I had been there for games with my dad and brother growing up, but never coached there. So I already had chill bumps walking in there, and then the announcer comes on and says, ‘It’s Football Time in Tennessee,’ and I almost had tears in my eyes. I was so jacked up. I was telling those guys on our staff, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’

“Just a little boy from Tennessee coaching on Rocky Top. That was thrilling.”

The Swamp

Spurrier is the one who coined the name “The Swamp,” which was officially named Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in his honor in 2016.

His memory as razor-sharp as it ever was, Spurrier can provide precise details on every single game he ever played or coached at The Swamp. His record, he will tell you, is 83-7, which counts a freshman game against Georgia and a flag football game (yes, a flag football game) against the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity on campus a few years after Spurrier had been out of school.

“Some fraternity boys wanted to play a bunch of us former players, so we cut off about half the field and played them,” Spurrier said. “We beat them 20-19. Helluva game.”

Duke’s glory years

Remarkably, Spurrier was on the sideline each of the last two times Duke clinched ACC championships in football. He was the Blue Devils’ head coach in 1989, when they won a share of the title, culminating with a 41-0 shellacking of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

And in 1962, he was also at Keenan Stadium when Duke kicked a late field goal to beat North Carolina 16-14. There’s a caveat, though. He was a high school senior in 1962 and on the sideline as a UNC recruit.

“I might have been the only dude who was at both games,” Spurrier said.

Shaw’s keepsake

Spurrier does his best to keep in touch with his former players. A few months ago, Spurrier stopped by Connor Shaw’s office at South Carolina to give Shaw the visor Spurrier wore during Shaw’s first start as the Gamecocks’ quarterback against Kentucky in 2011.

Spurrier autographed the visor and included Shaw’s 16-0 home record with his signature.

“I almost teared up when I saw it,” said Shaw, who can still see the Head Ball Coach working out every day in the Gamecocks’ weight room with a bandana on his head.

“He went for the throat every chance he got, the most competitive guy I’ve ever known, and he would still get out there at practice with his shirt off in the spring and throw with us. He knew how to push your buttons and make you dig deeper.”

Saban’s comeback

Spurrier was an equal opportunity antagonist, and nobody was off limits.

Several years ago, Spurrier told ESPN that if Nick Saban wanted to be the greatest coach of all time, he would have to go somewhere else other than Alabama and win a national championship.

Part of that was Spurrier simply being Spurrier, but the point he was trying to make was that Alabama had already won multiple national titles before Saban got there. The truth is Spurrier and Saban get along well and share a deep respect for each other.

When asked about Spurrier’s comments, Saban simply smiled, shook his head and said, “Somebody might want to let Steve know that LSU had eight losing seasons in 11 years before I got there.”

The Tigers won a national title in Saban’s fourth season in Baton Rouge, and he’s won five more at Alabama.

“Yep, he’s won a bunch of them since then and will probably win a few more,” Spurrier said.

Taking up for Peyton

Spurrier had his share of fun at Peyton Manning’s expense when Manning and the Vols were unable to beat the Gators back in the 1990s in those highly anticipated top-10 matchups. But make no mistake: Spurrier is one of Manning’s biggest fans.

“He, Brady and Montana are the three [quarterbacks] I would give the nod to as the best ever,” Spurrier said.

And Tennessee fans will love this: Spurrier also thinks Manning was robbed in the 1997 Heisman Trophy voting.

“Everybody knows he should have won it, but as we all know, the best player doesn’t always win the Heisman Trophy,” said Spurrier, who as the 1966 recipient of the award gets a vote and says he voted for Manning.

Following the rules

Spurrier is a stickler for following the rules, whether it’s on the golf course or on the recruiting trail.

“He did it the right way and didn’t cheat,” said Phillip Fulmer, a frequent target of Spurrier’s barbs when Fulmer was coaching at Tennessee. “He’s a good guy. He really is … until you get a camera or microphone in front of him.”

But during his playing days at Florida, Spurrier wasn’t opposed to a short cut. Between his sophomore and junior years, Florida coach Ray Graves got Spurrier a job on the stadium maintenance staff.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have summer workouts, so my job was repairing the wooden bleachers in the Swamp and fixing the ones that were splintered,” Spurrier recalled. “I’d report to Coach Graves, and most of the time he didn’t have anything for me to do in the afternoon.”

So right after lunch, Spurrier would find some golf balls and head to the course.

“That was my summer, fixing the bleachers at the Swamp in the morning and golf in the afternoon. That would be a violation today, so don’t tell anybody,” he cracked.

Six (or seven) SEC championships

The 2020 season will be the 30th anniversary of Spurrier’s first season as Florida’s head coach.

And even if the record books don’t spell it out, he will quickly remind you that the 1990 team won the first of seven SEC championships on his watch. The Gators finished with a league-best 6-1 SEC record that year. The only problem was that they were ineligible for the title because of NCAA issues that occurred before Spurrier arrived.

“They won the SEC. They didn’t get credit for it, but they did from me,” Spurrier said. “They’re the ones who started it all.”

Meeting Arnie

Spurrier has never been the star-struck type, although he was pretty giddy when some friends had legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and former Coors Brewing Company chairman Pete Coors call Spurrier on his 60th birthday.

And while coaching at Florida, Spurrier had a chance to meet golf legend Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill. Some friends took Spurrier and a few others in to see Palmer, who was in his shed fiddling with some golf clubs.

Spurrier stuck out his hand and said, “Mr. Palmer, Steve Spurrier,” to which Palmer looked up and said with a big grin, “No s—.”

Jamie Speronis, Spurrier’s longtime football operations director and a close friend, said the two icons went on to share some classic stories.

Playing golf with ‘Bobby Stoops’

During the coronavirus pandemic, Spurrier has been at his home in Crescent Beach, Florida, much of the time. Bob Stoops, one of Spurrier’s closest friends in coaching, also has a home there, and they’ve had a chance to play some golf.

“Make sure everybody knows we’re social distancing, riding in our own carts, handling our own bags and not touching the pins,” Spurrier said.

And yes, they’re counting all of their strokes, too.

“I’ve never played with him when he hasn’t,” Stoops said.

It’s not just his own strokes, either. Spurrier counts everybody’s strokes, and you better not even think about raking in a 3-foot putt.

One of Stoops’ favorite golf stories involving Spurrier came when they played together at Whistling Straits right after the PGA Championship was held there in 2004. Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher was a member of their foursome.

Rumor also has it that they had a little money on the match, a given when you’re playing golf with the Head Ball Coach.

Stoops had just butchered a hole and was trying to gather himself.

“I was down a cliff and in the high grass and was lucky, really, to even get it up on the green,” Stoops recalled.

While walking to the next hole, Stoops lamented that he had a 10.

Spurrier immediately wheeled around and chirped, “Actually, Bobby, I think it was an 11.”

No golf for Jerri

Spurrier has several favorite golfing partners, but his wife, Jerri, isn’t one of them — and that’s her choice. In fact, she hasn’t played with him since they were first married.

“People always ask me if I play golf, and I say, ‘Are you kidding? How would you like to have Steve coaching every shot you ever took?'” Jerri joked.

She said the first time they played golf together that she hit it into the water on the first tee.

“From that point on, I’ve never played again, not just the two of us anyway,” she said. “He asked if I meant to hit it in the water, and I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ That was the end of that. I couldn’t take it.

“I’m not very coachable, I guess.”

Watching out for his assistants

Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson was a 27-year-old graduate assistant under Spurrier in 1995 at Florida when Spurrier handed down a mandate that changed Hopson’s life.

“I owe a lot to the man, him and Mrs. Spurrier, and it goes a lot deeper than just football,” Hopson said.

Spurrier, who still works out regularly, was insistent throughout his coaching career that his assistants all get physical examinations before the season, and Jerri helped set them up.

“It was a team effort,” Hopson said.

When Hopson went in for his physical that year, the doctor was troubled by what he found. After seeing a specialist and undergoing an ultrasound, Hopson learned that he had testicular cancer.

“You’re young and feel like nothing like that’s going to happen to you,” Hopson said. “I wouldn’t have gone for a physical at that age unless Coach Spurrier made us.”

In 2007, Hopson had another bout with testicular cancer, and because he knew what the symptoms felt like from 12 years earlier, doctors were again able to catch it early and successfully treat it.

“Can’t say enough about what the Spurriers did for me,” Hopson said. “They saved my life.”

Jerri’s the real MVP

Spurrier has always been hesitant to say which player was the best he ever coached, but he’s quick to tell you who his MVP is: Jerri.

They met when they were students at Florida and have been married for more than 50 years. She was by his side when he won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 and by his side every step of the way as he carved out a Hall of Fame coaching career. Spurrier remains one of only four people to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and coach.

“Nothing would have happened in my coaching or playing career without Jerri,” Spurrier said.

A Florida student remembers covering Spurrier

When I finally got my chance to cover football at the University of Florida, I had no idea Steve Spurrier would give me a lesson in Sports Reporting 101.

He was the national championship winning coach, and I was the 20-year-old student reporter at the Independent Florida Alligator. Spurrier rarely addressed student reporters by name, and in the scrum of media gatherings after practices and games, it was easy to get lost among the giant crowd. But that year, before the Georgia-Florida game, I wrote a column in which I predicted a massive Florida win because, well, that’s just what the Gators do.

Florida lost 37-17, Spurrier’s first (and only) loss to Georgia as Gators head coach. Afterward, I stood outside the tunnel to the Gators locker room waiting for player interviews. Spurrier emerged, his wet hair completed disheveled, his tie already half undone. He looked completely miserable. Losing to Georgia is, and always will be, unacceptable to him.

Spurrier stopped squarely in front of me. I froze. ‘I saw what you wrote. I guess our boys must have seen it, too,’ Spurrier said. ‘We got outplayed, outcoached …’ and as he continued on, my mind blanked and I kept staring. When he finished, he put on his sunglasses and left for the bus.

Something in that moment changed, though. Spurrier became far more responsive to my questions and requests. It was a short time later, with the regular season completely wrapped up, when I needed him to verify a tip I received.

I learned he had offered a female high school soccer player the opportunity to walk on at Florida and potentially kick an extra point. The idea that a female kicker might make history at my school was an immensely big deal to me, and I needed to know whether Spurrier actually made this offer.

It was early December, and I knew he was going to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. I called his home, hoping to reach him before he left. His wife, Jerri, answered, and told me he was still at the office.

So I drove to the stadium, and the door leading up to the football office was unlocked, so I walked in. When I got to the lobby, I saw his office door was closed. At this point, I had to decide. Do I wait until he opens the door or should I knock?

I knocked. He opened the door, surprised to see me. I explain that Jerri told me I could find him there. He welcomed me in and showed me around his office. Then he answered my questions.

Why yes, he said. He did have a female kicker at his football camp. In fact, when he saw her lining up to kick, he offered to be her holder. “I said, if you make this and you come to Florida, I’ll let you kick an extra point someday,” Spurrier told me.

She made the field goal.

But unfortunately, an injury ended her college career (she was a top-rated soccer player) and she never made it to Florida. But Spurrier explained he didn’t see why this was such a big deal – even though it’s exceedingly rare for females to play football at any level.

“We’ve had a lot of walk-on kickers,” Spurrier told me. “If it’s a game where we’re way ahead, we allow them to go out there and kick one. So why not let a female kicker go out there and kick one, too?”

Maybe that’s why he let me punt during a Gator football practice.

To this day, Spurrier brings my punting up every time I see him. It’s hard for me to separate all the Spurrier stories, though. They all played a huge role in my Florida education. — Andrea Adelson

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