Informed he had been tabbed as one of Atlanta’s greatest sports villains, Steve Spurrier was perplexed by the distinction.
“Villain?” he asked incredulously. “Who thinks I’m a villain?”
Reminded of all the times he broke the Georgia Bulldogs’ hearts while coaching at Florida and at South Carolina, Spurrier thought about it a moment, then deemed the designation as the compliment it was intended to be.
Spurrier did a lot of great work with all the teams he coached. It was just that it rarely benefitted the inhabitants of our fair city.
“You know my record against Georgia Tech is 6-0, don’t you?” Spurrier then asserted.
You don’t say?
Sure enough, with Spurrier as offensive coordinator and later head coach for Duke, the Blue Devils were undefeated in six outings against the Yellow Jackets. He’s proud of that mark because, like he did with Georgia, Spurrier had a bit of a vendetta against Tech.
He coached quarterbacks for the Jackets under Pepper Rodgers in 1979. When Rodgers was fired and replaced by Bill Curry, Curry would not guarantee Spurrier a spot on his staff.
“He said he had a few guys he wanted to interview,” Spurrier said of Curry. “I took that to mean he didn’t want me.”
In a snap, Spurrier was hired by Duke’s second-year football coach Red Wilson. Upon arrival, Spurrier asked for the Blue Devils’ playbook so he could familiarize himself with it. Wilson told him they didn’t have one, that Spurrier could start his own from scratch.
Soon thereafter, the “Fun-and-Gun” was born.
That pass-happy style of offense terrorized the Jackets and every other opponent Spurrier coached for the next three decades. After Duke beat Tech 48-14 in a 1987 game in which quarterback Steve Slayden set the school’s ACC record for touchdowns, Tech coach Bobby Ross complained to Blue Devils athletic director Tom Butters about Spurrier running up the score on them.
“I’ve been here 17 years, and this is the first time anybody claimed we ran up the score. So I kind of like it, to tell you the truth,” Butters said, according to Spurrier.
While Spurrier felt he had a bone to pick with Tech, it paled in comparison with his disdain for the University of Georgia. The Bulldogs felt Spurrier’s wrath more than any team, especially during a 12-year period that encompassed all of the 1990s.
Spurrier’s Florida football teams were 11-1 against UGA during a span from 1990-2001. And with the exception of a couple of games, they weren’t close. The average margin of victory was 23.4 points as the Gators outscored Georgia 419-162.
Georgia coach Ray Goff never beat Spurrier. Jim Donnan got him once, 37-17 in 1997. Mark Richt was whipped in his only try.
And Spurrier can recite most every play from those games. Now retired and holding the title of “ambassador” at Florida, Spurrier revels in the recollection of his coaching days.
He was like nobody the SEC had seen when he arrived in Gainesville. Never mind his penchant for throwing the football all over the field, Spurrier simply did not engage in the poor-mouthing that was so prevalent until then.
His Florida teams were fast and athletic, superior to most in the SEC from the get-go. Spurrier knew it, and he wanted opponents and his own players to know it.
When he took over, the Gators had lost three consecutive to Georgia and 10 of the past 12 as they prepared to meet again in the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” in Jacksonville in 1990.
“Coming in, everybody’s asking me if I’m nervous, if I think we can finally beat Georgia in Jacksonville,” Spurrier recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not nervous at all. Why should I be nervous? We’ve got the No.1 offense and the No. 2 defense in the SEC,’ and they were (ranked), like, ninth and 10th or something like that. They weren’t very good at all that year, and we should be ashamed to lose to them. We beat ‘em 38-7, but it should’ve been worse. Georgia punted more times than they had first downs.”
And so it went. There were a couple of very close games in 1992 and ‘93 that the Gators’ pulled out in the fourth quarter. Otherwise, Georgia was getting blown out.
When the old Gator Bowl was torn down and rebuilt into the stadium that stands next to the St. Johns River today, in 1995 Florida had to play at Sanford Stadium for the first time since 1932. Spurrier was asked that week if he thought the Gators would be able to beat Georgia between its hallowed hedges.
“Is Ray Goff still coaching there?” Spurrier shot back. (Goff was.)
Florida defeated the Bulldogs 52-17, which remains the most points ever allowed in Sanford Stadium. The Gators threw a touchdown pass with 1:10 to play to set the final margin.
Spurrier was unapologetic.
“I heard nobody had put a half-a-hundred on them here,” he said after the game. “So we really wanted to do that.”
Goff was fired after that season, and the Bulldogs hired Donnan on Christmas Day. But the result was the same when the teams reconvened in Jacksonville the next fall. The Gators prevailed 47-7.
Donnan finally broke the drought with a 37-17 win over Florida in 1997. Georgia did so with Marcus Stroud and several other blue-chip prospects that it beat the Gators on in head-to-head recruiting. Nevertheless, Florida went right back to dominating the rivalry.
The Gators won the next four by an average of 18 points. That led to another infamous Spurrier zinger.
“Why is it during recruiting (Georgia) signs all the great players, but when it comes time for the game, we have all the great players?” Spurrier said. “I don’t understand that. What happens to them?”
Georgia fans celebrated when Spurrier apparently got bored and left Gainesville to become head coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins in 1992. But the Bulldogs had no way of knowing that they would have to face Spurrier again just three years later as he resurfaced as head coach at South Carolina.
Spurrier didn’t dominate Georgia with the Gamecocks as he did with the Gators, but he landed some mighty blows. In a series the Bulldogs long had dominated against their easterly neighbors, South Carolina won four of five during one stretch, and its upset victories twice kept the Bulldogs out of the national championship picture (in 2007 and 2012).
Breaking Georgia hearts simply was something Spurrier relished. It goes back to his playing days as a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback for the Gators in the 1960s. Georgia won two of the three games it played with Spurrier under center for Florida, including a crushing 27-10 outcome in 1966 that kept the Gators from contending for the first SEC championship in school history.
Spurrier was sacked eight times in that game, including three by All-American defensive tackle Bill Stanfill. Stanfill ragged Spurrier about that game well into their NFL careers and beyond. In banquet speeches, Stanfill joked that when Spurrier was getting fitted for his Heisman Trophy tuxedo, the tailor told him to “stand still,” he thought he said “Stanfill” and dove to the ground and curled up in the fetal position.
That always brought big laughs. Spurrier was laughing, too. He also never forgot.
“Oh, yeah, we singled out Georgia because they were always bragging about beating us,” Spurrier said of taking over the Gators in 1990. “Georgia had gotten the best of Florida for the last 20 years, and they were saying it was because they were tougher than us, because they wanted it more. But I knew we had an excellent team in ‘90. They just needed to hear it and believe it.”
That, Spurrier said, is why he was such a braggadocio when standing before microphones. He said his words were directed mainly at his players, not the opponent they were about to face.
“I read some books back then on how to build confidence in your team,” Spurrier shared. “You don’t do that by standing in front of a room and saying ‘we’ve got no depth on the offensive line and we could be in trouble if we lose a few players.’ You do it by telling your team they’re good enough to win them all. We never won ‘em all, but we won most of them.”
Spurrier definitely did against Tech and Georgia. He was 16-7 against the Bulldogs at Florida and South Carolina and 22-7 against the Jackets if one includes his years at Duke as an assistant and head coach – and he does.
Spurrier’s always keeping count.
“Yeah, 16 wins over Georgia is one more time than (Auburn’s) Shug Jordan,” Spurrier said proudly. “He had the record against them before me.”