Steve Spurrier’s first words to me were: “Well, I know the boys at Clemson are shaking in their boots after watching that display!”
Everyone within earshot burst out laughing, imagining the Duke defense, that had just lost 49-28 to the University of Virginia, against No. 7 Clemson the next week. After covering high school sports for The Charlottesville Daily Progress my first college assignment tasked me with providing the “visitor” perspective on the game in Charlottesville. Following that 1989 quip, I understood the buzz among journalists as they awaited the emergence of Spurrier. The great coach made great copy.
The former national champion coach and Heisman Trophy-winner shocked the football world Monday by retiring from football.
Spurrier kept us all laughing with one self-depreciating comment after another about how bad his coaching was and how bad his Duke Blue Devils were (they had not been to a bowl game in a few decades at that point). As I walked into the locker room, the Duke players were depressed, and hearing such questions as, “What does it feel like when no matter what you do you can’t stop anything?” That query came from a student reporter at the Duke newspaper to a huge Blue Devils defensive end who looked like he wished to kill his fellow student.
Things looked pretty bleak for Duke’s season that night. The offense looked better against Virginia than it had in a 28-6 loss at Tennessee the week before – and at 1-3, it looked like even Spurrier could not end Duke’s 27-year drought from a bowl game.
But as opposing coaches learned for decades, you never underestimate Spurrier.
There is no way No. 7 really shook in their cleats when they traveled to Durham the next week, but Spurrier stunned them 21-17 to start a seven-game winning streak that resulted in Duke finishing the regular season ranked 20th in the country to make the All-American Bowl against Texas Tech.
Spurrier’s offensive mastery resulted in Duke boasting the 16th-best offensive in the country, just enough to win despite the struggling defense.
However, even the defense came out of nowhere for the season finale against hated North Carolina, registering a stunning 41-0 win over the Tar Heels after allowing over 30 points a game until that point.
The next year Spurrier moved onto Florida, where his Gators finished won the conference championship six of 12 years, and Duke reverted back to 4-7. After a brief NFL stay with the Redskins, he took the job at South Carolina, taking them to No. 4 in the country two years ago.
You can talk about the offensive genius at the three schools, and the 1996 national title in Florida, but the legend of Spurrier centers on Duke. The year before I covered him he went into Tennessee with Duke and shocked them 31-26.
When people expressed hatred for his willingness to run up scores at Florida and South Carolina, he simply said even his teams’ backup players ran a passing offense, and it was up to the defense to rescue themselves from the shallow end of his depth chart. No one likes to lose. But rivals especially hated to lose against Steve Spurrier.
When Spurrier brought the South Carolina Gamecocks into Auburn for the first time, the conservative, Bible-belt campus was flooded with t-shirts that read, “I always knew Spurrier was a Cock.” Nowhere was the hatred move evident than in Tennessee. When asked how he could pull off a win against a tough Tennessee team, Spurrier simply responded, “I beat them with Duke. Duke!” After defeating Tennessee to eliminate their chances at a Sugar Bowl appearance and put them on course for the Citrus Bowl, he proudly yelled: “You can’t spell Citrus without a ‘u’ and a ‘t.’”
We soon miss the coach we loved to hate.