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Real story: Time heals old split over FSU game, wish to return, as Spurrier comes home to cheers
Now the full story on Steve Spurrier’s return can be told.
He has come home to the University of Florida where he rewrote the record books as a college football player and coach. Fifteen years ago, without warning, he abruptly resigned from what many considered to be the best coaching job in America.
He was head football coach at the University of Florida. At the time it was clear that he was unhappy about something at Florida. fans could only speculate and guess at what it might be. Most Gators fans did not buy the explanation that Spurrier was leaving to answer the call of the NFL and to harvest their big dollars.
On opening night of the 2016 Florida football season Spurrier was back where it all began more than 50 years ago. He was the star of the show once again on the field he made famous in the 1960’s. Back then the venue was simply known as Florida Field. All of that changed before the opening kickoff for the 2016 season.
Spurrier dazzled a sellout crowd one more time. He was the star on the field as the arena was renamed to honor the legend. From that day forward one of the nation’s iconic football stadiums will be known as Steve Spurrier—Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The occasion was billed as a welcome home for Spurrier. The event promotions urged fans to turn out and join in as the Gators take back the Swamp. When Spurrier returned to Florida as Head Football Coach in 1990 he dubbed the stadium as “The Swamp where only the Gators get out alive.” In recent years the Gators have not measured up to past championship performances. The crowd enthusiasm on opening night indicated the fans expect that to change.
In the pregame ceremony on a rain soaked field, before 90,000 wet but enthusiastic Gators fans, Spurrier said thank you. He said having the storied field bear his name is the most treasured honor he has ever received. He remembered and thanked the key people who played roles in his success as a student athlete and football coach.
At halftime Spurrier and the 1996 Gators team he coached to the national championship were honored at midfield. The team carried their 71 year old coach off the field on their shoulders to the enthusiastic delight of the crowd.
Spurrier is back home where he belongs. This summer he was designated as a University of Florida Ambassador and Consultant. He has a modest office in the stadium complex. It seems that his job description calls for him to do whatever he wants. Among other things he gives motivational talks to Gators sports teams. Last week, after speaking to the Gators basketball team, he joked that he has the two major qualifications needed to be on the speaking circuit. He is available and he is free.
Retiring Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley played a major role in bringing Spurrier home and naming the field in his honor. Reliable sources say Foley wanted to mend fences with his old friend and colleague as Foley rides off into the sunset on his way toward retirement.
Foley and Spurrier were close for the 10 years Spurrier was Florida’s head football coach. That relationship soured just before Spurrier’s resignation as coach. Those close to the situation say Spurrier chaffed under what he perceived as a lack of support from Foley and the University.
Reportedly, at issue was Spurrier’s contention that an FSU player had deliberately tried to injure two Gators players. Spurrier believed dirty play tactics were aimed at his players in an attempt to injure the Florida players and put them out of the game. It happened in the final regular season game between Florida and Florida State.
Game film appeared to show that, in a pile-up, FSU player Darnell Dockett twisted the knee of Gators running back Ernest Graham. Some saw it as clearly a deliberate effort by Dockett to injure Graham, who was carried off the field. Other film appeared to show Dockett deliberately trying to stomp the passing hand of Gators quarterback Rex Grossman while he was on the ground. It was viewed as an attempt to cleat the passing hand of the Gators signal caller in an attempt to disable him and give FSU an advantage in the game.
Spurrier went ballistic when he saw the game film and it went public. He demanded that FSU be sanctioned and Dockett be held accountable. FSU considered Spurrier’s complaint a big joke. FSU athletic director Dave Hart bragged that he hoped Spurrier would grow up and stop whining. He said Spurier ought to be sent to bed without his supper in the hopes he would wake up in the morning “all growed up” as a big boy. Spurrier received no support from Foley or the University of Florida.
He quietly seethed. After Florida’s Orange Bowl game, which ended the 2001 football season, Spurrier did not return to Gainesville with his team. He prepared to resign as Florida’s football coach. He accepted the head coaching job with the NFL Washington Redskins. The college football world was stunned.
Spurrier discovered he is a college football coach who is ill suited to coach in the NFL. He didn’t last long. He soon resigned as Washington’s coach.
Ron Zook was hired to replace Spurrier at Florida. That placement did not work out. He was fired.
Florida had a coaching vacancy for head coach. Spurrier was available and wanted to return home. He let Foley know he wanted his old job back. Spurrier was told he needed to submit his resume and put in his application and go through the hiring proces like everyone else. Spurrier reportedly replied that his resume was in the University of Florida trophy case. He withdrew his name from consideration and accepted the coaching job at South Carolina.
The breech in the friendship between Foley and Spurrier appeared to be beyond repair. For more than a decade they had very little contact. Foley now appeared to be tying up loose ends as his Oct. 1 retirement date neared. He made certain the contracts of Gators coaches are secure to guarantee they are well taken care of after he is gone. He seemed determined to make amends with Spurrier.
Bringing him back to Florida as an ambassador and consultant is a major step in that direction. Naming the football field in his honor is the icing on the cake. Spurrier seems delighted. He said the honor is even greater than winning the Heisman Trophy. Spurrier and Foley seem to have reestablished the old friendship they once enjoyed.
As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”