Commentary: Steve Spurrier changed college football – and did it his way

Steve Spurrier knew how to tweet long before it became something you did on your phone.

In 140 characters or less, the coach could cut right to the heart of the matter, make his own fans laugh and get everyone to pay attention.

And as good as he was with a quip, he was even better with a pencil in hand, drawing up plays.

The man who liked to call himself the “Head Ball Coach” coached ’em up better than anyone for about a decade.

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In the early 1990s, Spurrier turned college football upside down in the Southeastern Conference and across the nation. He revived his alma mater, Florida, and, more importantly, made other coaches believe that you could throw the ball, have some fun and collect a few wins — and even a few enemies — along the way.

And so, when you turn on the TV this Saturday and watch programs from Oregon to Florida and, yes, even in Texas, spreading out their offenses, throwing on every down and looking to hang 50 — not such a feat anymore — you might take a second to thank the ol’ ball coach.

“He had fun doing it,” said Spurrier’s buddy, and old boss, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

He did it at pretty much everyone’s expense.

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Oh, yes, they used to hate this sunburned, visor-tossing, invective-spewing genius, who was known around the South, not-so-lovingly, as “Coach Superior.”

He cared not one bit.

“At least they’re not calling us losers anymore,” Spurrier said during the last of his 12 successful seasons at Florida. “If people like you too much, it’s probably because they’re beating you.”

He leaves South Carolina looking a bit beaten — at 70, a shadow of that lightning-rod of a man he used to be.

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His two-year stint as an NFL coach was a failure. That he was lauded by the South Carolina president for helping that program to three 11-win seasons and an SEC East title was a sign of how much things have changed.

Those would’ve been mere stepping stones at Florida, where he won 122 games, along with six SEC titles and one national championship over his dozen game-changing years.

He became a more conservative, less dramatic and, ultimately, less successful coach as the years clicked along at South Carolina.

That should not be his lasting legacy.

He was the coach who singlehandedly took Bear Bryant’s close-to-the-vest, ground-centric SEC on a high-flying ride it has yet to come down from. Using his Fun ‘N’ Gun offense, Spurrier turned quarterbacks Danny Wuerffel, Shane Matthews, Doug Johnson and Rex Grossman into college-football stars. None of them did much at the NFL, which was further tribute to the coach’s ability to coax the most out of less-than-Grade A talent.

Things we see every week now used to be news when Spurrier coached the Gators.

All that visor tossing and the arms-crossed, spittle-flying lectures he gave to the quarterbacks — the reruns of those moments almost seem quaint today. Only last month, Florida’s current coach, Jim McElwain, had to apologize for an over-the-top tirade toward Kelvin Taylor, who happens to be the son of one of Spurrier’s best players.

The great one-liners — “Can’t spell citrus without U-T,” ”FSU stands for Free Shoes University” — that’s come-and-go stuff in today’s world of Twitter.

Remember rivalries? They’re more quaint than meaningful in today’s version of the college game, which has been reset in an era of expanded super-conferences.

Spurrier was from a different mold.

He played up Florida’s rivalry with Florida State, and made the Gators’ border war against Georgia mean something again, carrying a personal grudge into the matchup because of the beatings he’d suffered during his own college career, which concluded with him hoisting a Heisman Trophy, but not a single SEC title.

So, after a dozen years of paying back all the grudges and dishing out all the one-liners, maybe it wasn’t such a surprise that the second and third acts felt more like work than fun.

He went to the NFL to see if his style of coaching could make it there. Answer: No. He went 12-20 over two years with the Redskins.

He returned to the college game at South Carolina — an SEC member, for sure, but a place where he never had to deal with what he had at Florida. After so much success there, he said, it became “like a disgrace when we lose and a relief when we win.”

At a going-away news conference Tuesday, Spurrier acknowledged it was time to leave because, at age 70, he’d lost any sense of persuasion on the recruiting trail.

Yes, the Fun ‘N’ Gun has been irreversibly replaced by a text-and-tweet game with which Spurrier is no longer comfortable.

But give him this: By resigning suddenly, in mid-season, and with the caveat that he might not be done coaching forever, he did it his way.

Now, THAT was the ol’ ball coach at his finest, and who would’ve expected any different?