By Trey Williams
Master needler Steve Spurrier’s early exit has left college football feeling deflated.
Spurrier’s mid-season resignation at South Carolina last week was a sad day for folks such as his older brother, Graham, former Science Hill teammate Tom Hager and Elvin Little, who coached him in high school basketball.
“I wasn’t shocked but I was surprised that he quit when he did,” Little said. “But I know why he did. He just felt like his age played a big factor in the recruiting process and all those college coaches recruit the same kids. They’d tell those kids, ‘He’s 70 years old. He ain’t gonna be there but a year or two.’ So he couldn’t recruit and the football team wasn’t improving under him, and he just felt like the best thing for him to do was step aside. … But he’s the winningest coach that South Carolina ever had and the winningest coach Florida ever had.”
Spurrier won the 1966 Heisman Trophy and coached Danny Wuerffel to the ’96 Heisman when Florida won the national championship. He won six SEC championships in 12 years at Florida, which hadn’t won an SEC title previously. He coached South Carolina to three straight 11-win seasons.
“He took them from the outhouse to the penthouse,” Graham said.
The same could be said for Duke, where he won an ACC championship in 1989.
Spurrier rescued programs from the scrap heap and talked junk while doing so. Targets of his gamesman-quips included Florida State (Free Shoes University), Peyton Manning’s Citrus Bowl prowess, Ray Goff’s coaching, Alabama’s recruiting and Auburn’s academics.
Danny Ford’s No. 7 Clemson Tigers lost 21-17 at Duke in 1989, a fact he still seemed to be digesting when he visited Johnson City to speak to East Tennessee State’s football team some 10-12 years later. But Ford’s disgusted tone included a sort of reverence for Spurrier.
Such respect has been apparent with everyone from ETSU coach Carl Torbush to former ETSU running back Herman Jacobs, a Floridian who was a big fan of the way Spurrier’s Tampa Bay Bandits attacked defenses with a pioneering passing game in the USFL.
When Torbush introduced himself to Graham Spurrier at a luncheon at retired FBI agent Al Hamlett’s home last spring, he smiled and joked about how Steve all but got him fired when Torbush was the defensive coordinator at North Carolina in ’89. Duke won 41-0 at UNC, Torbush said, and then Steve and the Duke players posed for a picture in front of the scoreboard.
Former Duke quarterback Steve Slayden spoke reverently of Spurrier while at a golf tournament at The Virginian in 1994. He smiled when he heard Spurrier had attended high school nearby, and was soon describing how Spurrier instantly injected confidence into a Duke program that had gone 10-23 during Slayden’s first three years under Steve Sloan.
Spurrier’s first Duke team went 5-6 during Slayden’s senior year in ’87, but among the losses was an impressive 17-10 setback at No. 7 Clemson. So Slayden wasn’t surprised when Duke won at Tennessee in ’88.
Spurrier wasn’t either. He’d engineered another Duke win over Johnny Majors at Tennessee in 1982 when he was Red Wilson’s offensive coordinator. Spurrier replaced quarterback Ron Sally with backup Ben Bennett in that one – a season-opening 25-24 win at Neyland Stadium.
Bennett drove the Blue Devils 83 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, a game that came to mind while watching Spurrier’s first South Carolina team drive for a game-winning field goal at Tennessee in 2005.
During an interview for a story on Bryson Bowling when the Science Hill Hall of Famer was playing receiver for East Carolina, ECU assistant Noah Brindise was compelled to stress Spurrier’s smarts.
Ellis Johnson was Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at South Carolina from 2008-11. They won the SEC East Division in 2010 – a season of unprecedented feats that included wins over a No. 1-ranked team (Alabama) and at Florida, and a sweep of the Gators, Tennessee and Clemson.
While interviewing Johnson in 2011, he said Spurrier treated everyone the same – from assistant coaches and superstar players to the janitor.
Johnson’s first exposure to a Science Hill alum was Jerry Wolff, who played on Sidney Smallwood’s No. 1-ranked Hilltoppers basketball team with Ferrell Bowman in 1953-54. Wolff coached Johnson in high school and was later the minister at Johnson’s church in Winnsboro, S.C.
Johnson said Wolff and Spurrier were good, down-to-earth people. They were also good high school basketball players. Spurrier scored 1,470 points in three years at Science Hill, and Ray Mears offered him a basketball scholarship at Tennessee.
“A lot of basketball coaches didn’t recruit him because they knew he was headed toward football,” Little said. “He could’ve played college basketball, but he chose the right sport as far as his future was concerned. He would’ve been a good college player, but he couldn’t have played in the pros because he didn’t have the speed or physical build to do that.”
Many say Little was running a Four Corners offense before Dean Smith when he had Spurrier.
“That’s right, but we didn’t call it that,” Little said. “If a team played us a zone and we’d get ahead, then I’d pull the ball out and put Steve on the point, Hager and (Choo) Tipton on the wings and (Donnie) Bates and Bill (Wilson) along the baseline. And we’d just give the ball to Steve and he could take care of the ball until they came out and played us man to man. When teams would play us man to man, Steve would just go around that guy guarding him because he could go around anybody – and then if they didn’t pick him up he took it to the basket, and if they picked him up he just fed it off to one of those guys along the baseline.”
Little recalled one such set when he was trying to put a victory on ice against Morristown when things got heated.
“When Steve was a senior Gene Quarles had a good ballclub (at Morristown),” Little said. “And he came to Johnson City to play the first game after the holidays. And during Christmas workouts Steve broke his nose and wore a plastic mask.
“We were ahead late in the game and Steve was out there dribbling and holding the ball on them, and this Morristown boy came and just swiped at that mask on that nose. Well, Steve – that’s the only time I’ve ever seen Steve flare up. Well, when Steve flared up, hell, guys out of the stands came on the floor and a damn free-for-all broke out. And I ran out there and was pulling my kids away from it, you know, and then Gene Quarles told (official) Ralph Stout that I hit one of his players. I told Ralph Stout, ‘He’s crazy. He was standing over there on the sidelines not getting involved in it and I was out there pulling my kids out of the fight.’”
Spurrier also triggered a mad scene at Erwin his senior season. His half-court buzzer-beater proved to be the game-winner in a shootout for first place in the Big Seven Conference.
“We took the ball out at midcourt and passed it into the backcourt,” Little said, “and Steve took one dribble and let it fly. So it was right around midcourt. … He knocked the bottom out of it.
“Erwin had the ball going for the last shot and they threw it away underneath their basket. So I got timeout. I told Steve to get the ball to Bill Wilson at midcourt. I told Tommy Hager to get over there in front of Tommy Miller the referee to make sure we got timeout when the ball hit Bill’s hands. And I told Choo Tipton to get over there in front of the timer and make sure they stopped the damn clock, because they’d run the clock on you over there. Well, we got the ball in and there was two seconds left on the clock. I told the boys, ‘Get the ball to Steve, and Steve, do what you can do.’ That’s what you call good coaching.”
Winning, it turned out, was about as difficult as getting out in one piece.
“Zane Whitson was coaching and we were tied with them for the conference championship,” Little said. “That place was packed. They were standing under the goals and everything. … Those people were shocked. They’d pepper you with rocks (outside the gym).”
Hager said after the win the players were told not to shower.
“They said just to get dressed and we needed to get out of there, and we did,” Hager said. “And we got on the old bus and got about two or three blocks down the street and a brick came through the window of the bus. Nobody was hurt. Luckily, where it hit – the front window – was where you walk up on the bus and that’s where all the glass went … down in that little stairway. …
“The offense back in those days was to throw the ball to Steve and watch him do his thing. And he’d score 20 or 30 a game. … He could do things with the basketball that not many could do – or did – around here at the time. He could do that dribble-behind-the-back stuff and Elvin would let him do that. I think Choo might’ve been able to do it, but he might’ve been afraid to do it in a game.”
Spurrier has said several times that he benefitted from having an older brother. Graham, three years older, started on Bill Wilkins’ conference champion team as a senior in 1960.
“But by the time Steve was in about the ninth grade,” Graham said, “he was eating my lunch down there at the scout hall (Beeson Hall gym).”
Little and Hager both chuckled recalling Spurrier outscoring a pretty good Bob Paynter-coached University High team in a game, and they both laughed thinking about the night Spurrier was accidentally left in Kingsport after a win at Dobyns-Bennett his senior season.
“We had this old bus that we traveled in,” Hager said. “We called it the Maroon Goose. It was an ole military bus that they’d had painted maroon and gold. None of us realized until the next day that we’d left Steve in Kingsport.”
Well, Little realized it the night before.
“I thought Steve was on there,” Little said. “I was in the car getting ready to leave (Science Hill) and Steve got out of this car and said, ‘Coach, we really had a good time coming back on the bus didn’t we.’ I said, ‘We sure did.’ He said, ‘Coach, you left me over there.’ He got left, but nobody said anything on the bus coming home.”
Hager said Jack Campbell drove Spurrier home. Campbell went on to be the Walters State president and his brother Ken is an ex-ETSU/Walters State baseball coach.
Spurrier was quite the high school baseball player, too. A shortstop and pitcher, he played on John Broyles’ state champion baseball teams in 1962 and ’63.
He allowed one earned run while pitching a six-hitter in the ’63 state championship victory against Memphis Christian Brothers, finishing his senior season with a 7-0 record. He also went 2 for 3 and scored a run. Spurrier’s RBI single scored Hager to win Science Hill the 1962 state championship 1-0 over Memphis Messick in Nashville.
“I got a hit and I think I was sacrificed to second … and Steve got a hit and knocked me in and we won the state championship, 1-0,” Hager said.
Little said he “never saw anyone that was a better performer under pressure than Steve.”
That was evident in his final football game at Science Hill. Spurrier’s four TD passes in the final 24:50 rallied the ‘Toppers from a 21-0 deficit to defeat Church Hill 28-21 in the Exchange Bowl at J. Fred Johnson Stadium in Kingsport.
Emory Hale was the Science Hill quarterbacks coach that season and has often described the improbable rally.
“Steve Spurrier and (receivers) Jimmy Sanders and Tommy Thomas, who was a sophomore, got it going,” Hale said. “Boy, Steve was dropping it on the button; I’m talking 30-, 40- and 50-yard passes … and Jimmy didn’t break stride. That was one of the most phenomenal performances I saw.”
Indeed, Spurrier’s four TD passes that night matched what had been a season record at Science Hill set by Bill McCarren in 1934. Spurrier quadrupled the mark with 16 TD passes his senior season.
He also rushed for eight TDs, kicked 19 PATs and made four field goals that year. He also played defensive back and was a three-year starting punter.
Hale, who went on to coach Oak Ridge to five state titles and was head coach at Austin Peay, said Spurrier’s play-calling ability was obvious.
“I think that Steve had 14 balls that bounced off receivers (that season) against Morristown,” Hale said. “Jimmy Sanders was hurt. He got a concussion against Chattanooga Central and Tommy Thomas hadn’t been playing on the varsity yet. I was calling the plays and thought I was doing a pretty good job. We just weren’t catching the ball.
“But at halftime Coach (Kermit) Tipton said ‘Let Steve call some of them plays.’ I knew right then that he thought that Steve – like he’s proven calling plays in college – liked to be in charge and in control. So Coach Tipton gave him the opportunity to call the plays.”
Hager said watching Spurrier operate precisely under pressure against Church Hill was something to behold, but nothing Spurrier did truly surprised him. Not even last week’s resignation.
“That’s the way he does things,” Hager said. “This is the end of an era and he won’t be coaching, probably, any more. So from that standpoint it was a sad day for me.”
Little and Graham each scoffed at the common criticism that Spurrier selfishly quit on his team.
“You’ll have those people that don’t know the ins and outs,” Little said. “And in a way, he did quit on the team, but I mean he quit not because of himself, but for them. It gives them time to screen and talk to coaches that they want to hire. That’s a big deal in college. If you lose a year in recruiting that kills you. …
“He didn’t do it for himself. He did it for South Carolina.”
Spurrier will be remembered as being on the right side of history. He was critical of South Carolina flying the Confederate flag shortly after taking the South Carolina job, a decade before it became far more palpable in the state. He lobbied for a college football playoff while all but questioning Roy Kramer’s motives in being opposed to one.
And Spurrier might’ve been the first coach – high profile, at least – to say student-athletes deserved more compensation in an industry generating billions of dollars. Jay Bilas commended Spurrier for being out front on that issue when Bilas visited Johnson City in 2013.
Another point Spurrier has always stressed is for high school athletes to play multiple sports if they’d like to – and for high school coaches and parents not to pressure them into picking a particular one. He said his multi-sport memories are invaluable.
“He scored in double digits the first night out (after the Exchange Bowl),” Little said. “It didn’t take him any time to adjust to basketball. He loved basketball. He considered quitting football when he was a freshman … but he said he didn’t want to be called a quitter. So he stuck with football and they put the passing game in up there and that was the beginning of Steve Spurrier’s life in football.”
Perhaps the biggest feather in Spurrier’s visor was winning big without ever been associated with cheating.
“There’s never been any mention of anything shady going on,” Hager said. “He always seemed to go by the rules and I think when you had the teams he had, that speaks volumes.”
Spurrier has often said he intended to represent Coach Tipton well with the way he went about coaching football. And he was obviously moved when he learned after Tipton’s death that Tipton wanted him to have his whistle.
When Spurrier gave $100,000 for Science Hill’s football stadium he strongly suggested the stadium be named after Tipton. And Stacy Carter said when Spurrier recently learned about Kermit Tipton Stadium’s second-rate lighting, he donated another $50,000. The new lights will installed in the offseason.
Carter admired Spurrier’s coaching, as did current assistant Benny Tolley and countless others, including Science Hill Hall of Famer Randy Ferrell and former Science Hill head coach Scott Smith.
Even a basketball junkie like Little, who played at Tennessee and won a state title at Lenoir City before going to Science Hill, was fascinated with Spurrier the football coach. Little said going undefeated against Peyton Manning was perhaps more impressive than what he did at Duke or South Carolina.
“It was just fun to watch him coach,” Little said. “I told him one time, I said, ‘Steve, I never thought I’d say this, but I think I’ve gotten more enjoyment out of watching you coach than I did coaching you.’ And that’s saying a lot.”