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Fittingly, Fun 'n' Gone

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002

Worship a man for 12 years and you think you know him. Then he goes and changes his calling.

It was not a betrayal. Not a snub. It is just the way Steve Spurrier lives his life. By his rules. On his terms. And always going for broke.

Gator fans today are beginning to understand what opponents have always known. That it is impossible to relax around Spurrier because he has such little regard for his own comfort.

He was the coach who was not bashful about speaking his mind, not worried about running up the score, not afraid to bench a star quarterback.

And, in the end, he was not fazed by leaving what may be the best coaching situation in America.

At Florida, they will talk of Spurrier as the one who showed the way. Those who preceded him envisioned greatness. Spurrier lived it. They talked of better days. He delivered them.

It took a century to find a football coach they could live with in Gainesville. And now he is gone before his legend fit properly.

If you still are struggling to reconcile yourself with Friday's announcement, think back to Spurrier's last game at Florida on Wednesday evening in the Orange Bowl. By college football standards, it was huge. The second-best bowl game of the season. An opportunity for Florida to win 10 games and finish in the Top 5.

And Spurrier greeted it with a yawn. Followed by a head scratch.

Ceremonial fluff meant next to nothing to him. If it didn't come with a championship ring, it was hardly worth his time.

Competition is what he craves and it is what the NFL can offer. No games against the University of Louisiana-Monroe. No screwed-up computer system picking the winners and losers. The NFL is a league of pressure and parity. Spurrier loves pressure and believes he will rise above parity.

The time is also right for him, and it would not be a shock to learn that he had been planning this for a year or more. He knew Florida could contend for the national championship in 2001 and he could have ridden out of town on the shoulders of his players the day after the Rose Bowl.

He also knew he would be 57 next season and time was running out for him to make a career change.

If nothing else, you can be thankful he was no Butch Davis. He did not dance around the truth until he had stepped on every toe on the floor.

Spurrier never said he was closing the door to the NFL, just to other college jobs. And when he decided to leave, he did it quickly.

What makes it difficult to take is that he was the college sweetheart they have always longed for in Gainesville. When autumn arrived, he could always be counted on for a fun weekend date.

Coaches of that stature rarely abandon their college homes. Oh, there are the vagabonds like Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson or Lou Holtz, who hop from job to job without ever being completely betrothed to any one place.

But few voluntarily leave their dream job for another. Not Bobby Bowden, not Bear Bryant, not Vince Dooley, not Tom Osborne, not Joe Paterno, not Bo Schembechler. And Spurrier belongs in that class of coaches.

He has won 142 college games, which makes his resume about half the size of Paterno, Bryant or Bowden. Do not be duped by the numbers.

His career may not have the trappings of a legend, but his abilities are equal to the very best college football has seen. Just as Paterno created the majesty that is Penn State football, Spurrier has done the same at Florida.

Before Spurrier, the Gators were known best for their ability to choke. By the end of his first year at Florida, the world knew differently.

The 1990 Gators may be the embodiment of everything Spurrier believes, and it is a team he still holds close to his heart.

With the NCAA on its back and doubters at its heels, that team finished atop the Southeastern Conference standings. Due to previous rules violations, the record books say the Gators were nonfactors in the SEC that season. Spurrier and his devotees defiantly claim it as the first UF league title.

It would begin a pattern of success mingled with a you and me against the world attitude that Spurrier happily promoted.

He gave arrogance a good name. He practically made it fashionable to be a social blowtorch. If, as people closest to him say, he is a likable person, than Spurrier is a master of disguise.

He would not pander to curry favor. At times, it seemed he would go out of his way to alienate instead of pacify.

The impression he left was that he cared little about your feelings toward him. Not unless you were one of his players, one of his friends or one of his followers. And, sometimes, not even then.

He is gone now. By his choice.

Whether you like it or not.

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