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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2002
Steve Spurrier, after years of squashing NFL flirtations, bolted from the Florida Gators four months ago at age 56, taking a $5-million-a-year Washington Redskins gig, which means disappearing from the life of old No. 11's hottest rival, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.
"I'll miss him," Bowden said, "but I'm glad he's gone." Respect for Spurrier's creativity, self-assurance and sideline energies seep like rich, fraternal honey from Bowden's lips, laced with heavenly comparisons to Bill Walsh and lifetime Bowden hero Bear Bryant, but there is an uneasy flip side that reaffirms the FSU guy's disgust with Spurrier's repeated personal accusations that the 'Noles "were coaching dirty football."
Bowden was happy when the Gators hired Spurrier a dozen years ago. He admits frustrations when Charley Pell was UF coach, using questionable recruiting tactics that got the Gators on NCAA probation.
"I felt that Steve would play it much fairer, so that was a positive from my perspective," Bowden said. Bowden clearly worked at having the coziest relationship possible with the rival.
"Cordial, that's what I tried to be," he said. "Spurrier wasn't much interested in being cordial with a rival. That's his choice, which was fine, but I didn't like all the sniping that would come about our coaching tactics."
Spurrier is adjusting to new turf, dealing with millionaire athletes and spunky Redskins owner Dan Snyder as well as Washington's lofty NFL expectations, but Bowden suggests Spurrier's biggest changes should prohibit feisty, finger-pointing attitudes with enemy franchises.
"He needs to tone down the accusations against other coaches," the 71-year-old Bowden said. "Up there, reactions to such things will be much tougher. He'll hear it from a far larger audience of critics."
Through the '90s, they were lightning rods in college football's most smashing rivalry, competing often for national championships. Bowden's 'Noles twice were No. 1 (1993 and 1999), while Spurrier's Gators reached the peak in 1996 thanks to a 52-20 crushing of Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.
Listen to Bowden assessing his old Gainesville nemesis and you wouldn't guess he got the best of Spurrier with an 8-5-1 record in their 1990-2001 collisions. As much as Bowden was offended by Spurrier's sniping at FSU coaching tactics, the Tallahassee icon speaks glowingly of the Redskins man's approaches to airborne football.
"We won more games (than Florida), but Spurrier still gave me fits," Bowden said. "When he won a national championship, they wore us out in New Orleans; something I will never forget.
"Walsh had always seemed to be the genius with the passing game, with the 49ers and Stanford, but he got out of the business and along came Steve to quickly prove to be ahead of everybody.
"I thought no coach would ever dominate the SEC as Bear Bryant once did, but Spurrier reached that point. I have studied his passing game like mad. Steve was so far ahead in the way he coached it.
"On the sideline, it's as though Spurrier is playing the game as well as coaching. That's why he is so animated and demanding on quarterbacks; so thrilled or frustrated over what his QBs do."
But now, the Spurrier opponents won't be Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia or even Florida State. His prime new targets are from Dallas, Philadelphia and New York. Speculation on how he'll do with the Redskins runs high and low, unquestionably with more doubters than believers.
"I've always been a Dallas Cowboys fan," Bowden said, giving a little Alabamian chuckle, "but, no, I won't be rooting against Steve. I will be fascinated to see how it goes. I won't pull against the Redskins unless he has more bad things to say about me. That isn't likely to happen. I'm gone from his life now. He's their problem now, not mine."
Spurrier overloaded his Washington coaching staff with former UF cronies. He has brought two former quarterbacks, Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews, to the 'Skins after both had mediocre results with other NFL teams. If the season starts slowly in September and October, high-voltage criticism is certain to fly.
"That tells you something about Spurrier's confidence," Bowden said. "He's so sure of himself. By bringing in Wuerffel and Matthews, it's like Steve is saying, "Watch me, I'll win again with these fellows like I did at Florida, no matter what second-guessers think.'
"I wouldn't bet against him. This is a coach who won in football at Duke in the '80s, a feat that becomes more amazing when you check what they (the Blue Devils) did before and after he was there."
Ron Zook replaced Spurrier with the Gators. Bowden said, everywhere he goes, addressing FSU booster organizations and talking with media, "they always begin by asking how it's going to be without Steve.
"I think Florida got a very thorough coach who is a lot like Steve. Spurrier is mostly laid back while Zook seems more of a nervous, high-energy type. He'll try to outwork you. I've bumped into Ron just once, at a banquet in Fort Walton Beach, but his people quickly took Zook in one direction and my people led me another way.
"It will not diminish the Florida State-Florida rivalry. We have a chance to be real good this season, and I know they (the Gators) will keep getting the talent to be at the same high level. Of course, it will be a little cooler between games, since I'm not expecting him to say Bowden is hitting late or playing dirty. Boy, did Spurrier make our rivalry hot."
Bowden, in his heroic 26-season run at FSU, has heard offers from the NFL. "There was also one from the USFL," he confided. "I was making about $300,000 at the time and they ran a $1.2-million figure under my nose. I just didn't feel comfortable with it."
Bobby said that twice "my lawyers were talking with lawyers for NFL franchises. I think all I had to do was say yes, but it always seemed the better idea for the Bowdens to stay in Tallahassee."
He will not name the teams involved, but there is considerable evidence that it was the Bucs in 1987 and the Atlanta Falcons a year earlier.
"Spurrier leaving Florida has made me dream up a lot of new jokes for talks to Florida State booster clubs," Bowden said. "Maybe there will be a market for that stuff with Steve's rival coaches from the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants.
"It will be intriguing to observe."
-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail email@example.com or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.