Spurrier still a crowd favorite

Published September 3, 2006

GAINESVILLE - The question has now been answered.

Florida fans still love and respect Steve Spurrier. As long as he's standing on Florida Field.

In a pregame ceremony to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Florida's 1996 national championship, Spurrier received a rousing standing ovation from the 90,043 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as a sign on Florida's JumboTron flashed: "Welcome Back, Coach Steve Spurrier."

Spurrier, now coach at South Carolina, waved at the crowd in various sections of the stadium as his wife, Jeri, fought back tears. He was among 84 former players from the 1996 national championship team to attend Saturday's ceremony.

The former coach and Heisman Trophy winner received a similar ovation during a private gathering at the O'Connell Center about three hours before Florida's opener against Southern Mississippi.

"Championships are forever," Spurrier told the O'Dome crowd. "Titles are forever. When you win one, it's forever."

The '96 team finished 12-1 and its 52-20 win over then-No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl earned Florida its only national championship. As fans were treated to a highlight reel from that season, even former players were impressed.

"Just looking up there, we were darn good," former quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel said.

Spurrier, whose Gamecocks won their opener Thursday night, said he made the trek to Gainesville because he wanted to see his former players and felt he owed it to them to attend. But his emotions were different from those of the players. Their allegiance is still to Florida; his is not.

"I've got South Carolina. That's my team now," he said.

But his words and actions may contradict him a bit. "I love all you Gators forever," he said to the O'Connell Center gathering.

MISSING IN ACTION: Senior defensive tackle Marcus Thomas was suspended for the game for unspecified reasons, and tackle Steven Harris also did not play. Coach Urban Meyer said Thomas may return to the lineup next week.

"We have certain expectations, and Marcus didn't live up to those expectations; that's why he didn't play," Meyer said. "It was a decision I made."

NOT SO EASY: He wanted to be on the sideline cheering on his teammates, but doing so with a cast on his broken right foot turned out to be very difficult for former Middleton High star A.J. Jones.

Jones was expected to play in the first game but broke his foot during the week, had surgery and is out for the season. It is the first serious injury of his career.

"It was real tough sitting on the sideline, especially knowing I was going to play," Jones said. "But I know everything happens for a reason. I'm going to use this as opportunity to get better. I'll be lifting weights and getting bigger and stronger."

FIRST TIMERS: Along with receiver Percy Harvin, who became the first true freshman to start at receiver in the opening game, several others also had their first starts: cornerbacks Jermaine McCollum and Ryan Smith, defensive end Jarvis Moss, defensive tackle Clint McMillan and offensive lineman Carlton Medder.

HOMECOMING COMPLETE: After growing up a Gators fan watching his father John play for Florida, Southern Miss reserve quarterback Stephen Reaves got his chance to play on Florida Field. Reaves entered late in the fourth and finished 4-for-10 for 47 yards, including a 20-yard pass.

- ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times staff writer