By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2000
Steve Spurrier is constantly, passionately demeaned by rivals/enemies, which suits the University of Florida football coach.
But, lately, I'm hearing mutterings from devout disciples of the Gators, regarding not only sloppy tackling and rotating quarterbacks, but their old hero's state of mind, battlefield decisions and player relations.
Going to Mississippi State, the Gainesville gents were 4-0, but Spurrier knew his team was nationally over-ranked at No. 3, according to flawed poll methods where so much weight is placed on UF's stout reputation, a September upset win at Tennessee and an acclaimed if controversial coach.
What happened in Starkville, a small and rather stark place, was bruising to Gator egos. MSU ruled 47-35. Spurrier did funky things, like ordering a quarterback to accept a safety, despite trailing by just eight points. Also, on a fourth and 1 in UF territory, Steve opted to go for it. That idea also crashed.
Sunday, the murmurs quickened. An old Gator asked me, "Has my coach lost his mind?" All season, I've heard in-touch UF observers say Spurrier has never seemed gloomier, more irritable and more nauseating to his athletes.
Tuesday, when I telephoned Spurrier, he answered in an upbeat tone, asking about Tampa Bay's tight, tough NFL losses the past two weekends, then saying, "I did do some stupid things" against Mississippi State. Then he spoke with hope for the rest of the Gator season, beginning with Saturday's challenge against LSU.
"We're trying to find a defense to slow some people down," Stephen Orr said, his tone more abundant with concern than rancor. "We're trying to find an offense that can stay on the field a little more."
Spurrier says he's still searching. "We're trying to find out who are our best players, hoping to get them on the field together," said the man whose record in the 1990s was a fancy 102-22-1 with five SEC championships plus a national championship (1996).
"It took LSU a while to decide that Rohan Davey was their best quarterback; then he upsets Tennessee. Jabar Gaffney will get his first start at wide receiver against LSU. Why did it take us Florida coaches so long to figure he was our best go-to guy?"
About that Starkville safety, with Florida trailing 31-23 and 9:22 still on the clock, the UF coach said, "That was a stupid play on my part. I kind of lost track of the score and thought we were nine points behind, not eight. I just didn't want our defense going back in with Mississippi State at midfield. I made another bad call, going for a fourth and 1 on our end."
In midseason assessment, Spurrier said, "It's about the same as the past two or three years. We're just not as efficient as the old days on offense. We struggle defensively.
"But, no, we're still not in total disarray. Playing at home against LSU, there is opportunity to regain momentum, to tackle a lot better and to control the football more effectively."
All through September, I heard rumblings about Steve's handling of players. Not just quarterbacks, who are his personal projects. Gators are gun-shy about being interviewed, a lot of them suggesting they are fearful of what the coach might think and do.
"Sure, it's been frustrating," Spurrier said. "I'm sure I look gloomy at times, but it's just that I want so badly for us to play our hardest, to do the best we can."
He has been generous with muzzles, mandating that certain Gators avoid speaking with media. "After we won at Tennessee, despite getting outplayed, it was ridiculous what some of our guys were saying," said the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner. "They didn't back it up. So it was time to be quieter.
"We don't have superstars here now. We've got to play really hard and efficiently to accomplish anything good. You don't hear bickering among our players. Guys seem pretty happy. We just need to play. If we do it better, everything will probably seem okay to more people."
Wonder what Steve has been saying to Jon Hoke, who became UF defensive coordinator in 1999, replacing Bob Stoops when he got a head-coaching opportunity at Oklahoma?
Even next of UF defensive kin must agree that tackling has been rampantly crummy, even in wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, then notably in the failure at Mississippi State.
"We play a defensive scheme much like the Bucs," said Spurrier, who turned down the Tampa Bay coaching job before Tony Dungy was hired in 1996. "It's a one-gapper where one linebacker or defensive lineman is freed up to make the tackle. Only they've been missing the tackles.
"We're going to probably be freeing up more guys to attempt tackles, even if it costs us a little in the pass rush. We've not been getting to quarterbacks anyway. I just read something in the Alligator, our student newspaper, about the Gators having not flown around, having a lot of fun, making big defensive plays, since the Middle Tennessee game. I agree. I said that to our coaches. We need more of that."
Among the meaner murmurs, you hear the term "Hoke's Jokes." Who doesn't know that Spurrier can easily lose patience? You wonder if Hoke's job security isn't thinning in a hurry. In recent days, a recognizable face has appeared in Gainesville: out-of-work defensive specialist Bill Oliver, for whom Steve has long shown admiration.
Spurrier's offensive tactics first encountered "Brother Bill" in 1984-85, during Steve's days with the Tampa Bay Bandits, when Oliver was coordinating USFL defenses for the Memphis Showboats. They later knocked heads professionally when Spurrier was at Duke and Brother Bill at Clemson, then during the '90s when Oliver surfaced at Alabama and then Auburn.
Is he a possibility?
"I don't think so," Spurrier said. "Nah, we're going with our (current) coaches. At the end of the season, we all undergo evaluations. But we've got a lot of hope. Just last year, our run defense was real good. We're working hard to make it better now."
Seldom does a newspaper person write so many words about S.O. Spurrier without going in depth on quarterbacks. His pet work. As for that, Steve said, "Jesse Palmer may be too injured to play against LSU, but our two freshmen, Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin, are beautiful passers. Both really have chances to be good. I'm excited about coaching this offense, even if I look gloomy."
So, is Spurrier going daffy? Is he losing grip in Gainesville? It can depend on whose opinions you're hearing. A loss to LSU and the mutters are sure to heighten. But let the Gators win and everything is apt to simmer.
"Aw, people are always going to talk," he said. "We're not in bad shape. Just got to win some big games, against LSU and Georgia and South Carolina. We're not great, but I know we can play a lot better. We're trying to, no matter what anybody thinks."