December 31, 1989, New Year’s Eve, the end of a decade and the beginning of a new era for Florida Gator football. I remember it well, sitting on a barstool early evening waiting for the grand festivities that are New Years Eve to begin watching a meaningless bowl game at the end of a difficult season. That was the day they introduced favorite son Steven Orr Spurrier as the head coach of the University of Florida Gators, The Ole Ball Coach, a title he himself coined. Spurrier, of course, was the school’s only heisman winner in its long but rather un-illustrious history. The man, the myth, the legend was coming back to save his alma mater from the depths of a second probationary period in 6 years. Their season had ended inauspiciously the day before with a bad loss to a mediocre University of Washington team. NCAA penalties hung over the Gators head like a dust cloud from pigpen’s blanket.
The 80’s had begun with much promise rising from the depth’s of a winless season in Charley Pell’s first season, they quickly marched to the mountaintop to win the school’s first SEC title in 1984 only to have it stripped posthumously due to recruiting violations which forced Pell out of a job. The rest of the decade was spent trying to overcome the effects of scholarship reductions with their lone bright spot being the recruitment and success of the inimitable Emmitt Smith. The ’89 season was a great showcase of Emmitt’s skills with Emmitt left, Emmitt right but not much else. The fact they went to a bowl at all was a testament to the fact that there were way too many bowls back then. On that night the 80’s were coming to a close and so was that era of Gator football.
Enter The Ole Ball Coach. Steve made it no secret his goal was twofold from the start: beat Georgia and win the SEC in that order. If there was one thing most old Gators knew, it was the only thing harder than winning an SEC title was beating Georgia. In fact, it seemed that every time they were in line to win a title, Georgia was there to muck it up. If the Gators were Charley Brown, an SEC title was the football, and Georgia was Lucy, there to pull that football away every time at the very last second. Spurrier hated Georgia, loved Florida, and was the ultimate competitor. He was driven from the start to take his alma mater to the promised land of SEC titles and eventually a national championship in 1996. Steve oversaw the greatest decade of Gator football ever. He put UF on the map with a string of success matched only by Alabama in the 60’s and 70’s under Bear Bryant.
Sadly, the pressure of maintaining the level of success and the expectations that come with it that he created along with the competitive fire to coach at the highest level led him to leave his beloved alma mater to try his hand in the NFL. Of course that lasted a few short, trying years before he ended the experiment. Interestingly enough, when he was back on the coaching market Florida was once again in need of a coach as his successor didn’t last any longer than Steve did in the pros. But the obvious match made in heaven was not to be as the rumored bad blood between Spurrier and the Florida AD Jeremy Foley proved to be too much to overcome and both parties went in separate directions.
So here we are today looking ahead to this weeks tough matchup between Steve Spurrier‘s South Carolina Gamecocks and our beloved Gators coached by an old Ge0rgia Bulldog himself Will Muschamp. Kind of ironic considering how much Spurrier and all of us old Gators hated Georgia and more so considering Muschamp grew up in Gainesville as a Gator fan but didn’t even get an audience with Spurrier as a senior in high school. Will ended up playing for Georgia against Spurrier in the beginnings of Florida’s amazing run of success against the Dawgs. Now in his 8th season at SC Steve once again has a team capable of not only winning the SEC but also the BCS. A team that must go through Gainesville and his alma mater to get there.
Interestingly, the Gamecocks closely mirror the Gators. Both are coached by highly competitive, highly emotional, and very sideline animated head coaches. Both teams have young athletic quarterbacks who can beat you with their legs as well as their arms, are highly efficient, and great leaders who rarely get rattled. Both teams have run oriented offenses centered around tough between the tackle runners who are adept at bouncing outside, making back-side cuts, or running through tacklers. Both have top ranked defenses with multiple potential first round picks on the line and great young defensive backs with tough linebackers who can stuff the run as well as cover in space. Mirror images and on a collision course.
The last six games one team has been the dominant team first with the Gators and the last few with the Gamecocks. Not so this year. They are so close going in that the line opened at Gators by three, and of course the home team is always spotted three points so the oddsmaker’s basically have it as a pick em game.
Seems like yesterday The Ole Ball Coach rode into town as the new sheriff, we were young, wild, and free to quote the old song by Triumph and the excitement that the Fun and Gun brought to the town and the fans was almost unrealistic. Now the Fun and Gun has morphed into the Ground and Pound for both Muschamp’s Gators and Spurriers Gamecocks. Fans on both sides are excited knowing the winner has the inside track on an SEC title, a potential SEC championship game berth, and possibly a BCS championship game berth. Both schools still control their destiny in that regard. After Saturday only one school still will. Hopefully it will be the Ole Bulldog smiling and not The Ole Ball Coach.