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Steve Spurrier, SEC's greatest icon, is still a Florida beach boy at heart

Mike Bianchi

SPORTS COMMENTARY

5:03 PM EDT, September 21, 2013

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So many manic, mono-maniacal football coaches lock themselves in the office this time of year and rarely come out of their pigskin penitentiary. They're breaking down tape when the sun comes up and making up game plans when the sun goes down. Some of them even sleep on cots in their office as they obsess with trying to estimate, investigate and evaluate which way a silly oblong ball might bounce.

Then there's Steve Spurrier, who is spending this weekend before Saturday's game with UCF the same way he spends every open week during every football season. He and his wife, Jerri, are at their Florida beach house.

"I'll be down in Crescent Beach," Spurrier said a few days ago. "Me and some of my grandkids are going to take the boogie boards out and catch us some waves."

Cue up the Beach Boys music, Orlando, because the Head Ball Coach — er, Head Boogie Board Coach — is coming to town.

"Just get away from the shady turf,

And, baby, go catch some rays on the sunny surf

And when you catch a wave, you'll be sittin' on top of the world."

Who would have ever thought that all these years later, Stephen Orr Spurrier would once again be surfing the crest of a wave and sitting on top of the college football world? When Spurrier brings his 12th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks into Bright House Networks Stadium on Saturday to face George O'Leary's undefeated UCF Knights, he will return to his beloved state of Florida as the most iconic figure in Southeastern Conference history.

No, not the greatest coach in the annals of the SEC; that honor probably belongs to Bear Bryant or maybe even Nick Saban. But, Spurrier, when you to take his entire body of work into account, is unquestionably the league's most iconic, histrionic figure.

"Nobody compares to Spurrier," says ESPN personality and national radio host Paul Finebaum, one of the nation's foremost experts on SEC football. "He's one of a kind. He's the only one to hold the position of being the best coach in history at two different SEC schools."

Norm Carlson, Spurrier's longtime publicist and confidant at the University of Florida, makes another legitimate point: "Bear Bryant never won a Heisman."

It is this longevity of legend — a half-century of memories as a remarkable player and a revolutionary coach — that separates Spurrier from Saban, Bryant, Johnny Majors and all the rest.

Spurrier didn't just put the University of Florida on the map, he drew the map. As a player, he became the school's first Heisman Trophy winner in 1966 and as a coach during a dozen dynastic years he turned the SEC's most laughable underachievers into its most dominant force. He endeared himself to Gator Nation not just by winning games, but by winning them with flash, dash and panache. Even more than a decade later, he is the main reason that Gator fans still complain that current coach Will Muschamp's offense is bland and boring.

Spurrier won Florida's first national championship, first SEC title and dominated a league that before him had always looked upon UF as a "sleeping giant." Spurrier didn't just wake up this lazy giant, he brewed him some coffee, put him to work and turned him into football destruction machine.

And, now, he's at another perennially underachieving program and has roused its giant, too. In his ninth season at South Carolina, Spurrier has somehow managed to put the chronically mediocre and irrelevant Gamecocks on the national map and transform them into legitimate SEC power.

"He's had three eras of adulation," notes Gatorzone.com's Chris Harry, who chronicled Spurrier's dynamic, dynastic era with the Gators while working for the Orlando Sentinel. "Who else in league history can make that claim? Oh, and by the way, he won a championship at freaking Duke, too, which might be his greatest accomplishment."

Says Spurrier: "I like doing things that have never been done before."

And, what's so great about Spurrier is he's done it his way — by throwing his visor on the ground and tossing barbs at rival coaches; by engaging critical columnists and enraging opposing fans. He's done it with his new-age "Fun and Gun" offense that transformed the SEC into a passing league in the 1990s; and he's done it by playing old-school smash-mouth defense at South Carolina in the 2000s.

Full disclosure: Many college football pundits, myself included, had written him off following his failed two years with the NFL's Washington Redskins and his mediocre first few years at South Carolina. When he brought the Gamecocks into the Swamp and got destroyed 56-6 by Urban Meyer's Gators in 2008, I remember thinking how sad it was that Spurrier had lost his confidence and mojo.

"Seeing Spurrier coming back to The Swamp and getting clobbered was like watching an aging Sinatra returning to the Sands and forgetting the words to 'My Way.' "I wrote then.

At the time, Meyer was on his way to winning his second national title at UF and seemingly about to turn Spurrier into a fading Gator memory. Now, fast forward five years later to a Gator Club in Gainesville a few weeks ago where the guest speaker brought up a scenario by which Spurrier's South Carolina team would play Meyer's Ohio State team for the national championship. When UF fans in the room were asked how many of them would be rooting for Spurrier under such a scenario, all 300 or so people raised their hands. Meyer didn't get a single vote.

"Spurrier," Finebaum says, "has returned to his rightful place in Gator history."

Hard to believe Spurrier is closing in on 70 years old now. He's 68 and not nearly the rascal he used to be. He's not the "Mouth of the South" anymore and is much more respectful of opposing coaches. The man who simply used to torch other programs is now a national torchbearer. He's become coaching's most vocal advocate for giving college players a little extra spending cash from the billions being made by the nation's big-time institutions of higher earning.

Believe it or not, he's even become more magnanimous and merciful. He's had two well-documented feuds with media members during his coaching profession – one with former Orlando Sentinel columnist Larry Guest and the other with current columnist Ron Morris of the The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.

Spurrier, who has been known to hold a grudge for years, has finally let go of the bitter feelings that caused him so much stress. He was watching an early morning TV news show this summer when a woman came on the screen with a list of "five ways to make you a happy person."

"No. 1 on the list," Spurrier says, "was to forgive everyone for everything they've ever done. So that's what I decided to do, and I feel a whole lot better because of it."

The words we once used to describe him were "brash, cocky and arrogant."

Now, we use words like "gracious, reflective and forgiving."

Either way, he's one of a kind; unlike any other football coach we've ever known.

Paul Bear Bryant once said, "I ain't never had much fun. I ain't never been two inches away from a football. Other guys go fishing … or hunting or golfing, and all I want to do is be alone, studying how not to lose."

Stephen Orr Spurrier once said: "We're gonna take the boogie boards out and catch us some waves."

Cue up the Beach Boys, Orlando, the most iconic figure in SEC history is coming to town.

Catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world.

mbianchi@tribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at BianchiWrites. Listen to his radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on 740 AM.