To Gator, tact is crock Outspoken Spurrier: Florida football coach is focused on winning games, not friends.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- He has been criticized as much for running up the score as for running off at the mouth, yet many believe he's one of the most innovative offensive minds in football.

He's as reviled by some as he's revered by others, but even those who don't like him seem to respect the job he has done in bringing a scandal-racked program back to national prominence.

Figuring out just who Florida coach Steve Spurrier is remains as daunting a task as trying to stop his team.

Is he the savior of "The Swamp," as has been suggested many times over the six years since he returned to his alma mater? Or is he Steve Superior, a play on the way former Auburn coach Shug Jordan pronounced his name as well as the down-home smugness with which he carries himself?

"He does his job, he loves the game and he doesn't waste his energy trying to please people," said Jerri Spurrier, his wife of nearly 30 years. "I think he's a very kind, generous person. The people who know him understand him."

"He doesn't accept anything less than perfection," said Danny Wuerffel, his current quarterback and a candidate to follow in Spurrier's legacy as the school's only Heisman Trophy winner. "He wants it right all the time. If you don't get it, he'll try to push you until you do."

"Steve is not afraid of saying what he thinks," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, a friend for nearly a decade and now a rival. "He ain't going to waste his time on that diplomacy stuff. He's a winner. Maybe that's why some people don't like him. I played him in golf once. I didn't like him very much that day."

If that's the case, there's a lot not to like about Spurrier this year. His Gators have gone from perennial wannabes to the brink of their first national title. An expected victory today over Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference championship game will put second-ranked Florida (11-0) into the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl against top-ranked Nebraska. And it has put Spurrier, 50 going on 25, in a much different spotlight than the one to which he's accustomed.

His team's high-scoring offense is now en vogue. His shoot-from-the-lip attitude is overlooked, and seems refreshing in world dominated by cliche-spewing coaching clones afraid to fire up the opposition or fill up the sports pages.

"If people call me cocky or arrogant, that's their opinion," Spurrier said recently. "Gator fans just call me a confident coach."

Spurrier admittedly has tried to tone down his sideline act, which features throwing his golf visor or just jawing at officials.

But he has noticed something over the years: It doesn't work. Whether it was during a 38-21 loss at Syracuse in 1991 or last year's game with the Seminoles in which the Gators blew a 31-3 lead in the fourth quarter of a 31-31 tie, or even a sloppy, 45-21 season-opening win over Houston this year, Spurrier came to a realization that being well-mannered isn't as effective as being, well, maniacal.

"If I'm not emotionally into the game," Spurrier said earlier this week, "it seems like my players aren't either."

Not that Spurrier's often sarcastic and sometimes bombastic style has worked with all his players. The one notable exception was former quarterback Terry Dean, who, as a junior two years ago, led the Gators to an 11-2 record and the SEC title before being benched after throwing a costly interception in last year's loss at home to Auburn.

Spurrier said he has learned from the situation, as have his returning players, and credits this year's seniors, as well as junior Wuerffel, for bringing the team back together. It has shown in the way the Gators have come from behind against Auburn and Tennessee, as well as in the way they stayed on top of the Seminoles in last Saturday's 35-24 victory.

Asked how he would have handled playing for a coach like himself, Spurrier laughed and said, "I hope I would have enjoyed it. Danny knows when I'm yelling at him, I'm doing it to make him better. We pass it [the criticism] around."

They certainly do it with the ball, too. Ever since Spurrier arrived from Duke in 1990, Florida has been one of the most explosive throwing teams in the country. There was a time when some believed Spurrier was showing off what Bowden calls "a brilliant offensive mind" a little too much.

There have been incidents of turning blowouts into embarrassments with late touchdown passes, as coach at both Duke and Florida. There also have been numerous instances of Spurrier's belittling the other team or, in the case of former Georgia coach Ray Goff, one of his peers.

After a 45-13 win over the Bulldogs in 1991, Spurrier said: "Why is it that, during the recruiting period, they sign all the great players, but when it comes time to play the game, we have all the great players? I don't understand that. What happens to them?"

Most of the other current or former SEC coaches who've butted heads with Spurrier along the way either don't comment or take the high road. Asked recently about Spurrier's reputation, Kentucky coach Bill Curry said: "If he is [unpopular], it's because other coaches don't like getting beat."

As a college quarterback, Spurrier was known to put his own little twists on the plays being sent in by his coach, Ray Graves, diagramming them in the grass during the huddle. As a senior in 1966, he won the Heisman, led Florida to a win in the Sugar Bowl and married Jerri.

Though she says that her husband can be "a brat," Jerri Spurrier adds that the public image is far different from what she and the family see. "He's very even-tempered at home," she said.

Though it seems his caustic remarks are made on the Spurrier-of-the-moment, his wife said: "He knows exactly what he says all the time." Asked if she thinks his new level of success will change him, Jerri Spurrier said, "I hope it doesn't change him."

Most believe it won't. Those who marvel at how well he looks for his age also wonder when he'll grow up. Or if he'll grow up.

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