The first act of the last chapter.
The first training camp of Steve Spurrier’s last job.
This is historic and Spurrier is euphoric.
“I’m coaching the way I used to coach at Duke and Florida — and for most of my time at South Carolina,” says a giddy Spurrier on Thursday as he puts his new team, the Orlando Apollos, through another practice session during the month-long, league-wide training camp being held in San Antonio, Texas.
Anybody who believes the legendary Head Ball Coach is just a big-name, do-nothing figurehead in the start-up Alliance of American Football couldn’t be more wrong. Spurrier might be 73, but he’s been born again deep in the heart of Texas.
Isn’t it ironic that Spurrier’s last stand as a head coach begins at the Alamo? The Apollos have been staying in a historic downtown hotel right across the street from the mission where one of the most famous military battles in American history took place. The team hotel is rumored to be inhabited by ghosts, but I don’t believe it’s rumor at all. A case could be made that The Ghosts of Spurrier Past are omnipresent throughout the hotel.
Except these ghosts aren’t rattling chains; they’re diagramming plays.
“He’s up all day and all night drawing up new ball plays,” Spurrier’s wife Jerri says as she walks laps on a track that surrounds the football field where the Apollos are practicing. “He’s got ball plays drawn up all over his desk, all over the floor of our room — they’re everywhere! It’s wonderful to see him so excited again.”
Those close to him will tell you this is a completely different Spurrier than the depressed, downtrodden coach who stepped down in the middle of the 2015 season at South Carolina. He didn’t step down because he was tired of coaching, he stepped down because he was disgusted with the type of coach he had become.
He had morphed into one of those coaches he used to abhor. The great Gator had become a dele-Gator. Somehow, he had evolved into an overseer, managerial coach instead of the hands-on HBC who revolutionized college football offenses by being the game’s most astute quarterback coach and most innovative play-caller. Incredibly, near the end of his tenure at South Carolina, Spurrier even ceded some of his play-calling duties to one of his assistants.
“I had become a sorry coach,” Spurrier says now. “I’m not a CEO; I’m a ball coach. … Trying to become one of those head coaches who watches all of the assistants do the coaching, that doesn’t work for me.”
Which is why Spurrier is all over the practice field during training camp on Thursday — coaching, teaching, critiquing, advising. He’s not only the Head Ball Coach; he’s the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, too.
“‘Alright, men, you gotta get your eyes right down the middle of the field, hit that back step and — zip! — ball’s out, ball’s out. Now! Now! Now!’” Spurrier constantly drills into his quarterbacks
“I hear him in my dreams saying, ‘Throw it! Throw it! Now! Now! Now!’” chuckles former Florida Gators quarterback Austin Appleby, who is in a four-way battle for the Apollos’ starting QB job. “Sometimes in college football and the NFL, the coaches are mostly administrators. Coach Spurrier is more involved than any coach on the staff. This is his offense. He’s calling the plays, he’s coaching the quarterbacks, he’s coaching everybody.”
It seems only appropriate that the Apollos’ training facility in San Antonio is on the campus of a tiny Catholic school known as the University of the Incarnate Word. Listening to his quarterbacks reverently talk about Spurrier, you’d think they are being coached by some divine gridiron god from above.
“What an opportunity this is to learn from a man with his pedigree; a guy with a statue in front of a stadium that’s named after him,” Appleby says. “To have him be able to pour all of his quarterback knowledge into us and teach us the intricate parts of game — where to put your eyes, how to tempo your drop, how to get the ball out with the timing you need — is amazing. When the quarterbacks and receivers are in unison like Coach Spurrier wants us, it’s going to be poetry in motion.”
Appleby’s admiration for the Head Ball Coach sounds much like Ben Bennett, Spurrier’s first quarterback when he was a young offensive coordinator at Duke. Bennett once told the famous story about how Spurrier saw him at breakfast one morning and was so excited about a new ball play that he drew it up in Bennett’s oatmeal.
“Coach Spurrier’s passion for executing the perfect ball play was contagious,” Bennett once told me.
Spurrier was in his mid-30s when he tutored Bennett, but here we are nearly 40 years later and he has discovered his coaching fountain of youth here in San Antonio. This is the Duke Spurrier all over again. Or the Spurrier whose first head-coaching job was with the Tampa Bay Bandits in the upstart USFL.
In those early days, all he really worried about was drawing up and executing the perfect ball play. He didn’t have to concern himself with glad-handing millionaire boosters, sucking up to five-star recruits or kowtowing to a meddling NFL owner.
“At this point in my life, this is the perfect job,” Spurrier says between bites of buttered cabbage during lunch at the team hotel. “It’s four or five months of just being a coach. In college football and the NFL, you have a lot of other stuff to worry about.”
Spurrier stands up to get another helping of cabbage.
As he walks away — if you listen close enough — you can hear the ghosts in this historically haunted hotel.
The Ghosts of Spurrier Past.