MAXWELL: Spurrier’s newsworthiness is no surprise

1/9/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I have heard many readers complain that the St. Petersburg Times had the audacity to place on the front page the news of Steve Spurrier’s resignation as the University of Florida head football coach. The article appeared last Saturday.

My reaction to such criticism is simple: Spurrier’s resignation was the biggest news in the Sunshine State that day. The Times and every other newspaper that placed it upfront had their wits about them. Even more, hours after the announcement was released on Friday, the Gainesville Sun, the Gators hometown newspaper, published a special evening edition. Why not? Gator football _ which Spurrier embodies _ does more for Gainesville’s economy than anything else.

The fate of the football coach at UF _ our flagship university _ is plain and simply big news. I would be hard-pressed to overstate Spurrier’s single-handed significance to UF.

Here is one more tidbit that will anger antifootball readers: UF’s homecoming is a holiday for Alachua County public schools.

I was a graduate student at UF when Spurrier replaced Galen Hall 12 years ago. Gainesville was not a good place to be. The football team had gone through some tough losing years, and the program had been put on probation, costing scholarships, morale and warm bodies. The city, inextricably tied to the Gators, was in the doldrums.

I taught writing at Santa Fe Community College, wrote a column for the Sun and spent many hours on UF’s campus and about town. I came to know the area intimately. I watched unhappy people go about their lives, of course. But I also heard the perpetual grumbling, felt the pessimism and sensed the mass anger.

On game days, I would observe grown men cry as they drove their luxury motor homes onto Interstate 75 and away from town. Then, Spurrier, a former Gator quarterback and the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner, left Duke University and returned to Gainesville.

Nothing was the same afterward.

During his first season, Spurrier won nine games and lost two and was voted the Southeastern Conference coach of the year. By season’s end, UF’s campus and the city of Gainesville itself had regained their old swagger. The ambiance of the taverns and eateries went from gloom to euphoria. Spurrier’s teams continued to win. Orange-and-blue started popping up again. Football players in surrounding towns once again saw Gainesville as the place to be.

During his 12-year tenure, Spurrier went 122-27-1, winning the 1996 national title and six SEC championships.

In a word, pride has returned to Gainesville because of Spurrier. Love him or hate him, if the terms “pop culture icon” and “folk hero” belong to anyone, they belong to the ill-tempered, visor-tossing, profane Spurrier.

Whenever I return to Bronson to inspect my property, I chat with my former neighbors, all rabid Gator fans. Here, Spurrier is a god.

The retired cop a few streets from my old house is the most extreme. He has a Gator mailbox, a Gator banner flying from his front porch year-round, bumper stickers, a car banner, T-shirts and sweat-shirts, beer and coffee mugs, ashtrays, rugs, blankets, sheets, pillow cases, posters and a telephone. But get this: The dude wears Gator skivvies. And his dog, a blue tick that cannot find his own tail, sports a Gator collar and sweater.

While I am a Gator fan, I am also a fan of the Seminoles, the Hurricanes, the Bulls, the Knights, the Rattlers, the Wildcats. I love all football in my native Florida.

“Football mania” is the only term that accurately describes the force that grips Florida towns 13 months out of the year. In many cities and towns, the level of community pride is directly proportional to the local football team’s prowess.

The state’s football fans are truly fortunate. We are a football paradise. Each of our three major programs has been national champion at least once during the last 10 years.

In the same light, our high schools are a college coach’s holy grail. A surprising statistic is two Florida high schools rank among the top 10 schools in the country that have the most players in the National Football League. Glades Central in Belle Glade has seven, the most, and Ely in Pompano Beach is not far behind.

So, when events surrounding a football coach in Florida makes the news, do not be surprised. Imagine the headlines when Florida State’s Bobby Bowden decides to retire.