Before He Was “The Head Ball Coach”

It was Saturday, October 30, 1965. And it was a beautiful day for football! My father, mother and I were on our way from Lower Alabama to the Plains of Auburn for a homecoming game that matched our Tigers with the Florida Gators.IMG_2355

The visitors were a heavy favorite. They were bringing an impressive 4-1 record into the tilt, while the home team, with losses to Baylor, Georgia Tech, and Southern Mississippi, was really struggling that year at 2-3-1.

The contingent from Gainesville, Florida was lead by a brash young kid from Johnson City, Tennessee. His name was Steven Orr Spurrier.

This was the first game ever televised from, what was then, Cliff Hare Stadium. It would later be re-named Jordan-Hare Stadium for, then, legendary head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan.

Coach Jordan was given to referring to the Gator quarterback as “Steve Superior”.

“Superior” had led his team to wins over non-conference foes Northwestern and North Carolina State. They sported SEC victories over LSU and Ole Miss. Their lone setback came at the hands of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

When the LeCroy clan finally made it to Auburn, it seemed like it took an eternity to get there, they headed over to the home of Nelle and Bill Mims, my aunt and uncle. Aunt Nelle was my mother’s sister. Uncle Bill was retired from the Georgia-Pacific railroad. They had moved to “the loveliest village” where he now had a job with Buildings and Grounds at Auburn University.

Uncle Bill quipped to my father that he might have to drive the jeep that would carry the ABC television camera up and down the home sideline as this was an altogether new venture for the school.

I thought that would be the greatest thing in the world! Would I be allowed to ride in the jeep? As it turns out, this did not come to pass, but that was okay. There were some big fish to fry later that day.

And what a day it turned out to be!

The visiting Gators led the home underdog Tigers 10-0 at the half. Junior quarterback, Spurrier, had thrown a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jack Harper and their kicker, Wayne Barfield, booted a 26-yard field goal. The sellout crowd, of 45,000, was dismayed but not daunted.

The Tigers regrouped at the break. And it turned out to be a tough second half for the young quarterback from the mountains of East Tennessee. Auburn middle linebacker, Bill Cody, intercepted a Spurrier pass and returned it for 29 yards and a touchdown. Spurrier also fumbled at the Florida 10, in the fourth quarter, and it rolled into the end zone. Cody was also the recipient of this snafu that gave Auburn an insurmountable lead.IMG_2358

The Tigers scored 28 unanswered points in that second half. Spurrier threw a late TD pass to Charlie Casey, which mattered little, and Auburn upset the Gators, 28-17.

It was a big win for the home team and a hard learning experience for the tough, talented and talkative young Gator QB.

October 29, 1966 was a horse of a different color.

Florida was celebrating homecoming this time around.

60,000 fans had jammed Florida Field, which was later dubbed “The Swamp” by an alumnus who had returned to coach the Gators in 1990 ;).

Florida was undefeated and Steve “Superior” was their senior quarterback. They also had designs on an SEC Championship, a National Championship, and a Heisman Trophy for their team leader.

The game turned out to be a see-saw battle which went down to the wire.

Auburn took the opening kickoff and Larry Ellis returned it 89 yards for a touchdown.

It’s on!!!

Florida retaliated with a 10-yard TD pass from Spurrier to Richard Trapp. They also scored on a 2-yard TD run.

Auburn stunned the old Gator grads with a 90-yard fumble return and added a 30-yard field goal by Jimmy “Rattlesnake” Jones before halftime. They took a 17-13 lead into the dressing room. The Tigers opened the second half scoring with a 27-yard field goal.

Florida immediately tied it when Larry Smith scored a TD from two-yards out. It was 20-20.

Spurrier put the home team on top with 2-yard sneak, early in the fourth quarter, but Auburn quarterback, Larry Blakeney ran one in from the three after Yearout recovered yet another fumble at the Gator 16.

The game was tied, 27-27.

Spurrier then began to engineer a march toward the Tiger goal line, but the drive was stopped when the Gator field general was called for an intentional grounding penalty.

It was now fourth down with just over two minutes remaining in the game and Florida at the Auburn 26 yard-line.

A field goal attempt would be 40 yards and that was outside the comfort zone of the Gator’s regular placekicker.

Spurrier had kicked 40-yard field goals in practice and begged Florida head coach, Ray Graves, to give him a shot at it.IMG_2359

He did.

You can imagine what happened. It was like something out a sports novel for young kids, or maybe the popular AMC TV show, Friday Night Lights.

Yes, Steve Spurrier nailed the field goal, with 2:12 remaining, Florida captured very hard-fought 30-27 win and, as most of you know, Spurrier went on to take home the Heisman Trophy.

Those are my first memories of Steve Spurrier, or “Superior”, and his heroics on the gridiron.

You know the rest of the story. I don’t need to recount it for you here, yet again.

Many, many tales of championships he won at Duke and Florida have “swamped” television, newspapers, and social media over the past week. And you know of his unprecedented success at the University of South Carolina, from which he recently resigned. You also know of his failure to generate a winner on the NFL level with the Washington Redskins.

I’ll never forget the great upset wins Auburn had over number one ranked Gator squads in 1993, ’94, and 2001. But those were the ONLY three wins my Tigers were able to generate vs. the “evil genius” during his tenure at Florida. Auburn’s final record stood at 3-10 against Spurrier and the Gators.

OUCH!

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There are many fan bases that “Darth Visor” has rubbed the wrong way over the years. Cough cough… Georgia and Tennessee.

But I have always really liked him and have truly enjoyed following the journey of Steven Orr Spurrier. My son and I have had numerous conversations in “Spurrier Speak”. They would begin something like, “Well, we found out nobody had ever scored fifty points on Georgia in Athens before, so we thought we’d try that!”

Priceless!

I laugh when I think about it and about him.

I know you’ve probably also read many of Spurrier’s famous quotes from over the years. I’ll leave you with, possibly,one my favorites. It’s from the lips of the only Heisman winner he coached, Danny Wuerffel. This was after Wuerffel had thrown a costly interception. He then apologized for the turnover.

Spurrier replied, “Danny, it’s not your fault, it’s my fault for putting you in the game.”

So here’s to the “Head Ball Coach”!

May he not, “Go gentle into that good night.”

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