Friday, September 25, 2009

Maybe the Ole Ball Coach Isn’t Done; Responding to Your Suggestions

So it turns out the ole ball coach isn't quite done yet. I didn't get to watch most of the South Carolina-Mississippi game Thursday night because I was at dinner interviewing Shaun Micheel to wrap up the research for the book I'm doing on the '03 majors when two complete unknowns (Micheel and Ben Curtis); one little known (Mike Weir) and one well known (Jim Furyk) all won their first--and to date--only major titles. The book's about sudden fame and how it changes your life.

Shaun got a call towards the end of dinner from his wife, an LSU grad, saying that South Carolina was up 16-3. We wrapped soon after that and I caught the tail end of the game back in my hotel room.

Look, I like Steve Spurrier. I know a lot of people can't stand him because he's cocky and outspoken and thinks he's the smartest guy in just about any room he walks into. And I know there are people who will say I like him because he was the last Duke football coach to field a team worth watching. (Okay Duke fans remind me that Fred Goldsmith had one good year in '94. Was it two years later he was 0-11? I lose track of Duke's winless football seasons).

That's not why I like Spurrier although I did always chuckle when he would refer to Mack Brown as, "Mr. Football," when Brown was at North Carolina. "I just don't think I know enough about the game to compete with Mr. Football," he would say. He was 3-0 against Mr. Football at Duke and blatantly ran the score up in 1989. Then he left for Florida and Carolina has beaten Duke every single year but one since then. In fact, when Florida won the national title in 1996 I dropped Spurrier a note congratulating him and said, "Now if you were a real man you'd go back to Duke and take on a REAL challenge." Spurrier wrote back and said, "Nah, I don't think I could deal with the pressure of competing with Mr. Football again every year.”

What makes Spurrier SO different from other college coaches is that he'll say anything about anyone and not worry about what people think. That's bound to make people angry. To say that Spurrier is disliked at the University of Tennessee is like saying that Joe Wilson wouldn't be welcome in the Democratic caucus room on Capitol Hill. One year Spurrier made this comment: "You know you can't spell Citrus Bowl (where the SEC runner-up always played) without the letters, 'UT.' On another occasion he mentioned that he had driven by The Citrus Bowl and had seen a sign that said, "winter home of the Tennessee Volunteers."

Come on folks, that's FUNNY especially from a man in a profession where, "our team stepped up and gave 110 percent," passes for a one-liner. (For those of you who want to say that Lane Kiffin has done the same thing at Tennessee there's one difference: Spurrier had actually WON when he made those comments.

Remember a few years ago when there was talk Spurrier might go back to Florida after his disastrous stay with the Washington Dan Snyder? Apparently Florida AD Jeremy Foley brought up something about sending a resume. To which Spurrier reportedly responded, "Walk out to your trophy case and take a look at it. THAT'S my resume."

There is also a side to Spurrier not often seen. After his kids were grown, he and his wife Gerri adopted two infants and, after Spurrier had fled from the Redskins--leaving $15 million on the table rather than deal with Snyder for another year--Spurrier put his career on hold so his youngest son could finish high school without being uprooted.

The year after Florida won the national title I called Spurrier to see if I could get an autographed football for a charity auction. I called on Friday around lunchtime. The secretary told me the team was about to leave--I think, ironically enough, for South Carolina. She asked if Coach Spurrier could return the call on Monday. I said of course and left a message.

Five minutes later the phone rang. It was Spurrier.

"Isn't your team leaving like right now for South Carolina?" I said.

"You know," Spurrier answered, "last I looked I was the coach of this here ball club and I really don't think they're going to leave without me."

The ball arrived three days later.

So, I plead guilty. I like the ole ball coach. I tend to like characters--flawed or not. I've watched his ups and downs at South Carolina, sometimes averting my eyes--most notably in the bowl games last year when Iowa completely dominated his team and, for the first time I thought Spurrier looked old on the sidelines.

He didn't look so old at game's end last night. Of course the schedule is still rife with tough games because to quote Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, "This isn't ACC football, we play tough teams almost every night." This IS SEC football and Duke and Maryland and Virginia aren't anywhere on South Carolina's schedule.

But for now, the ole ball coach can spend a few days reveling in this upset. My guess is he'll have something interesting to say about it.


I have to tell everyone I loved some of the ideas that were thrown out for a book yesterday by posters, especially since several of them are ideas I've thought about in the past. Most notable among them is the notion of a Joe Paterno biography.
I can honestly tell you, I've tried.

Last winter I went up to Penn State and had lunch with my pal Malcolm Moran, who used to work at The New York Times and USA Today and is now some kind of distinguished professor at Penn State. Malcolm arranged for me to meet with a marketing guy who has become very close to Paterno in recent years. The point of the meeting was simple: get me in the door to talk to Paterno. Unlike Dean Smith, who I have known well for 30 years, I don't know Paterno well at all. I met him years ago while covering college football for The Washington Post. Back then, his SID, the great John Morris, used to invited media members to meet informally with Paterno on Friday nights and I attended a few of those get-togethers. I had also written to Paterno several years ago asking if I could come up and talk to him about a "season," book. It was the year they were ranked No. 1 for much of the year before being upset by Minnesota. That, as it turned out, started the four year spiral.

Anyway, I got a very nice letter back from Paterno saying he admired my work, listened to me on NPR but simply couldn't deal with the distraction of having someone around that way for an entire season. I was hoping to get into the room with him to explain that I had become pretty good at hanging around without being a distraction and tell him how it would work. I never got the chance.

I didn't get the chance this time either. After I had explained why I wanted to do a Paterno biography--for reasons similar to why I wanted to do a Dean Smith biography; Paterno's extraordinary legacy beyond the football field being key--his friend Guido D'Elia shook his head and said, "I agree with you a book like that needs to be done. But that's legacy stuff. Joe's not ready for legacy stuff yet."

To which I replied, "Has anyone told him that he's 82?"

The answer was direct: "No. We wouldn't dare."

I know that was true because earlier I had contacted Ernie Accorsi, the ex-Giants GM who had worked for Paterno early in his career. Ernie was all for the project and contacted George Welsh, the retired Virginia coach (who I know well) about helping me out. Welsh was Paterno's top assistant before becoming the coach at Navy. Ernie finally called back and said, "I don't think we can help you."

“Why not?" I asked.

"Because we're both scared if we tell Joe he should talk to you he might yell at us."

He was serious. Boy is Paterno a fascinating guy.

The other idea I love is the one about following athletes in different sports for a year. I wanted to do that once upon a time at Harvard. Frank Sullivan, the basketball coach, was a good friend. Tim Murphy, the football coach, runs a great underrated program and, at the time Harvard had a swimmer who had made the finals of the Olympic Trials in, I think, the 200 breastroke. I thought it would be great to follow six to eight athletes to see how you combine being really good at a sport while going to Harvard. I met with some folks in the athletic department. They loved the idea. They said they would talk it over, take it to the administration and be back in touch.

Much like the radio exec I mentioned the other day they still haven't called.

You can't say I'm not trying.


Ed Tracey said...

John, fascinating as always: Steve Spurrier was on "Pardon the Interruption" this past Friday eve and was as engaging as ever.

I don't have a book idea, but do have a question: you have referred to Arnold Palmer not as the "best golfer" but as the "most important golfer". My question - at least in American men's tennis - could a case be made that Jimmy Connors is the most important tennis player?

Michael Dinga said...

Mr. Feinstein:

Thank you for relaying yor story about Joe Paterno. I actually just heard you on The Tony Kornheiser Show today (10/8) so I thought I would check back on your site. I think I may have been the one (or one of the ones) to bring up the Paterno book idea this time; thank you for your response.

Michael Dinga
Louisville, KY