Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Having a tough time watching Steve Spurrier this week, I expect more of him

There is probably no football coach I like more than Steve Spurrier. I first met the Ol’ Ball Coach (I know he is generally known more often as the Head Ball Coach) but my memory is that he referred to himself as the Ol’ Ball Coach years ago) when he was the offensive coordinator at Duke in the early 1980s and was primarily responsible for the development of quarterback Ben Bennett who—believe it or not—beat out Boomer Esiason for ACC player-of-the-year as a senior.

Bennett’s stats and Duke’s respectable record back then were due in large part to Spurrier. That wasn’t why I liked him though: it was his sense of humor, his irreverence and his honesty. The OBC told you exactly what he thought and he often did it in a way that made you laugh.

And he was very damn good at what he did. I’d make the case that his three years as head coach at Duke, when the Blue Devils went 20-13-1 and tied for an ACC title were as good a coaching job as anyone has done anywhere in college football in the last 30 years. If you don’t believe me just look at Duke’s record since he left.

He went on to fame and fortune and a national championship (1996) at Florida, then made the mistake of being tempted by the NFL after 12 seasons as head Gator. The mistake wasn’t so much wanting to see if he could succeed one level up as WHERE he went to find out: Little Danny Snyder land. Snyder was still a good eight years away from being willing to cede any control to a coach and the Redskins, in part because Spurrier was learning on the job, but also because Snyder was still making his coaches watch tape with him back then, were awful.

After two years, Spurrier decided he’d had enough and walked away from the remaining $15 million left on his contract. Once, when I brought up Snyder’s name to him and said I’d felt sorry for him dealing with the guy for two years, Spurrier laughed. “I don’t have anything against old Danny,” he said. “He paid me a lot of money to put up with all that s----.”

Yes he did.

Because he lost a lot of games and didn’t play coaches games trying to shift blame and because he just walked away, most of the media in Washington—many of them die-hard Redskin fans—made him an object of ridicule. (Still do). One radio guy who I consider a friend called him “pathetic,” when a story appeared in The Washington Post chronicling the fact that he had opted to stay out of coaching for a year so that his youngest son wouldn’t have to move as a high school senior.

Really, putting your son first is pathetic? Thinking that and saying it on the air—now THAT’S pathetic.

The good side of Spurrier is rarely talked about. He and his wife Gerry, who have been married more than 40 years, went out and adopted a new family after their own kids had grown. In 1997, I was trying to round up auction items for a charity and called Spurrier on a Friday morning to see if I could get a football autographed by his national championship team. His secretary asked if he could call back Monday since he and the team were about to leave for a road game. Of course.

Five minutes later the phone rang. It was Spurrier. This was before everyone had a cell phone.

“Isn’t the bus leaving right now for the airport?” I asked.

“You know, last I looked I was head ball coach of this team (he DID say head ball coach that time) and I don’t think they’re going to leave without me. What’s up?”

He didn’t send an autographed football—he sent two. There was a note: “See if you can bid this up a little and maybe do that trick where you say you’ll get two if the second bidder will match the first.”

I say all this because I’m having a very tough time with what is going on at South Carolina this week.

First, the school announced it was tossing Stephen Garcia off the football team once and for all. My guess is Garcia DID violate the terms of his FIFTH return from suspension to the team and, sadly, the internet rumor is that he may have failed a mandatory alcohol-test.

You know what? I don’t care. When Spurrier and the school still needed him to play quarterback, they kept bringing him back, saying he was a fine young man who deserved one more chance. Now, when he couldn’t produce in the final minute of the loss to Auburn two weeks ago and got benched, he’s off the team for good.

It just LOOKS bad. It looks like a classic case of, ‘we don’t need this kid anymore, so, as Athletic Director Eric Hyman said in his smarmy statement about ‘student-athletes,’ they wish him luck with the rest of his life and send him packing.

Seriously? That’s it? We were 100 percent behind you as long as you could win football games for us but now that your eligibility is just about up and a younger QB has taken your job, thanks for the memories? IF he failed an alcohol test, the school at the very least owes him help—whether it is counseling or rehab or both. Clearly, the last two weeks haven’t been good for him: he fails in the Auburn game; gets benched and then sees Connor Shaw, his successor, have a big game against Kentucky.

One thing I know for sure: Stephen Garcia won’t be an NFL quarterback—he’s the kind of guy who might get kept around to hold a clipboard EXCEPT that he’s had off-field problems.  The fact that he got his degree last spring would indicate he was at least TRYING to deal with his problem, all the more reason why he should be allowed to remain part of the team, regardless of whether he ever plays another down.

Just as the Garcia news was breaking on Tuesday, the OBC showed up for his weekly press conference. But rather than talking about the win over Kentucky (yawn) or this week’s game against Mississippi State (more yawns) the OBC launched into a diatribe against Ron Morris, a long time columnist for The State Newspaper in Columbia.

Repeatedly he called Morris a “negative guy,” and railed against a column Morris wrote in the spring about the decision of South Carolina point guard Bruce Ellington to also play football this fall. In the column, Morris wrote that Spurrier had been, “courting Ellington since the end of football season,” to join his team. Morris didn’t say Spurrier was wrong to court him or that basketball coach Darrin Horn was upset about it. He went on to discuss how difficult it is for any athlete to play two sports in this day and age and speculated that playing football would hurt Ellington’s development as a basketball player.

Sis months later, Spurrier walked into a press conference and declared he wouldn’t talk while Morris was in the room. He said this had been bothering him for months, that he had never recruited Ellington until after Ellington had talked to Horn about playing football and it was, “his right,” to not talk to a reporter who was, “trying to hurt our football team.”

Of course it’s his right. But he’s wrong. I’ve known Morris for almost 30 years since his days in Durham. He doesn’t make stuff up. SOMEONE told him Spurrier was “courting,” Ellington. Maybe it was the kid. Maybe it was Horn. Morris didn’t make it up, I promise you that. And he didn’t write it to, “hurt the football team.”

I’ve been in a lot of battles like this myself. Years ago, the Maryland football team, under orders from its coach, “voted,” not to speak to me because I’d written a three-part series, with every single quote on the record, about why the program had hit a ceiling and was slipping. Of course the way I found out about the “vote,” was that several players called to tell me about it. When I covered Lefty Driesell, who is now a close friend, we fought almost daily.

Several years back, Gary Williams was complaining to me about Josh Barr, who was then The Post’s beat writer covering his team. Barr was (and is) good and when you’re good (like Morris) and not a cheerleader you are bound to clash with any coach you cover because every team has things happen that a coach would rather not see come out in public—even the good guys like the OBC and Lefty and Gary.

When Gary complained about Barr I said to him, “you understand, if I’d ever covered you on a daily basis we’d have been screaming at one another most of the time? Sometimes you have to write a story even if you know you’re going to get yelled at by a coach for writing it.”

Spurrier said he didn’t mind being criticized (and I think through most of his career that’s been true) but he didn’t like someone writing something that wasn’t true. I’m sure he means that. That said, Morris blistered him after the Auburn game, holding him responsible for the failed last drive. The OBC is human. You have to wonder if that column reminded him that he was upset about the Ellington story six months ago.

Regardless, he should have handled it in private with Morris. Scream, yell, curse—whatever. But don’t make yourself look like a bully. The OBC is a good man who is good at what he does. So is Morris. They should sit down and talk this out. And then Spurrier should make Stephen Garcia a student coach for the rest of the season and make sure he gets whatever help he needs.

I don’t expect a lot from football coaches most of the time. I do expect more from the OBC.


Taha said...

One correction: Garica graduated last May with a sociology degree, so SC isn't leaving him totally high and dry.

gunnar said...

I love seeing the media vs coaching/player staff conflicts. Griffey was sleeping in the Mariner's clubhouse last season, and the players wanted to beat up Larry Larue, the Tacoma News Tribune beat writer. They refused to talk to him, or give quotes when Larry was present. Griffey retired two weeks later. Larue was reporting accurately.

John Blough said...

I thought Garcia was shaving points?