Spurrier fondly recalls his days as Duke football coach

Steve Spurrier, now at South Carolina, fondly recalls his days at Duke

calexander@newsobserver.comSeptember 9, 2012 

  • Reveling in rivalries Steve Spurrier has saved some of his best efforts for his rivals. Long before his Florida Gators dominated Tennessee -- remember his line, you can’t spell Citrus without UT -- Spurrier’s Duke team beat UNC 41-0 in Chapel Hill, Duke’s largest victory margin in the series.  
    Team Rival Record Biggest win When
    FloridaFSU5-8-152-201996 Sugar Bowl
    S. CarolinaClemson4-329-72010

The way the story is told, Steve Spurrier was coming to coach Duke in 1987 and Anthony Dilweg was fretting about their first encounter.

Dilweg had been the Blue Devils’ punter and backup quarterback the previous season. Against North Carolina, in the last game, he faked a punt and fired a pass.

The problem wasn’t so much the pass but that the fake punt was all Dilweg’s doing. No coach made the call. Dilweg just decided to chuck it. And Duke lost the game.

So there he was, facing the new coach, waiting for the question.

“Spurrier came up and asked me if I’d done it on my own,” Dilweg said. “I said a quick prayer to myself and said I did.

“He said, ‘You know what, I really like that. You were trying to win the game, weren’t you? I like that attitude.’ ”

And why not? It was brash. It was unscripted, unexpected. It was football in an attack mode.

It was so much Steve Spurrier.

Twenty-five years later, Spurrier still likes that attitude, that boldness. It helped him win Duke’s last ACC title and a national title at Florida. These days, he has a top 10 team at South Carolina and is looking to pick up his 199th career victory Saturday when the Gamecocks host East Carolina.

In a recent conversation, Spurrier was talking football, as is his wont, and about the passing of time when he was asked how he has changed as a coach over the years.

“Oh, people like to say I run the ball more these days,” Spurrier said with a light chuckle. “But we ran the ball when I was at Duke from 1987 to ’89. We had Randy Cuthbert, and he was a 1,000-yard rusher for us in ’89.

“The biggest difference might be I’m a little smarter in how to handle off-the-field things like player/coach relationships. We’ve changed the offense a little bit. With time, you do make changes.

“People ask me all the time, where did you learn offense. I always tell ’em I learned it at Duke University.”

‘We’re going to put it in the air’

As Red Wilson recalls, he had the perfect pitch for Spurrier.

Wilson was Duke’s coach in 1980 and looking for an offensive coordinator. Pepper Rodgers had been fired at Georgia Tech and Spurrier, Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach, was available.

Wilson, now 86 and living near Pinehurst, met Spurrier at a practice at Dunwoody (Ga.) High, noting Spurrier was “sitting up in the bleachers in shorts, suntanning himself.” Now he wanted to hire him.

“I told him to come run the offense,” Wilson said. “I said, ‘If anything goes good you’ll get the credit; if anything goes bad I’ll take the blame.’ Less than 24 hours later, he called back. He said he was ready to move.”

So it began – a Spurrier/Duke relationship.

“A couple of weeks later he came in my office and said, ‘Here’s the playbook, what do you think?’ ” Wilson said. “He said, ‘Coach, we’re going to put it in the air.’ ”

With Spurrier calling plays and quarterback Ben Bennett flinging passes, Duke scored a lot the next three years. It was an interesting time at Duke, what with basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff just down the Cameron Indoor Stadium hallway from the football offices.

"Fifteen yards apart. We saw ’em all the time," Bennett said.

But then came another call: from the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League.

At 37, Spurrier couldn’t say no. He became the youngest head coach in pro football.

Rich McGeorge, who played at Elon before a long NFL career, was an assistant for the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions before joining Spurrier and the Bandits in 1985.

“I remember one day in Birmingham someone joking, ‘What’s Steve Spurrier doing today, on a golf course somewhere?’ ” McGeorge said. “I said, ‘If he is, he’s out there thinking of another play that will kick our butts.’

“He was always one or two steps ahead of everybody. And at game time, oh, my gosh.”

Spurrier and the Bandits won. But by the end of 1986, the USFL had folded. Soon, Duke and Spurrier reunited.

Getting Duke to believe

Spurrier said in is first press conference there was enough talent at Duke to compete and noted, “Anything less than a winning season is unacceptable.” Of Blue Devils fans, he said, “My goal is to make ’em as excited about football as they are about basketball.”

Again, pretty bold. Duke finished 5-6 in 1987 but beat North Carolina 25-10 in the final game. But the Devils were 7-3-1 the second season and then 8-4 in the third as Spurrier was named ACC coach of the year both seasons.

“He injected us with confidence,” wide receiver Clarkston Hines said.

The Blue Devils, with Dilweg at quarterback and Hines catching passes, shared the 1989 ACC title with Virginia and went to the All American Bowl, losing to Texas Tech.

It was a milestone season. The ACC championship was Duke’s first since 1962 and the bowl its first since 1961.

“It was a fun time,” Spurrier said. “We had some wins they still talk about today.”

The 1989 North Carolina game, to name one.

The photo says it all

Steve Spurrier isn’t hard to spot in the photo. He’s taking a knee, close to the front of a joyous group of players. He’s smiling. Oh, yeah, he’s smiling.

The Kenan Stadium scoreboard has four zeroes on it. Three denote the time left. The fourth denotes Carolina’s scoring total. Under “Guest” is “41.”

Spurrier tried to downplay the photo, saying, "We took the picture because we were the ACC champs and that meant a lot."

Some at UNC still seethe about Spurrier and “the picture.” The 41-0 victory had Spurrier running every trick play he had against Mack Brown’s outmanned Tar Heels.

“North Carolina had six turnovers and we messed up three or four times,” Spurrier said. “We could have scored more points. It could have been 65-0.”

McGeorge, then on the Blue Devils’ staff, said, “Steve wanted to score 100 that day.”

It would be Spurrier’s last win at Duke, his third consecutive win against UNC. He soon returned to Florida, to his alma mater, where he won the Heisman in 1966.

Spurrier won big with the Gators: six SEC titles and the national championship in 1996. No one wanted to play Florida in The Swamp.

There would be a two-year sojourn back to pro football, when Spurrier coached the Washington Redskins in 2002 and 2003, going 7-9 and 5-11.But Spurrier belonged in college football. And soon he was back.

Same ball coach, just older

McGeorge, who coached 12 years with Spurrier, isn’t sure when the “Ol’ Ball Coach” thing started.

“Steve always talked like that,” McGeorge said. “He was always saying ‘ball coach’ or ‘ball yard.’ That’s just him, coming from Tennessee. He said it before he was a head coach.

“Steve really hasn’t changed a lot. He has that air about him where you either like him or you don’t. He’s always known his personnel, what they could and couldn’t do, and never puts ’em in situations they couldn’t handle. Like most coaches, he’s both a coach and teacher and he likes to see results.”

As Spurrier put it, “There’s no substitute for wins.”

At 67, Spurrier stays fit physically even if his knees have gone bad. He still wears the visor, still likes his golf.

“I’ll bet he’s still practicing his putting in his office, or simulating a golf swing and then saying, ‘Oh, my back!’ ” McGeorge said, laughing.

He’s still coaching and teaching, still getting results, at South Carolina.

“In our eight years here it has been fun to do things that have never been done before,” Spurrier said. “When we won at Tennessee, it was the first time in school history. When we won at Florida at The Swamp, it was the first since 1939. First time we’ve won the (SEC) Eastern Division. First time we’d won 11 games.

“Every time we win a big game, it seems like it’s a first.”

Dilweg once asked Spurrier when he would stop coaching, saying Spurrier’s reply was, “When the kids are not coachable.” He hasn’t reached that point yet.

And there will always be that attachment to Duke. Spurrier used to give Duke a vote in the coaches’ preseason poll every year, regardless of the Devils record, but stopped in 2008 when he was convinced it was “hurting the integrity of the poll.”

Maybe so, but voting for Duke was so Steve Spurrier.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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