On an August afternoon in the middle of South Carolina’s preseason football camp, head ball coach Steve Spurrier can still get fired up about a bad call in a game a quarter-century ago.
Spurrier is headed to Durham this weekend for the 25th anniversary of the ACC-champion, 1989 Duke football team. That was the final season of Spurrier’s three-year reign as head coach of the Blue Devils.
Duke shared that 1989 title with Virginia – more on that from Spurrier below.
But before he started reminiscing about the 1989 season, he drifted back one year prior, to 1988.
“The ’88 team was 7-3-1 and got robbed in a game there in Raleigh,” Spurrier said. “We played N.C. State, and the winner was going to the Peach Bowl.”
Spurrier, 69, sets up the play like it was yesterday: the Blue Devils were up 43-40, and it was 4th down for the Wolfpack, less than a minute left, and Duke was playing bump-and-run coverage. The Blue Devils picked off the pass, but a late flag came in – a defensive holding call against Duke’s cornerback at the line of scrimmage. N.C. State kept the ball, was awarded a first down and kicked the tying field goal as time expired. For Duke, the non-victory would keep them out of a bowl game for the 27th straight year.
“The ’88 team, they should have been 8-3,” Spurrier said. “They were 7-3-1 because of that terrible call by the referee.”
After the game in 1988, Spurrier called it “the worst call in the history of Duke football.” And it cost him a one-game suspension, keeping him off the sidelines for the finale against North Carolina (the Blue Devils still won, as they did against the Tar Heels all three years under Spurrier).
A good memory
The 1989 season didn’t get off to the the greatest of starts. The Blue Devils started 1-3, the third loss a lopsided 49-28 defeat at Virginia. Next on the schedule was the defending ACC champions, No. 7 Clemson – Spurrier publicly declared Duke’s chances of victory as “one in a million.” And the Blue Devils were down 14-0 at the half.
“Actually, we felt pretty good in the locker room because our guys were hanging with them, we were just throwing interceptions and stuff like that,” Spurrier said. “We threw five interceptions in the game and still won.”
Spurrier’s memory was right on, as far as the number of interceptions (which is impressive, , considering he has coached in hundreds of games since then with the Florida Gators, Washington Redskins and now at South Carolina). Duke was able to turn the 14-point deficit into a 21-17 win.
That win still ranks as one of the most significant in Duke football history – it’s memorialized on the wall of the tunnel that leads from Duke’s locker room out onto the Wallace Wade Stadium field.
“The most important thing about that game is that, after we won it, the players said, hey, we can beat these other guys,” Spurrier said. “If we can beat Clemson, we can beat all these other guys, and that’s what they did.”
The ‘real’ champion
Duke won its next six games, including the season finale at UNC, 41-0. The infamous picture the Blue Devils took afterward with the scoreboard still doesn’t sit well with some in Chapel Hill.
“I think it’s been a little overplayed over the years,” said Clarkston Hines, the 1989 ACC player of the year. “I mean, we had just won the ACC Championship. It was a huge game for us, and I think something like that is worth a picture after the game.”
By Spurrier’s logic, Duke was the “real” champion, because the Blue Devils had beaten the previous champion, Clemson, while Virginia had not. But the Cavaliers had beaten the Blue Devils and went on to lose in the Citrus Bowl. Duke lost Spurrier’s final game, 49-21 to Texas Tech in the All American Bowl.
Hines, who still holds the Duke record for most 100-yard receiving games, wasn’t recruited by Spurrier, but he had the good fortune to be coached by him in his final three years in Durham.
“Coach Spurrier brought a level of optimism to our team,” Hines said. “He was the perfect remedy for us.”
Hines continued to follow Spurrier’s career after the two left Durham following the 1989 season. And now his son, Caleb, is a freshman walk-on receiver for Spurrier at South Carolina.
“I’ve always been a big fan of everywhere he went,” Hines said. “I probably saw as many Florida football games when he was the head coach there as any non-University of Florida person could. I jokingly say the only time I’ve subscribed to NFL Ticket was when he was the head coach of the Washington Redskins, and I wanted to see every Redskins game that I could. Similarly, with South Carolina, I’m now a big Gamecocks fan.”
Some 25 years after his last game as the Duke head coach, Spurrier still has fond memories of his former employer. For years, he would vote for Duke in the preseason Coaches Poll, until an the head of the American Football Coaches’ Association finally convinced him to stop that in 2008.
“But I put them in again this year, we put them at 22 or 23,” Spurrier said. “I had some good teams there. I tell everybody that whatever kind of coach I am, I learned it at Duke University, and I mean that sincerely.”