ORLANDO, Fla. — Here’s something you probably didn’t expect to see when Steve Spurrier left the NFL’s Washington Redskins in 2003 or quit midway through South Carolina’s 2015 season: a 73-year-old Head Ball Coach bouncing around a pro football practice field with a mascot’s enthusiasm.
It was hard to tell who was having more fun Wednesday at Camping World Stadium.
The guy calling plays for the new Alliance of American Football’s Orlando Apollos?
Or Jerri Spurrier, his wife since those Heisman Trophy-winning glory days as a Florida Gators quarterback?
“I’m the one who said we should do this,” Jerri said with a laugh as she watched practice barefoot while circling the field for exercise on a sunny, 81-degree afternoon. “I mean, he was doing OK. He was doing a lot of speaking. He was watching a lot of football. But this is what he loves.”
It looks like a good fit. This minor league concept has well-known coaches like Mike Singletary (Memphis) and Mike Martz (San Diego) and Spurrier coaching hungry players eager for another NFL shot. The AAF’s eight teams play only 10 regular-season games, starting Saturday night for Orlando with a home game against the Atlanta Legends that’s part of a split-national telecast on CBS along with San Diego vs. San Antonio.
The Spurriers can maintain their Gainesville home while living in an Orlando hotel with many other Apollos coaches and players.
“And no recruiting,” Jerri Spurrier points out.
That leaves the Head Ball Coach to once again live vicariously through his starting quarterback, in this case former Carolina Panthers backup Garrett Gilbert.
“C’mon, tackles,” Spurrier shouted between practice snaps. “Block occasionally.”
He wore a white Apollos visor and sunglasses, a blue Apollos collared shirt over a white underline, khaki shorts and white Nike shoes.
“It’s been pretty close to what we thought,” Spurrier said. “A lot of good players on all the teams, really. These are all guys that barely didn’t make the NFL or made it and now they’re available. Kind of like all of us coaches: We had a run, then we were out, now we’re back in.”
Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same Spurrier that won a national title at Florida in 1996 and led South Carolina to unprecedented success highlighted by three straight 11-2 seasons from 2011-2013.
“No difference at all,” said Apollos tackle Ronald Patrick, who played for Spurrier at South Carolina. “The same passion he had at South Carolina, he’s bringing that passion here.”
Playing for Spurrier
Gilbert said he likes Spurrier’s grasp of play-calling mixed with flexibility.
Spurrier likes that he gets to talk into the quarterback’s helmet between plays, NFL-style communication he didn’t have in college.
Spurrier’s Orlando roster, per AAF emphasis on regional appeal, is heavy with players from Florida universities (Patrick and kicker Elliott Fry are the only former Gamecocks).
Patrick, 27, is typical of AAF players looking for an NFL invitation. He was undrafted in 2014 after starting for the Gamecocks. He has been signed as a free agent and released by (in order) the Cowboys, Steelers, Panthers, Cowboys again, Browns, Bills, Titans and Redskins.
Patrick has not played in an NFL game.
A Cocoa, Fla., native, he was working for Amazon and maintaining a football-ready workout schedule when he contacted Spurrier about joining the Apollos.
“Spurrier was the only coach that could get me to come out of Florida to go to college and he was the only coach to give me a chance in this league,” Patrick said.
Players on the AAF’s 52-man team rosters get a $250,000 three-year contract, a league spokesperson said. That includes $70,000 for the first season, $80,000 for the second and $100,000 for the third.
‘Wonderful’ football life
Apollos practices are usually scheduled for two hours but have been running long. Spurrier tweaks away on the same field on which he led South Carolina to Capital One Bowl victories over Nebraska and Wisconsin.
How Spurrier’s tutelage and Orlando’s roster will match up with the likes of the Arizona Hot Shots and Salt Lake Stallions is unclear.
But everyone in the AAF got a good look at each other during a league-wide training camp in San Antonio.
“All these guys looking for another NFL opportunity,” Spurrier said. “Yeah, the games are going to be competitive. That’s what I like about it.”
Life is good in the Spurrier household these days, even if it’s a hotel room.
Steve gets to think a lot more about football when he’s not watching himself star in beer commercials.
“When he’s out on the field, it’s wonderful,” Jerri said. “When he’s at home, he never stops drawing up plays.”
Apollos assistant coach Scotty Spurrier lives across the hall. Steve’s son is a former Gamecocks player who spent the last two seasons on the South Florida staff as a quality control assistant.
“I’ll know Saturday night who’s having fun,” Steve said.
Worst case scenario: The Head Ball Coach throws his visor, has a beer after the game and looks ahead to a big road test next week against the San Antonio Commanders.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff