COLUMBIA — Forty-nine years ago, a quarterback from Johnson City, Tenn., showed up at Florida Field, surely unaware that his right arm and, later, his twanged voice would forever be synonymous with the Florida Gators’ football program.
They call the place Ben Hill Griffin Stadium now, and Steve Spurrier is still part of it. A life-sized bronzed statue of him stands outside the stadium next to statues of Florida’s two other Heisman Trophy winners, quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Danny Wuerffel.
Spurrier couldn’t attend the statue unveiling in April 2011 because he was coaching South Carolina’s spring game. His daughter, Amy Moody, represented him at the ceremony in Gainesville.
“I drove by it once, I think,” Spurrier said. “I’ve been down there about one day a year.”
Spurrier, of course, won seven Southeastern Conference championships, one of which the Gators were technically ineligible for, and the 1996 national title while coaching at Florida from 1990 to 2001.
His Gamecocks are 3-4 against his former team, 1-2 in The Swamp, the nickname he coined for Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. One of his biggest wins ever came there in 2010, when USC beat Florida 36-14 to win the SEC’s Eastern Division for the first time.
Saturday afternoon, Spurrier returns to Florida again, 67 years old now, still with the twanged voice of the quarterback from Johnson City who is depicted with his right armed cocked in that statue.
Saturday’s meeting of ninth-ranked USC and third-ranked Florida isn’t the winner-take-East game that 2010 was, when the teams met in their final SEC game. But Spurrier’s fourth trip back to Gainesville is a chance for him to make more history with USC. The Gamecocks were 0-12 at Florida before the 2010 game. They have defeated Florida in back-to-back meetings just twice (1936 and 1939, and 2010-11). They have never won three straight in the series.
Saturday also is essentially a must-win for the Gamecocks’ hopes of returning to the SEC championship game. Coming off a loss at LSU, USC is 4-1 in SEC play with three league games left. Florida is 5-0. The loser on Saturday would need serious help to win the division.
The stakes themselves make this game special enough for Spurrier, who isn’t shy about voicing his affinity for his alma mater. He has remained friends with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. Spurrier met his wife, Jerri, at Florida and married her three days before the first game of his senior season, which ended with him winning the Heisman.
“Florida is always going to be my school,” Spurrier said. “I love Florida. So we’re Gators, but we’re Gamecocks now. And when my coaching days are over, I’ll be more of a Gator then. But I’m a Gamecock now, and this is our team. I certainly hope the Gators finish second in the East this year.”
Spurrier said he will “be more of a Gator” when he retires “because I went to school there.” He still has “a lot of feelings” for Duke, his first head coaching stop, “so I always pull for those guys.” When he retires “in four or five years,” he also wants to maintain connections to USC and keep a condo that he owns next to Williams-Brice Stadium.
But there are more pressing matters for this weekend, and Spurrier wouldn’t be Spurrier — whether it was the 1960s or 1990s in Gainesville, or now in Columbia — if he wasn’t constantly trying to master the unscientific art of quarterbacking.
He talked often before the season about the importance of Connor Shaw developing as a pocket passer by keeping his eyes downfield, rather than scrambling at the first sign of pressure. Shaw did a good job of that in the first half of the season, but not at LSU last weekend.
“He took off running way too soon on several plays,” Spurrier said. “So hopefully, we can get him looking down field longer before he takes off. The other night was a lot different than he’s played all year.”
Not counting four sacks, Shaw ran eight times at LSU and completed 19 of 34 passes for 177 yards. He was averaging 9.9 yards per attempt this season, but averaged just 5.2 at LSU, where he had just five completions of at least 10 yards.
“You’re not going to hit 30-, 40-yard passes unless you go down the field,” Spurrier said.