What if ... Steve Spurrier had stayed at Florida? (Part one)

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Steve Spurrier plucked the Gators from the mire of NCAA investigations and built the program to the level of success (and expectations) it now enjoys. After an unceremonious departure following the 2001 season, Florida has continued to be one of the elite programs in college football. But what if Spurrier had stayed?

College football thrives on speculation. Titles like best team, player, conference, and coach are all up for grabs, because the system offers so little opportunity for cross-examination and clarity.

But for Gator fans, one of the most interesting questions a Gator fan can raise is just about a decade old:

What if Steve Spurrier had stayed at Florida?

In the 12 seasons Spurrier was at UF, he compiled an absurd list of accomplishments, rivaling any run for any coach in history.

  • Prior to 1990, no Florida team had ever won more than nine games in a season. In Spurrier's 12 seasons, Florida never won fewer than nine games.
  • Spurrier compiled 122 wins, the highest total for any coach in their first 12 seasons at a school.
  • Spurrier's Gators won seven SEC East titles.
  • They won six SEC Championships, including wins in five of the first eight SEC Championship Games.
  • The Gators won the 1996 national title, and played for another in 1995.
  • Spurrier coached Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel, becoming the first Heisman winner to coach another winner.

Spurrier also revolutionized the way college football was played, especially in the SEC. The Fun 'n Gun mixed elements of spread and pro-style attacks, and Spurrier was one of the early play callers to regularly use four- and five-receiver sets. Ironically, defensive coaches' response to the Fun 'n Gun bred the athletic style of defender who would end up making the SEC the defensive-minded conference it is today. (One thing I thought while writing this: Is Kevin Sumlin the Spurrier of this generation?)

We don't need to get in to the reasons Spurrier failed in the NFL, you can read this week's CAB to get some insight in to that speculation. We also don't need to discuss why he left in the first place.

Would Florida have experienced more or less success if Spurrier had stayed for the next 11 years?

After a below-average run with Ron Zook (23-13 record, 0 SECCG appearances), Urban Meyer took the Gators to new heights as coach. Meyer won two BCS National Championships, two SEC Championships, and three SEC East titles in six seasons. Will Muschamp narrowly missed the opportunity to play for the SEC Championship in his second year as coach, and has the Gators back among college football's elite.

But let's compare the two eras. Spurrier's 2001 season has been removed for comparison's sake, leaving two 11-year periods to analyze.

  • Overall Record - Spurrier 112-25-1, Others 106-37 (pending Sugar Bowl)
  • SEC Record - Spurrier 81-10, Others 64-26
  • SEC East Titles - Spurrier 7, Others 3 (all Meyer)
  • SEC Championships - Spurrier 6, others 2 (both Meyer)
  • National Championships - Spurrier 1, Others 2 (both Meyer)

The temptation to merely look at the numbers as a method of judgment is flawed unto itself. Spurrier clearly had more consistent success, won more games, and won more SEC titles. However, Meyer won two national titles in only six years as coach, and national titles make it difficult to argue that Spurrier had more success than Meyer.

But we also have to take in to account the changing landscape of college football, and the SEC: The 1990s produced just three SEC national champions (1992 Alabama, 1996 Florida, 1998 Tennessee), and had an unbeaten SEC team (1994 Auburn) left almost completely out of the national title picture. Spurrier's Gators were the SEC's best team as often as not, but only got two title shots in that run. His record would look a lot different if Florida's six SEC titles had produced six national title game appearances in the SEC supremacy era.

There's more to ponder, too.

Would Spurrier's schemes have continued to work against more complex defensive schemes and players?

Spurrier has clearly changed his schemes to fit the players he has at South Carolina, adopting a strong defense to fit a ball-control offense. Ironically, this is the same mindset he conquered at Florida, though he never had to call plays against Jadeveon Clowney, Eric Minter, and Mark Barron. Remember, you could persuasively argue that the Fun 'n Gun actually created the need for these types of players on defense.

How would Spurrier have recruited?

Spurrier has always been known as a laid-back guy away from football. He loves golf, takes vacations, and doesn't do 20-hour days. I believe Spurrier is a fine recruiter, but also relied on the success of his teams and the brand it created to do some of the work for him. While lately he has shown to be an able recruiter at South Carolina, that was not the case early on. He needed time to adapt to the changing face of recruiting, as well as college football in general. Would remaining at Florida have helped accelerate that learning curve?

Could Spurrier hire competitively?

It's no coincidence that Spurrier's top teams at UF featured a strong defense to his potent offense. Charlie Strong was a prominent position coach for the Gators from 1991 to 1994, and Spurrier hired Bob Stoops, who served as defensive coordinator from 1996 to 1998. Stoops left to coach Oklahoma after the 1998 season, and the defense never quite regained its top form. Spurrier's obvious coaching acumen was on the offensive side, and this basically left defensive coaches to their own devices. Since this is speculation, it's easy to say that Spurrier didn't care enough about hiring top assistants, though he could have possibly saved himself some pain by wooing Strong away from South Carolina in 2001.

Would Florida fans have been patient through tough seasons?

Today's elite programs and fan expectations create a coaching environment that is difficult to survive in for more than 10 years. The expectations are so high, and the news coverage so constant, that it's difficult to maintain a level of consistency in not only the program, but in their personal lives as well. Spurrier leaving for the NFL is often explained partly as him wanting to get away from those expectations.

To be elite, to be in the BCS National Championship hunt each year, takes an enormous toll on coaches. For the majority of coaches, burnout is inevitable part of the cycle. Spurrier would have just completed his 23rd season at Florida, placing him behind only Nevada's Chris Ault and Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer as the longest tenured coaches in the nation. And he would have done it at Florida, one of the the toughest places to coach in the nation. Would Gators fans have understood a down year here and there?

South Carolina fans are still thrilled with even being a part of the elite conversation, but going to one SECCG in eight years is an accomplishment in Columbia; it would be a huge disappointment at Florida. Mark Richt is the longest-tenured coach in the SEC, in his 12th year at UGA, and we've all watched him end up on the hot seat several times despite doing more than Spurrier has at South Carolina.

It's great to have a guy for the long haul, but the long haul is different than it was even 15 years ago.

There are so many other questions to discuss, topics to consider, and theories to ruminate on. Would Spurrier have recruited any of the offensive stars we've seen at other schools? How many Florida stars might have gone elsewhere? What aspects of his schemes would still applicable in today's game with Florida's athletes?

As always, we'll be hanging out in the comments. Let the speculation begin!

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