The first thing Steve Spurrier did when he spoke to the media on Tuesday morning was clarify the verbiage swirling around out there. He wasn’t “retiring,” he insisted; he was “resigning,” and then Spurrier brought up the mind-blowing possibility that he might someday coach a high school football team.
If you wanted to see exactly what it was that made Spurrier an American icon, or how he energized both the sport he coached and the reporters who covered it, you could probably do better than the roughly 20 minutes or so that Spurrier stood still and took questions about his abrupt decision to step down as the Head Ball Coach at South Carolina. If you want vintage Spurrier, check out YouTube. This was Spurrier at his most subdued, at his least boastful (verging on – gasp! – humility), and it was a little sad but it was kind of a beautiful denouement, too. He wore a sportjacket and a plaid shirt and no tie; one of the first things he did was insist that this whole press conference wasn’t going to go on for too long, most likely because A) He didn’t want to start crying, as the HBC don’t cry in public, and B) He had a tee time somewhere.
A few months earlier, before the season began, Spurrier had insisted that he wasn’t finished, that despite the fact he had just turned 70, he was not prepared to slip gently into that good night. By now, he had earned the right to call his shots; he had turned around the program at Duke in the 1980s, and he’d won a national championship at Florida in 1990s, and after a brief and unpleasant interlude with the Washington Redskins, he’d returned to college football at South Carolina and transformed the Gamecocks into a perennial SEC contender. But the last couple of years, you could see Spurrier running out of steam; you could feel his boastfulness slipping into wistfulness, his teams edging further and further away from the Spurrier ideal.
When the Gamecocks stood at 2-2 on the season after slipping past a terrible Central Florida team, Spurrier began to change his mind. (“I sensed that this was about it for me,” he said on Tuesday.) When South Carolina lost its last two Southeastern Conference games to drop to 2-4, that was it for Spurrier.
“When something is inevitable,” he said, “I believe you do it right then.”
They tried to get Spurrier to break down after that. They asked him if he wanted to be publicly honored by the South Carolina crowd at a game, and he said maybe he’d do it in a couple of years. They asked how he felt, what his emotions were, and Spurrier refused to bite. “I planned on riding out on the shoulder pads of the team coming out of the Georgia Dome with an SEC Championship,” he said with a shrug. They asked what he did this morning, and he said, in that beautiful Tennessee drawl of his, “Waylp, I got up this morning, got on the treadmill, doing my normal stuff right now. I’ll have something planned to do each day. I don’t know what yet, though.”
The thing about the Ball Coach is that he never bought into traditional narratives; the thing about the Ball Coach is that he was a born contrarian, which is how he managed to revolutionize the passing game on the college level, which is how he became the most interesting football coach (both in terms of personality and scheme) that perhaps any of us will ever see. And so they wanted Spurrier to cry during his resignation/retirement/whatever-the-hell-it-was press conference, and Spurrier refused to oblige. Just like when they asked him about work, and he told them that he didn’t need to labor for the same long hours that other coaches did, that he wasn’t going to engage in the masochism inherent to his profession. Just like when they asked him about his opponents, and he would engage in peacocking and trash talking that was both arrogant and playful.
Sentimentality, Spurrier seemed to saying, was for lesser men. Spurrier would go on, and he would play 36 holes, and he would enjoy his life in the same way he always had. Maybe he’d get a hand back in football someday; he’d miss the idea of being part of a team, he said, and this was the one moment when you thought maybe the media had finally broke him down. But then Spurrier did something so wonderfully abrupt that it became, quite unintentionally, the most sentimental flourish of his brief farewell.
“OK, let’s get moving. I’ve had enough here,” he said, and he stepped away from the microphone one last time, leaving us forever yearning for more.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb