Florida faces S.O.S. alert

Gators groping to cope after Spurrier resigns

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The latest Spurrier Shuffle has nothing to do with quarterbacks.

It has everything to do with the NFL.

And the next coach at Florida.

And the future of the Gators, who shockingly find themselves without their leader, Steven Orr Spurrier -- S.O.S. -- the true-blue alum who answered his school's call for help and finally made Florida great.

In an interview with The Orlando Sentinel on Saturday, Spurrier insisted he didn't leave with any specific NFL job in mind.

''No way,'' he said. But still, he felt he had to go.

''I can't help it, I've got the itch,'' he said. ''I need to find out if my style of coaching can be successful with those NFL boys.''

So, the guessing game begins. Tampa Bay, San Diego and Carolina are obvious candidates. Washington, Minnesota and Atlanta are possibilities, too.

Each has pros and cons, and Spurrier may give his thoughts on the matter Monday when he is scheduled to speak to the media.

Tampa Bay has a coach, Tony Dungy, and a playoff berth wrapped up. Still, there has been speculation his job could be in jeopardy, and the position might be Spurrier's NFL dream job if it ever came open. He closed his NFL playing career there, coached the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL and came close to leaving Florida for the opening in 1995.

Carolina has a coach, George Seifert, but the Panthers are 1-14 and some people think Seifert might be gone after Sunday's season finale. Spurrier's parents grew up in Charlotte. He still has family there. He coached at Duke.

''I hope the Panthers go for him. I really don't know anything about it, though. This was a shock for all of us,'' said Spurrier's uncle, Bob Spurrier.

San Diego has an opening. It also has golf, great weather and Drew Brees. Spurrier spent nine of his 10 NFL seasons as a backup quarterback in California, up the coast with the 49ers. But does he want to move cross country and work with a powerful GM in John Butler?

Redskins owner Dan Snyder is reportedly interested in Spurrier. He recently said he plans to meet with first-year coach Marty Schottenheimer to discuss changes in the team. Nobody knows if the changes will be small or large. What everyone does know is that Snyder courted Spurrier last year and Spurrier said no.

Minnesota just fired Dennis Green. But is golf played there? Remember, Spurrier is a warm-weather guy: Last year at the Sugar Bowl he was moving practices inside when it fell below 45 degrees. And dealing with Randy Moss? Doesn't seem likely.

Atlanta is on the radar because the Falcons have a new owner, coach Dan Reeves has a history of health problems, it's a seven-hour drive from his beach home and Spurrier has always had an affinity for the Georgia Dome. It is, after all, where he won four of his six Southeastern Conference titles.

As for the Florida search, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was still the leading candidate Saturday. Athletic director Jeremy Foley, who will make the hire, stuck to his vow of not naming names or commenting on the search.

A source familiar with the search told The Associated Press that while Stoops is still the guy Florida wants, he's no sure thing to come. The Sooners won't let Stoops go easily. Last year, after Stoops won the national title, he got a raise to $2 million a year, just $100,000 less than what Spurrier made.

Stoops has three years invested and one national title at Oklahoma, a school with seven national championships compared with one at Florida.

The so-called dead period of recruiting ends next Saturday, which is clearly when Foley would like to have someone in place, although he wouldn't say as much at his news conference Friday.

When the new coach arrives, his roster almost certainly will be without all four underclassmen who were thinking about leaving for the NFL.

Several Florida newspapers reported junior cornerback Lito Sheppard, junior offensive lineman Mike Pearson and junior receiver Reche Caldwell will leave. Sophomore receiver Jabar Gaffney said he was going to come back for his junior year, but ''I've got to think about it now.''

As the initial shock of Spurrier's decision wore off, so many in the Gator Nation were trying to figure out why he left so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and without another job lined up.

Besides scratching that NFL itch, there was a growing sense that the success Spurrier created at Florida was getting to be too much a burden to carry.

Think about it: The Gators finished 10-2, ranked third in the postseason polls and won the Orange Bowl 56-23 over Maryland. Yet almost universally among Florida boosters, the season was considered a disappointment.

In retrospect, the thoughts Spurrier shared last week about Terrapins coach Ralph Friedgen's remarkable success in his first year take on new meaning.

''Whatever you do, if you don't do it next year, you've slipped,'' Spurrier said. ''If Ralph doesn't win 10 next year, they'll say, 'What's happening, coach?'''

Spurrier was tired of answering that question.

So suddenly, his 12 years as the savior, program-builder and visor-headed mastermind of Florida football is over.

He was both a uniter and a divider, beloved by his fans, deplored by everyone else's.

Most of all, he was different -- a change of pace in a sport that has become a business in the 30 years between the time Spurrier won the Heisman in 1966 and led the Gators to their national title in 1996.

''It's going to be different, just because he's Steve and nobody else is like him,'' said Marge Anding, a Florida fan since the 1950s. ''And now, all those other teams are going to have to find new reasons to hate us.''

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