He's been earning it ever since

Posted: Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Great college coaches usually make serviceable pros and that's about all.

Jimmy Johnson accomplished the rarest of doubles a national championship at Miami, a Super Bowl with Dallas and so did Barry Switzer, but the self-proclaimed ''Bootlegger's Boy'' was so overmatched in the NFL that in his case, winning always seemed like a happy accident.

Steve Spurrier already owned a college trophy and he was on the fast track, too. Or so it seemed when he abruptly resigned from Florida and, almost as suddenly, signed a five-year, $25 million deal with Washington owner Dan Snyder that made Spurrier the highest-paid coach in league. As they say about people who marry for money, he's been earning it ever since.

It's hard to remember now, after two underachieving seasons in charge, how promising Spurrier's start was. He'd already worn out the competition at the previous level, unlike Dennis Green or Tom Coughlin, and stumbling out of the gate, the way John McKay and Butch Davis had, was supposed to be out of the question.

While the money that went with the NFL job was nothing to sneeze at, Spurrier said the real reason he was stepping up in class was to find out if his teams could play pitch-and-catch in the pros the way they did in college, and the early returns were spectacular.

Not only did the Redskins win all four of their preseason games, they nearly doubled their average offensive numbers from the year before in points, total yards and passing yards. In the best tradition of Spurrier's Gators teams, they even ran up the scores in the process.

But that wasn't the only reason why more than a few of his new lodge brothers lined up for their chance to knock the smirk off Spurrier's face. He vowed to not make the racket look harder than it is, then teased all those workaholics who fall asleep on office sofas watching game film, and mocked the control freaks by delegating almost everything to his assistants except the play-calling.

But Spurrier didn't stop there. When someone asked how his transition to the NFL was going, the rookie coach didn't have to think long or hard.

''We're 4-0,'' he said. ''That's the only answer I know.''

Well, the Redskins are 12-20 in games that count since, including a miserable 5-11 this season. The aerial circus Spurrier promised has been grounded, his Fun 'n' Gun scheme rendered stunned and done. Pitchin' and catchin' doesn't fly in the NFL unless it's accompanied by a running game and a defense, facets of the pro game that Spurrier has yet to master. Even Washington's offense ranked in the bottom quarter of the league this year, meaning the only suspense left to the experiment is whether Spurrier has the stomach to continue.

''I could sit here and talk about a lot of things I wish I'd done differently,'' Spurrier said, just before heading back to Florida on vacation. ''But if I did, it would sound like excuses, and I'm not an excuse-maker.''

Yet some of Spurrier's detractors suggest a good excuse is the only part of his exit strategy that isn't yet in place. They viewed his increasing scrapes with the Redskins' front office over personnel decisions and retaining some of his assistants as a convenient out, if and when he needed one.

The strange part is that Snyder has so far refused to take the bait. The two will talk sometime in the coming weeks, but if he's unhappy with the ol' ballcoach, Snyder has been keeping it to himself. Some of Spurrier's players, though, haven't remained silent on the subject and the day after an ugly 31-7 season-ending loss to the Eagles, a few of them unloaded.

Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said discipline was a ''big-time'' problem and provided a few specifics: lax practices, players arriving late, some even taking cell phone calls during team meetings. ''If you don't make the corrections during the week,'' he said, ''it's going to carry over 'til Sunday. ... There's got to be some type of structure.''

There is no single reason why only a few of the best college coaches have enjoyed similar success in the NFL, but failing to grasp the difference between kids on scholarship and veterans making more money than they know what to do with has to be high on the list. Unlike the college game, parity is a fact of life in the pros. That, too, was a tough lesson for someone like Spurrier to learn, since he always had enough talent at Florida to beat even good teams on athleticism alone.

Coaches such as Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, LSU's Nick Saban and even USC's Pete Carroll, who put in an NFL stint with the Jets and Patriots, might want to keep those things in mind when the bowl games are over. All three figure to elicit some interest from the NFL, especially once the revolving door and rumor mill begins spinning in earnest.

Because, as Spurrier could tell them with the benefit of hindsight, it's awfully hard not to get sucked in.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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