Offensive-minded Spurrier takes his brash words, controversial

Sunday, August 25, 2002

ASHBURN, Va. -- The letters "HBC" on Steve Spurrier's golf cart stand for "head ball coach." Instead of passing and receiving, he says he coaches "pitching and catching."

The new Washington Redskins coach speaks in an aw-shucks, know-it-all style that irritates many, makes him easy to ridicule -- and to underestimate. Then again, he's good at both mind games and ball games, so he likes it that way.

"He loves for people to perceive that he has no idea what he's talking about," said his son, receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., putting a big emphasis on the word "loves."

After setting offensive records with scores like 82-6 at Florida, the elder Spurrier is ready to shake things up in the NFL. No more recruiting, no more booster speeches, no more lopsided games against Vanderbilt. Just pure football played with a refreshingly aggressive attitude.

"The real game itself is the most fun part of the coaching," Spurrier said. "Some coaches tell you they like the offseason and recruiting and the speaking -- well, they won't tell you that, but some of them do. But I like the games. That's what this NFL is all about."

In just one training camp, Spurrier has shown that he is -- and will remain -- well off the beaten path, not only with the intriguing Xs and Os of his offense, but in his mannerisms and routines as a professional head coach.

Shots at colleagues

The tweaking is already in midseason form. There have already been subtle jabs at coaches Jim Haslett for working long hours and still losing, and Tony Dungy for trying to keep games close instead of win them big. Not to mention his overall rap on any coaches who merely "hope to be .500" or who say something like "We aren't going to be very good this year."

That really irks Spurrier.

"I don't know how they can say that," Spurrier said. "But a lot of them seem to want to say that. I think you've got to put your expectations up as high as you think you can go."

Spurrier, 57, loves to win and is sensitive to criticism. He reads articles written about him daily and responds bitingly to ones he doesn't like with planned mini-tirades that almost always end with: "But that's OK. I understand. That's part of it."

Spurrier was particularly irritated this week when it was pointed out most of the Redskins' 110 points in their first three exhibition games came against second- and third-stringers.

"It seems like the second guys can't play a lick in this league," Spurrier said. "That's according to you guys, not me."

But while he does speak his mind, Spurrier doesn't speak much. He grants few one-on-one interviews and his remarks after practices and games are very brief by NFL standards. He often starts fidgeting by the third or fourth question and excuses himself early.

As expected, Spurrier keeps shorter hours and makes his practices less physically demanding than most NFL coaches. But it's a misconception to think he doesn't work long and hard between his rounds of golf. His practices and meetings are rigorous mental challenges to his quarterbacks and receivers. Spurrier joked he hoped word wouldn't get out when he kept both groups on the field for an extra 40 minutes one day this week.

"Most people think we're a country club," Spurrier said. "They wrote an article in Japan that we came out in full pads and had contact in the Osaka Dome and the Niners didn't. I told Marvin, 'We're going to ruin our reputation as a country club atmosphere if they keep writing that.' So y'all keep writing that we have a country club atmosphere out here. I like that."

And while it's not unusual for an offensive-minded coach to grant some autonomy to the other side of the ball, Spurrier has taken it to an extreme with defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.

"I don't know who's out there half the time, not on defense," Spurrier said candidly when asked about his linebackers one day at camp.

While the mannerisms are fun to watch and debate, it's his offense that has made Spurrier successful -- and special.

Innovative out of necessity

His schemes were born when he was an offensive coordinator at Duke, where losing bred desperation. They were perfected at Florida, where he won national fame and a national title as a head coach in the 1990s -- the good years.

Before that came the bad years, when he was dismissed as an assistant coach at Florida and at Georgia Tech in successive years before landing a job in 1980 with the Blue Devils, a traditional ACC doormat.

"At Duke," Spurrier said, "if we were going to survive, we couldn't have a bad play."

By necessity, and motivated by dwindling chances to stay in coaching, Spurrier designed plays that made every down a spin at the jackpot. Every play has multiple permutations designed to thwart whatever defense might be on the field.

"Coach Spurrier adds his own little spice that only he has in his mind," quarterback Sage Rosenfels said before he was traded from the Redskins to the Dolphins. "There's new stuff every day that he brings in. The way his mind thinks is different from most coaches."

Spurrier learned the relentless pursuit of perfection from his father, a Presbyterian minister would tell his all-around sports star son he could always do better. Spurrier also learned from the Sun Tzu book "Art of War," which advises that opponents should be rattled mentally and beaten decisively.

Despite winning the Heisman Trophy at Florida in 1966, Spurrier had a nondescript 10-year NFL career, mostly as a backup. Spurrier's nature would suggest his coaching career is a way to vicariously redo his playing days, but he said that is not the case.

"I've had much, much more fun coaching than I ever did playing," Spurrier said. "I was never on a team that won much of anything as a player."

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