GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the University of Florida has erected a statue of Steve Spurrier, cast in bronze and weighing roughly three tons. Inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday, the University of Florida dropped a three-ton hammer – and 44 points – on the last of Spurrier's and South Carolina's championship hopes.
Spurrier, grayer and more jowly now but still rocking his trademark visor, is in his 11th season post-Florida, one year short of the 12 he spent coaching the Gators. During his tenure in Gainesville, he revolutionized Florida football, bringing the school its first national championship, leading Florida to a 68-5 home record and six SEC championships, and infusing the entire school with a swagger that bedevils opponents and their fans to this day.
But he's also 67 years old with few championship chances ahead of him, which made Saturday's game all the more important. South Carolina entered the afternoon ranked No. 9 but a game behind the No. 3 Gators in the SEC East. A win, and the Gamecocks would have the inside line on the SEC championship game. A loss, and, well …
Some games don't resolve themselves till the final minute. And some are all but over in the first.
On the first play from scrimmage, Florida hit Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw hard enough to force a fumble, and three plays later, the Gators were in the end zone. You don't give a team like Florida seven points in the first minute, and you don't catch up by trading field goals for touchdowns, as South Carolina did for much of the game.
Florida will look back on this 44-11 victory and realize it put together two exceptional halves – the first, when the Gators won ugly (scoring 21 points on just 29 yards of total offense) and the second, where they swarmed anything in burgundy and gave Spurrier exactly the kind of hell he used to dish out on this same field.
Spurrier named Ben Hill Griffin Stadium "The Swamp" way back in 1991 (reason: "only Gators get out alive"), and surely none of the 90,000-plus in attendance could miss the irony there. The performance Spurrier's team displayed in the orange crucible of The Swamp was an object lesson in What Not To Do In The SEC. Quarterbacks Shaw and Dylan Thompson were virtual mirror images of futility – 20 attempts apiece, completing just nine and eight passes respectively, each with a long of 20 yards and a combined total of 155. The running game was no better; South Carolina averaged just 1.4 yards per carry, and no rusher totaled more than 20 yards.
Spurrier is now 3-5 against Florida since 2005, and this loss – with fumble after fumble that led to Florida touchdowns – had to be the most bitter of them all. "The only thing you can hope is that your guys give it their best shot and not just lay the ball down and basically say, ‘Here, Florida, we don't want to win. You guys take this fumble and this fumble and this fumble,' " he said, disgust and frustration evident in every word.
One pair of drives summed up the game. With a little more than nine minutes remaining, South Carolina offered up one last writhing attempt at life. The Gamecocks drove 68 yards but stalled in the red zone, coming away with only a field goal. Florida returned the ensuing onside kick to the South Carolina 11 and scored three plays later. In a pitch-perfect, if perhaps unintentional, tribute to Spurrier, the Florida band had started South Carolina's drive by playing "Somebody I Used To Know."
Back to that statue. It's one of three commemorating the Gators' three Heisman-winning quarterbacks, and it shows Spurrier not in coaching gear but in full uniform, right arm cocked back to pass. On Spurrier's left stands 1996 Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel. On his right is Tim Tebow. Completed and dedicated last year, the statues are a popular meeting spot and photo opportunity, with the vast majority of fans posing in front of Tebow or Spurrier, or between the two Gator legends.
"Nobody remembers Danny Wuerffel," said a Florida stadium employee before the game, shaking his head. That's not quite true. A trickle of thirtysomething men, almost certainly alumni who were in school during Wuerffel's 1996 Heisman and national championship season, posed next his statue. But for the most part, it's all about Tebow and the ol' Ball Coach, with a fair number of South Carolina fans also posing beside Spurrier.
Crafting a statue of someone in their lifetime is a dicey business – just ask Penn State – but both Spurrier and the Gators have put the statue in its proper perspective.
"I've been down there [to see the statue] about one day a year," Spurrier said earlier this week, and then dodged the issue of legacies and expectations as deftly as a Lowcountry lawyer. "It wasn't a coaching shot, it was an action, action shot. I thought the guy did a super job who did the statues.''
"I drive by his statue every day," Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel told reporters earlier this week. "He's definitely a Gator great, but it's not really anything that's going to bother us. Our players here didn't play for him or weren't here when he was around. So it's definitely bigger for the media and the fans." Driskel, who threw four touchdowns on Saturday, was 3 years old when Florida won its national championship under Spurrier.
Another national title is out of reach for Spurrier, but Florida has staked a real claim to legitimacy. The list of Gator superlatives following this stomping is impressive: Florida is now 7-0, has not allowed a touchdown at home to an SEC opponent this season and held a team to less than 50 yards rushing for the second straight game. Florida can now clinch the SEC East with a victory against Georgia next week, putting it just one more victory away from a BCS slot.
And to hear Florida coach Will Muschamp tell it, that kind of success can ironically be traced back to … Steve Spurrier. "I have tremendous respect for him," Muschamp said. "He's made my job a lot easier and more doable because of the tradition he built here, and I appreciate that."
More than an hour after the game, with celebrations well underway across the Florida campus, the Spurrier statue stood bathed in a single floodlight. A Gator fan wearing a black cocktail dress and blue-and-orange beads posed for a cell phone picture in front of the Spurrier statue, one thumb up, a smile on her face.
Then she moved 10 feet to the right and Tebowed.
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