When asking the question, “who is the greatest college football coach ever?” you are a lot more likely to hear names like Bear Bryant, Knute Rockne, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne or Nick Saban than Steve Spurrier.
Yes, Spurrier is good and all of that, but really? Doesn’t his name belong more somewhere among the Bob Stoops, Lou Holtzs and Jimmy Johnsons of college football rather than at the very apex of institutional gridiron leadership?
Well, that all comes down to how you define the highly subjective term “greatest.”
Indeed, is the “greatest” coach ever identified by his total number of national titles, his total number of career wins, his career winning percentage, his number of conference titles, his record in bowl play or his record head-to-head against ranked opponents?
And then, beyond selecting the appropriate category—because each and every one has an inherent flaw—how do you adjust the grading scale to account for the fact that the game played today—in terms of the BCS format, the athletes themselves, the rules, etc.—is far and away different than the game in 1925 or even 1975?
This makes the seemingly simple task of comparing Knute Rocke, Bear Bryant and Nick Saban’s careers fraught—much less making a perilous stab at selecting one guy, from a 144-year long history, as the best coach ever.
Therefore, if we’re assuming that the “greatest” college football coach ever will need a combination of credentials which can be compared across 14 decades, let’s use this much broader approach to make the case for Steve Spurrier as being guy who has most successfully tamed the role.
Winning Records at Every Stop
Perhaps the most impressive part of Steve Spurrier’s body of work as a coach is the fact that he owns an overall winning record at each of his three stops as a college head coach.
In fact, in 22 years in the college ranks, Spurrier has only finished a season with a losing record once; a misstep that happened during his first year at Duke when the Blue Devils missed .500 by one game by finishing 5-6 in 1987.
Of course, this disappointment needs to be viewed by remembering that at that point in time, Duke hadn’t won five games since going 6-5 in 1982.
Other than that, Spurrier has 21 seasons at .500 or better as a college coach, 20 seasons with a winning record (his 2007 Gamecocks went 6-6) and has led 11 of his teams, thus far, to double-digit wins.
Overall, Spurrier went 20-13-1 from 1987 to 1989 at Duke (remember, Duke), 122-27-1 from 1990 to 2001 at Florida and is 66-37 from 2005 until present during his current run at South Carolina.
Though Nick Saban also has a winning record at each of his college stops, he only spent one season at Toledo (which had enjoyed winning records the two years previous to his arrival), and then he eked by with three six-win seasons, a seven-win campaign and finally a 9-2 mark in five tries at Michigan State.
And I think it’s clear to say that Michigan State and Duke present inherently different levels of challenge.
Winning in Two Distinct Eras of College Football
From a historical perspective, one way to link Spurrier’s career with the great coaches of the past is the fact that he’s gotten it done when they did, in the pre-BCS era, and he’s gotten it done after they did, with the BCS running the show.
This is a key area of comparison that current guys like Saban, Miles, Stoops and Brown can’t compete with because the bulk of their success has come in the BCS era, which favors the big school and the big conference.
To quantify, Spurrier went 103-31-1 at Duke and Florida from 1987 to 1997, a pre-BCS-era run that included six conference titles, seven divisional crowns and the 1996-97 National Championship.
After the BCS took over in 1998, Spurrier has gone 105-88 with one conference title and two divisional crowns, but, of course, the bulk of this has occurred since he has been in the process of rebuilding the South Carolina program, which he began in 2005.
The truth is when you think of Steve Spurrier and championships, the tendency is almost immediately to dismiss him from the “greatest” conversation because he only holds one national title.
But, did you know that Spurrier’s seven conference titles and seven divisional titles put him ahead of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Mack Brown?
In fact, the only current coach with more conference championships that Spurrier is Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, who has eight Big 12 crowns.
What you’ve got to really respect about Spurrier’s tally is that it includes the 1989 ACC Championship, an achievement which marks Duke’s most recent conference title and the Blue Devils' first since winning the ACC back in 1962.
I’m not completely sure how you put that into a spreadsheet.
We would be somewhat remiss if, when arguing Spurrier’s case as an all-time great coach, we didn’t mention the fact that he was an all-time great player.
And, before you dismiss this as a fluffy article enhancer, think about it this way: Spurrier’s playing experience was actually on-the-job training for this coaching career.
Indeed, in the same way that an effective Vice President of Sales more than likely started out as a salesperson and a Grocery Store Manager began his/her career as a checker or bagger, a coach often begins his career not as a GA but as a player.
And, as in the case of the salesperson, the more sales made as a ground-level employee, the more supposed potential at the top of the ladder.
Of course, we know that these aren’t absolute truths, but we do know that if you want to really be an effective kitchen manager, you ought to spend a day in the dish-washing room.
And so we present to you Steve Spurrier, arguably the greatest player/coach combination in a college football coach.
He’s a Heisman Trophy winner, a national championship coach, the SEC Player of the Year in 1966 and the SEC Coach of the Year seven times.
Perhaps it’s not a direct link to “the greatest” but definitely a building block and, frankly, impossible to beat.
Other than Spurrier’s impressive record at each of his three collegiate stops, the other cornerstone for arguing that he is indeed the greatest college football coach ever is the fingerprints he’s left on each program he’s touched.
While some guys use “stepping stone” jobs to do just that, survive and “step up” to the next, higher-profile, higher-paying position, Spurrier has been wildly successful everywhere he’s been.
And he’s taken each of the three programs where he has parked his whistle to heights previously unknown.
He is a master, and perhaps the master, rebuilder in college football.
We’ve already highlighted that Spurrier led the Blue Devils to their first ACC crown since 1962 and the only title of any kind since then, but did you know that prior to Spurrier’s first SEC championship at Florida in 1991, the Gators had never won a football title of any kind?
That’s right, before Spurrier took over in Gainesville, Florida had never ever reached the double-digit win mark in history and had only finished the season ranked in AP Top 25 14 times since the poll started collecting votes in 1938.
That’s zero 10-plus win seasons in the first 83 years of Gators football followed by nine double-digit win finishes in the 12-year Spurrier era.
And that’s 14 ranked finishes in 51 years before Spurrier versus 12 ranked finishes in 12 seasons with him at the helm.
And as far as what’s happened post-Spurrier, Florida has enjoyed four 10-plus win seasons and nine Top 25 finishes since 2002.
As far as South Carolina is concerned, the Gamecocks 2010 SEC East crown marked the first title for USC since it joined the SEC in 1992 and the first championship of any kind since the 1969 ACC crown.
To add yet another layer, the 2010 divisional title was only the second football championship ever in the 121-year history of the program.
Other than a 10-2 blip on the radar under Joe Morrison in 1984, the 2011 and 2012 seasons, when the Cocks went 11-2 in back-to-back tries, are the only double-digit finishes in school history.
Other landmarks for South Carolina football, thus far in the Spurrier era, are the first-ever AP Top 10 finishes (2011 and 2012) and three of the eight total Top 25 finishes in program history.
And we all know that this is a team on the way up, not out; so, this story is far from over.
Simply put, Spurrier isn’t necessarily the guy who is the next coach in line to take the reins at an already-successful program; instead, he writes the story himself.
While it’s one thing to rack up gaudy stats and win championships at a program that is historically dominant and has all the pieces for success in place when you walk through the door on day one, it’s entirely another thing to scratch and claw your way to the top with a team that has never been to the Promised Land.
And again, the difference between these two very different things can’t be tracked on a stat sheet.
When we count, a win is a win, but we all know that in reality, a win is not a win because beating Alabama isn’t the same as beating South Alabama, and, along the same lines, beating Alabama when you’re LSU isn’t the same as beating Alabama when you’re Vanderbilt.
Steve Spurrier, greatest coach ever?
An Even Playing Field
What hurts Spurrier against historical greats like Bear Bryant, Tom Osborne and Bobby Bowden is that his numbers, in terms of winning percentage, total wins and championships, aren’t really that close.
To illustrate, where Spurrier has the relatively impressive seven conference titles thus far, Bryant won the SEC 14 times, Tom Osborne won the Big Eight (or 12) 13 times and Bobby Bowden won the ACC 12 times.
But these guys made their big statements in a completely different era of college football and, arguably, against a different level of competition with different caliber programs.
Among the key disparities between the Spurrier-era of college football and the others listed are recruiting regulations, the dawning of the BCS era, rule-changes in the actual game, the growing FBS field and conference affiliation.
Yes, Bobby Bowden won 304 games at Florida State from 1976 to 2009, but the Seminoles were Independent until 1991, and after that, they played in a weak ACC.
Can you really, in all fairness, throw Bowden’s numbers against Spurrier’s 208 wins in 11 fewer seasons in the modern day SEC and declare Bowden the unqualified winner? Yes, three of Spurrier’s years were in the same ACC, but he was at Duke, not Florida State.
Osborne and Bryant were both stellar and won it all, all of it, a combined nine times, but how much easier was it to convince guys to come to Alabama and Nebraska (both traditional powerhouses) in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s than it was to pull guys into Florida and South Carolina when the NCAA limited the number of texts you could send?
And remember that Florida had never won a championship of any kind before Spurrier took over in 1990, but they made up for lost time quickly by capturing the SEC in 1991.
In 1970, the rules of the game where different. You could have your pick of the recruits, and playing in the SEC and the Big Eight weren’t near as competitive as the modern-day mega-conferences, especially the double-division, double-doozy SEC.
The truth of the matter is that you can’t take Steve Spurrier’s name out of consideration for the “greatest” college coach of all time simply because his numbers don’t seem to stack up at first glance.
First, it’s almost impossible to fairly compare numbers across time, and secondly, Spurrier’s resume is far too compelling, far too full of hard-to-track achievements and unique accomplishments to discount.
Yes, in a spreadsheet-driven, show-me-the-proof world, what if Steve Spurrier really is the best leader ever to grace a collegiate gridiron sideline?
Indeed, what if, just as we’re being bedazzled by the fanatical Sabanization of college football, the ‘Ole ball coach at South Carolina is actually the best coach we’ve ever seen in the college game?
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