The hype surrounding Steve Spurriers first game as a college head coach in September 1987 was tremendous as the Duke athletics department attempted to win fans back to Wallace Wade Stadium in a market shared with nearby neighbors North Carolina and N.C. State.
In addition to bringing in one of the fresh young offensive minds in the game, Duke sought a way to promote Spurriers promised high-powered offense, one that would feature the forward pass as the great equalizer against other Atlantic Coast Conference opponents.
The late Tom Mickle, Dukes sports information director at the time, and his sidekick in the promotions department, Johnny Moore, put their heads together and mapped out a couple of plans.
Spurriers three Tampa Bay Bandits teams in the short-lived United States Football League from 1983-85 played Bandit Ball. So, Mickle and Moore settled on Air Ball for Duke football under Spurrier.
The two Duke officials also wanted to have a fan contest to determine the first play Spurriers offense would run in the season-opener against Colgate. That plan was scratched, but there still was much anticipation for the first play, which Spurrier said would be the most bizarre in the history of Duke football.
Sure enough, Dukes first play from scrimmage included an end sweep, reverse to the flanker, pitch back to the quarterback and concluding pass to the halfback who started the sweep. The played netted only 3 yards, but Air Ball under Spurrier was off and winging.
Spurrier likely will notch his 200th win as a college coach Saturday against UAB at Williams-Brice Stadium. Most of us who were among the 18,300 fans and members of the media for Spurriers first win at Duke had an inkling he would someday join the coaching elite.
Most of that belief was based on the fact Spurrier already had made a name in football circles both as an assistant coach at Duke from 1980-82 and as the head coach of the USFLs Bandits. From the onset, Spurrier was known as an offensive genius, although he not-so-humbly preferred the term mastermind.
Spurrier had the great fortune of being hired as an assistant at Duke by head coach Red Wilson, who was willing to turn complete control of the offense over to his new coordinator.
He gave me the freedom to call the plays, put in the game plan each week and experiment, Spurrier told me in a 1989 interview when I was a reporter at the Durham Morning Herald. Giving me complete freedom to run the offense, not many coaches will do that.
Most head coaches when youre out there working on the passing game and you throw two or three interceptions or incompletions, theyll come up to you and say, Hey, thats too complicated, we cant do that. We need to simplify things.
They wont let you experiment and work on the passing game to its fullest extent. Coach Wilson was not that way.
While there was a lot of experimenting that went on during those years as an assistant, Spurriers system generally worked at Duke. The 1982 Duke offense established an ACC record with an average of 454 yards of offense. More importantly, Duke won. The Blue Devils posted 6-5 seasons in 1981 and 1982, records that left them at home in the postseason but would merit bowl invitations under todays rules.
When Wilson was fired following the 82 season, Spurrier got a chance to test his offense on the professional level, and again it was a smashing success. At Tampa Bay, quarterback John Reaves passed for more than 4,000 yards in both the 1984 and 1985 seasons.
The USFL folded following the 1985 season and Spurrier remained under contract with the Tampa Bay franchise, which believed it had a chance to join the NFL. Finally free of that contract, Duke athletics director Tom Butters jumped at the chance to hire Spurrier for the 1987 season.
He told me were not hiring you for your organizational skills, Spurrier said of Butters. In other words, I wasnt going to be just a figure-head coach. My job is to get the ball going up and down the field and scoring points.
That happened from the outset. In that first game as a head coach at Duke, the Blue Devils rolled up 487 yards 373 passing in a 41-6 victory over Colgate.
Air Ball at Duke was launched, and eventually led to Fun n Gun at Florida and Cock n Fire at USC. A quarter of a century and tens of thousands of yards later, Spurrier now is on the brink of joining the college football coaching elite.
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