(This story first appeared in GoGamecocks the Magazine in 2011.)
Twenty-one years and nine months ago, Duke played Clemson in Durham, N.C.
Clemson was ranked No. 7 in the country. Duke was unranked. It was the fifth game of the regular season.
Steve Spurrier could recite for you this afternoon almost every play of that game – in order and in detail.
“We are down 14-0 at half, nothing good is happening much, but our guys are playing hard. We weren’t yelling at them or anything, just keep playing hard and let’s see what happens. So we get the ball early in the second half, and we get sacked, and we get a penalty and it’s third-and-30. Third-and-30. Back in those days, I’d call a 30-yard pass, just throw it down there and hope somebody catches it. Every now and then we’d hit them. We call an ‘everybody take off,’ one of those patterns, and a guy ran a comeback. Our receiver got confused. The week before we had him run a comeback on that particular play. So he runs a comeback and stops and their defensive back, Dexter Davis, catches on a dead run, of course going the wrong way for Clemson. He runs to midfield, stops, he’s going to reverse field and drops the ball, ball slips out of his hands and our kid dove on it about the 30-, 35-yard line. We went down and scored, Randy Cuthbert scored off left tackle. And now it’s 14-7, and now all of a sudden it’s a ballgame. Danny Ford, he started pacing that sideline in a different mood than he was earlier. The kid that recovered the fumble, his name is Darryl Clements. He’s No. 4. I can still see him diving on it right now as we rehash it.
“So anyway, the game rocked around. We got a couple more TDs. You want to know how we got them?”
The Blue Devils (who lost to South Carolina 27-21 to open that season) won the game 21-17 and won their next six to win the school’s only ACC title. Steve Spurrier was 44 years old that day. More than two decades later, his memory of his sporting life remains just as precise.
“He remembers the third inning of his high school baseball game and who was on base,” said Jerri Spurrier, the coach’s wife of 44 years.
But he doesn’t remember his wife’s birthday or their anniversary, she said.
“He doesn’t remember any of that, but I don’t expect him to,” Jerri said. “That’s true. That’s funny.”
Spurrier’s sporting career provides his memory mile markers, and he arranges the remainder of his recollections around that framework, daughter Amy Moody said. When Spurrier coached at Florida, his former college coach, Ray Graves, was complimenting him on his memory in front of his family.
“I said, ‘I bet my dad doesn’t know how old I am,’” said Moody, a teacher in Panama City, Fla. “He said, ‘You were born when I was playing for the 49ers. You were born on a Friday, and the 49ers only won four games that year. That was the season I threw my longest NFL pass, 75 yards. That was 1969, so you are 24 years old.’”
Noah Brindise played quarterback for Spurrier at Florida and then coached for him with the Washington Redskins, and he spent years alternately marveling at the coach’s recall of football and golf and chuckling while listening to Spurrier call people “my man” because he couldn’t remember their name.
“He’s got what I call a compartmentalized photographic memory,” Brindise said. “There are a few topics where he can rattle off things like they just happened yesterday, and those are things that happened in games with his play-calling, and he’s like that with golf. As far as those two things go, it’s like a computer. He’s pretty impressive.”
After a round of golf, Spurrier can remember not just all of his shots but every shot taken by every member of his foursome.
“I’d say that is very unusual even for a professional golfer,” said Bob Rotella, one of the country’s most recognized sports psychologists.
Spurrier has no explanation for the gift beyond, “it just sticks with me.”
With golf, “I can almost tell you the next month what I did on that day if it was like a best round of the year or things like that,” he said.
That’s being modest, his wife said.
“He can tell you what everyone shot on every hole, not just today,” she said, “but when he played in the celebrity golf tournament in Tahoe in 1991.”
Maybe the most impressive, and least realized, part of Spurrier’s memory bank is his recall of his baseball exploits at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn.
“I can remember sitting with him one night having dinner somewhere,” said Spurrier’s former boss, Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley said. “He started talking about a high school baseball game. He remembered every pitch. He remembered where the location was. He remembers the call the umpire made at first. I am listening to him going, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”
Rotella gives presentations to Forbes 500 companies and has served as a mental coach to golfers from Nick Price to Davis Love, III to Paul Azinger. When Rotella played quarterback for his high school team, he wore No. 11 to “be like Spurrier,” he said.
“Everything we know is that when you attach strong emotions to events that happen in your life, you have much greater memory attached to them,” Rotella said. “That’s why we spend so much time trying to get athletes to attach strong emotions to their good plays and good performances and to not attach strong emotions to their poor performances. Steve has had a ridiculous number of positive experiences in his athletic and coaching career.”
Spurrier’s resume reads like far-fetched fiction. As a high school pitcher, he was undefeated in three seasons and won back-to-back state titles. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 at Florida and then coached the Gators to the 1996 national championship and six official SEC titles before Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder made him the highest paid coach in the NFL.
However, he hasn’t quite mastered the practice of letting go of the bad memories. Those are just as vivid, Brindise said.
“He has a hard time getting past things that don’t work real good, and it’s amazing because it would be games we would win a lot of times,” Brindise said. “He really has a difficult time letting it go.”
Spurrier doesn’t spend much time thinking about his memory and whether or not it helps him be a better football coach, he said, but New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer thinks it’s one of Spurrier’s greatest gifts. Schottenheimer played quarterback for Spurrier at Florida from 1994 to 1996.
“He would always go back and talk about things, a play they maybe had won a game back in the mid-60,” Schottenheimer said. “He’s the best play-caller I have ever been around, and so much of that is based on feel and instincts. There is no question it helps and it helps him more than anybody because he has such an amazing feel for calling the game and getting into the right play.”
Spurrier can remember not just plays that were successful more than a decade ago but “the formation, the hash mark, the down and distance, how much time was on the clock” when he called them, Brindise said. It has served him well during critical moments on the sideline.
“I think one of Steve’s greatest strengths is his ability to think on the fly,” Foley said. “I remember when we played in the (1994) Southeastern Conference championship game against Alabama. On the last drive, the winning drive for us, he didn’t have a headset on. He called them, and it was a thing of beauty. His ability to think and adjust so quickly probably has something to do with his memory, and that’s probably one of his greatest strengths as a coach.”
Spurrier also has gotten some benefit from his memory in recruiting. He concedes using it to perform parlor tricks for players. When Spurrier coached at Florida, he presented each team member with a plaque at the end of the season that included the score of every game. He hung all of his plagues on the wall of his office.
“Every now and then I’d ask a recruit, ‘Just pick out a game and a year and see if I can tell you the score,’” he said. “I’d get most of them.”
Jerri Spurrier takes her husband’s memory for granted, she said.
“If I have a question, I just know he remembers it all,” she said. “I am not amazed by it. I’m just used to it. (Steve Spurrier Jr.) said the other day, ‘You have no idea how amazing it is that he remembers everything about everything.’ Now, he has selective memory, which means there are a lot of things he doesn’t put in his brain that he doesn’t think are valuable. He doesn’t remember plenty of things.”
Such as dropping a letter at the post office or stopping at the grocery store on the way home from work.
“I have to walk things out to the car if I want him to take them anywhere,” Jerri said. “I don’t ask him to do a lot of stuff because he won’t remember to. He’s normal when it comes to things like that.”
Spurrier’s recall never translated to acing history tests, either.
“I’ve never been an outstanding student, if that’s what you mean,” he said.
Except on the playing field. It’s not just the turning point of the 1989 Duke-Clemson game that Spurrier remembers vividly.
It’s “almost every play,” he said. “That was one of those games that turned the whole season around. What people don’t realize is we threw five interceptions in that game. Did you know that? We threw five interceptions, but they fumbled two of them back to us. Our offense got more turnovers than our defense that day. I don’t know if that’s ever happened.
“Yea… I can remember pretty far back.”