Over a coaching career spanning four decades, Steve Spurrier has had hundreds of thousands of words written about him in newspapers, magazines, online and a handful of books – including one he co-authored in 1992 (“Gators: The Inside Story of Florida’s First SEC Title,” with Norm Carlson).
Few if any, though, generated as negative a reaction from Spurrier as has a book written by a USC honors college professor who says he has been researching his subject for 17 years.
“Spurrier: How the Ball Coach Taught the South to Play Football,” by Ran Henry (Globe Pequot Press, 325 pages, $25.95), was released nationally several weeks ago, and Henry – who teaches a course in football writing – says it is the first Spurrier biography to include both his early childhood (“most go directly to when he was 12 years old,” Henry says) and his 10-year run at South Carolina. “No one has done those.”
Henry even traced Spurrier’s family roots to a several-times-great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Spurrier, a stonecutter who lived in Winnsboro, and might have helped carve the blue granite used in the S.C. State House. At first blush, it seems to be the definitive chronicle of a coach who made himself a legend and also made USC football relevant.
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There’s just one problem: Spurrier says parts of the book are wrong.
That information comes from Henry, not the coach, who recently declined to discuss specifics of his objections. “I want to say that I have not seen any of this book,” Spurrier said. “When I cooperated with (Henry), I was supposed to see the final edition. But it was not shown to me. So I, really, can’t comment on what’s in it.”
According to Henry, Spurrier – after years of granting him access – dislikes the book’s portrayal of his relationship with his father, John Graham Spurrier, a Presbyterian minister who died in 2000. What Henry calls their “falling out” occurred in August after Spurrier read the book’s first draft.
“He doesn’t feel his father was as strong a personality as I do,” Henry said. “(But) his dad always thought of himself as Steve’s coach, and Kermit Tipton (Spurrier’s football coach at Science Hill High in Johnson City, Tenn., now deceased) agreed” with that characterization.
Stories of the elder Spurrier’s competitiveness in sports have been told elsewhere, even by the coach. In one oft-reported anecdote, his father, coaching one of young Steve’s teams, told the players: “If winning isn’t important, why keep score?”
Henry believes Spurrier is upset by his father’s depiction as a demanding, victory-consumed man who lived vicariously through his younger son – and, as related in the book, turned off others with his endless fixation on his son as an athlete, and later as a coach. Their father-son relationship comes across as complicated, and Henry suggests Spurrier chafed under his father’s passion.
There are also incidents of the elder Spurrier being called down by coaches for his behavior in the stands. Henry writes that Sid Smallwood, Johnson City Schools’ athletics director, once told Graham Spurrier, “If you don’t back off yelling at Steve and these other kids, you’ve seen your last baseball game at Science Hill.” Henry says the elder Spurrier backed off … for a while.
Perhaps most telling is a chapter, “In His Father’s House,” where Henry interviewed Spurrier’s parents, and the elder Spurrier talked about his role in his son’s success. “I like to think I had a part in Steve’s upbringing, getting him interested in sports,” his father said. “So, it’s a little difficult when they have celebrations and don’t mention you.”
Later, in Spurrier’s office at Florida, Henry asked about his father’s influence but was rebuffed. “I was just the son of a father interested in sports,” Spurrier said, downplaying early experiences with his father. At one point – “wanting him to give his dad some kind of shout-out. But he wouldn’t” – Henry says Spurrier conceded, “We’re all products of our environment. Dad was competitive in sports. He believed in that and tried his best to win games.”
Then, Henry writes, “Spurrier paused, pointedly. ‘You could say I learned that from him.’ ”
Are these episodes the bone of contention for the coach? Only he knows for sure.
Henry says one interviewee at USC told him Spurrier “has mellowed in his feelings about his father in recent years,” Henry said. “I may have hit a nerve with how (the coach) handles his players (and how) his dad demanded excellence. But that doesn’t change history.”
Despite Spurrier’s objections, Henry said he had no qualms about publication. “There was never an agreement for control; I turned down an offer of that,” he said. He says he did make other changes that the coach requested during their last meeting “because I wanted to get it right. (But the) book is provable.” Henry said Spurrier in August told him, “I like a lot of (the book).”
The project’s roots go back to 1997, when Henry wrote a freelance article about Spurrier for the Miami Herald’s Tropic magazine. Henry also worked at Florida newspapers in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, and has taught at Florida International, Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia as well as South Carolina.
He continued researching afterward, even commissioning the genealogist who discovered the coach’s S.C. ties. The final concept of a book came in 2011, when Henry says Spurrier agreed to cooperate.
“He was a man conscious of his legacy, and I think he had been waiting for the Gamecocks to have success,” Henry said.
The two had “regular meetings” for three years and, until their August dispute, Henry says Spurrier “never did anything but encourage others to talk to me,” including his parents before their deaths, his brother Graham, childhood friends and coaches. “I spent an incredible amount of time, money and miles across the Southeast.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – Spurrier’s objections, the book should have sales legs. Spurrier admirers will want to read it; others who are not fans will be drawn by the coach’s dislike of it. That’s a literary “win-win.”
What feelings will Henry – who says his own father held up Spurrier to him as a role model – take away from the experience? “I worked for 17 years, and I couldn’t satisfy (Spurrier),” he said.
“I’m an ardent Gamecocks supporter, and I wanted to tell the story I gathered so everyone could understand a great man … who came through some adverse circumstances and became a great coach but also a great father. I think that’s a tremendous achievement the world needs to know about.
“I’m happy (Spurrier) is on this earth,” Henry said. “I would not change him. If (their falling out) is the price of that, so be it.”