Ron Morris

Morris: Legion Field brings back memories for Spurrier

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier and Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall meet with the media Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009, at the Sheraton hotel in Birmingham, Ala., to discuss their matchup in the Bowl. (Photo by Dwayne McLemore/The State)
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier and Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall meet with the media Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009, at the Sheraton hotel in Birmingham, Ala., to discuss their matchup in the Bowl. (Photo by Dwayne McLemore/The State)

TO UNDERSTAND ONE OF Steve Spurrier's more intriguing coaching moments, you need some perspective.

Spurrier was a 44-year-old head coach in his third season at Duke. He was leading Duke to its first bowl game since the 1960 Cotton Bowl. His team's ACC championship was Duke's first since 1962.

Spurrier was college coaching's boy wonder in 1989. He had proven in three seasons that the forward pass was the great equalizer. The message was clear throughout the ACC: Pitch it around the ballpark, and you, too, can win.

The other message was Spurrier was not long for Duke. But this was 1989, when ESPN had only one network. There were no Internet reports of Spurrier leaving for greener pastures. There was no Twitter.

So, as Duke prepared for the All-American Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham, rumors of him leaving to become the head coach at Florida were just that.

Duke fans believed Spurrier was going to build its football program into the same kind of power that Mike Krzyzewski was doing for its basketball program. Spurrier, they believed, felt a strong loyalty to the school that gave him his first break in college coaching.

Spurrier also did not want anything to diminish the accomplishments of his football team, which was in full celebration mode after the regular season concluded.

"For about two or three weeks there, we certainly enjoyed everything that goes with winning a championship," Spurrier says today as he prepares for a return trip to Legion Field, this time with South Carolina.

Included in that was an introduction of the ACC champions at halftime of a Duke basketball game. A season-ending, seven-game win streak that included a 41-0 thumping of rival North Carolina had Duke fans thinking football over their beloved basketball.

The celebration over the month between the victory against UNC and the All-American Bowl against Texas Tech, combined with the chatter that Spurrier might be leaving, made for an ill-prepared team.

"We maybe enjoyed it a lot that month, and maybe weren't quite as prepared," Spurrier says. "But I don't know if we could have beaten Texas Tech anyway. They were a very good team."

If there was a curfew for players in Birmingham, there were no bed checks. Finally, on the eve of the game, Spurrier broke the news to his team. The tug of his alma mater was too great. He was leaving Duke for Florida.

"When we beat North Carolina to win the ACC, I told them then that I would be their coach through the bowl game and after that I can't guarantee anything," Spurrier says. "You should tell your team first. I told them I was leaving, and we weren't near as good a team (in the bowl game) as we were in the regular season when we were going for the ACC championship."

In retrospect, Spurrier says he should have waited until after the bowl game to inform the team he was leaving.

"We didn't have a lot of fire going into it. ... I thought that was the way to do it," he says. "I don't know the right way to do it, do you? I think it had an effect.

"I yelled at one guy when he was hoofing it down on the kickoff, and he looked at me, like, 'You're not my coach anymore.'

"I said, 'Well, no sense yelling at him, I'm not his coach anymore.'"

Another decision by Spurrier also was second-guessed. Spurrier opted to start Billy Ray at quarterback over Dave Brown, believing the senior deserved the nod in his final game. Ray did not last long, throwing 11 passes and one interception before giving way to Brown, who passed for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

Texas Tech's game plan was a little simpler; it gave the ball to running back Jerry Gray 33 times and he rushed for a game- record 280 yards and four touchdowns. Texas Tech built a 28-0 lead in the second quarter and coasted to a 49-21 victory.

Following the game, Spurrier referred all questions about his coaching status to officials at Florida. Two days later, he was introduced in Gainesville as Florida's head coach.

Three years later, Spurrier brought his Florida team back to Legion Field, where it lost to Alabama in the inaugural SEC championship game. The same teams returned in 1993 and Spurrier's Gators won the SEC title.

Like with those championship games, Spurrier's South Carolina team Saturday will not have the distractions his Duke team faced in 1989. There are no questions about whether Spurrier will replace Mike Leach at Texas Tech, just those about how USC can defeat Connecticut.

USC players also have curfews this week . . . with bedchecks.

VIDEO: Legion Field