STEVE SPURRIER should clear room on his trophy mantle for his latest, perhaps greatest, accomplishment. Somewhere beside the recognition for winning the 1996 college football national championship and those seven SEC titles, there needs to be acknowledgment of being a head coach at age 70.
Consider that three active coaches have celebrated a 70th birthday while on the sideline, and that Spurrier joins a select group of head men all-time who remained employed at that age.
Spurrier on his 70th birthday Monday joined a couple handfuls of coaches all-time to coach college football into their 70s. (The list does not include coaches – if any – who might have stepped on the sideline for a game or two, or season or two, in their 70s).
Working any job into your 70s is quite an accomplishment these days. The average age for retirement is 62, according to a 2014 Gallup report.
Many of the greatest coaches in college football history never wore a headset on the sideline at age 70. Bear Bryant retired at age 69, Hayden Fry at 69, Lou Holtz at 67, Pop Warner at 67, Woody Hayes at 65 and Tom Osborne at 60.
Besides good health, the biggest factor in coaching longevity is an ability to win games. That is especially true today when the fortunes of football hold great sway over the financial well-being of the entire athletics department at most programs.
The win-or-be-gone mentality that swirls around the head of head football coaches has shortened many a career.
Spurrier has earned his status among the outstanding coaches of all-time by winning, first at Duke, then at Florida, then at USC. He ranks second among active coaches – to 68-year-old Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech (273 wins) – with 226 career victories.
Another key to keeping the head-coaching reins is establishing enough credibility at your final stop to have the final say in when it is time to retire. With an SEC East Division title in 2010 followed by three consecutive 11-win seasons, Spurrier has earned that decision-making power.
Ray Tanner, USC’s athletics director, has said as much.
Unfortunately, the end was not so comfortable for the two oldest coaches in college football history whose respective schools allowed them to coach too long. Joe Paterno was fired under much tumult at Penn State when he was 85, and Bobby Bowden was forced out at Florida State at age 80.
Because of poor health, Paterno was forced to coach many games toward the end from the press box, and Bowden had delegated all of the on-field coaching duties decades earlier to his assistants.
Spurrier remains involved in all aspects of running the USC program, from game preparation to play-calling to recruiting. He once took jabs at fellow coaches who had become CEOs of their programs, and you have to believe Spurrier would retire before he became a figure-head coach.
When Spurrier arrived at USC 10 seasons ago, he made it known to the media that he no longer wanted to be referred to as the “Ole Ball Coach,” a moniker that had stuck with him since early in his Florida days.
Despite the endearing nature of the nickname, Spurrier said the insinuation was that he was “old” at age 60. He wanted to be known thereafter as the “Head Ball Coach,” and USC officials began referring to him that way in news releases.
The local media generally adhered to Spurrier’s wishes, even as most of the national media continued to practice its old habits. Now, at age 70, Spurrier should return to being called the “Ole Ball Coach.”
Now that nickname is a badge of honor.
College football coaches known to have been a head coach at age 70 or older with their age in the last year of coaching:
Amos Alonzo Stagg
San Jose State