GAINESVILLE — Steve Spurrier is coming back to Florida Field as an opposing coach for the second time in three years, but this time more conversation is being generated about his No. 24 Gamecocks than about his ties to UF.
Which is precisely the way it should be, Spurrier believes. At least by now.
"I think it's pretty old news," he said. "I don't think it will be a big deal. It will just be the Gamecocks against the Gators."
It has been seven years since Spurrier stunned the Florida faithful by walking away from his alma mater, the place where he won a Heisman Trophy as a quarterback then coached the Gators to six SEC championships and one national title. Time has passed, but Spurrier's legacy at Florida is ever-present.
From the new multi-million dollar football complex celebrating past champions, to the ring of honor that adorns his name in the stadium, to the multiple photos around the stadium and football offices, there is Spurrier.
Sunday night, offensive coordinator Dan Mullen sat inside a conference room that adjoins the stadium talking about this weekend's game. On the wall behind him was a photo of Spurrier in a group shot with one of his title teams. When someone joked that Spurrier was peering over, Mullen jokingly replied, "He's always looking over my shoulder."
Perhaps. But for many Florida players, Spurrier, 63, is more myth and legend than current topic of conversation. Many in the Gators' freshman class were just learning to walk when Spurrier won his first SEC title in 1991. When he won his last in 2000, redshirt senior offensive lineman Jason Watkins was 15.
"I assume his shadow is (looming) for the older people that have been here forever, like the ancient alumni," Watkins said. "But I think there's just been a big gap now. More people are noticing Urban is here and what he's doing."
That's one of the reasons UF coach Urban Meyer won't specifically address the Spurrier return this year as he's done in the past. "Our players are well aware of it," he said.
As are Meyer and his staff.
"Coach Spurrier is one of the great coaches in all of college football history," Meyer said. "I admire Bo Schembechler, I admire Woody Hayes, I admire winners that do it the right way. So you are darn right that I admire Steve Spurrier. However, he is the head coach of the opposing team and we are going to have a great football game. The great thing about here is that there are no mixed messages, we hit it, we talk about it then we move on. It's a great story line, but in the end we have two good teams playing next Saturday."
In a game with plenty on the line for the Gators, Spurrier has the chance to ruin his former team's season. In Meyer's first season in Gainesville, a loss to Spurrier's Gamecocks at Columbus kept the Gators from going to Atlanta to play for the SEC championship. Florida has secured a trip to the title game this season, but the No. 3 Gators are fighting to remain a factor in the national title chase.
Florida, with the league's best scoring offense, will face a team that is No. 1 in the SEC in total defense, No. 2 in pass defense and No. 3 in scoring defense. Add Spurrier to the mix and you have yourself a rivalry, Meyer said.
"USC is a good team," Meyer said. "It's a team that we have had some great games with them. You can't say it's a rivalry if it is with a bad team. It's a rivalry when they are in your division and you are playing a good team. And South Carolina is a very good team."
With the shadow still present, yet perhaps fading a little further in the background, Spurrier will be solely focused on figuring out ways to defeat the Gators. But don't mistake this for an ordinary trip. Asked if Ben Hill Griffin is now just another SEC stadium, Spurrier replied: "Oh, no."
"It will always be a special place for me," he said.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]