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Spurrier off to fast start in new AAF

The former Gators coach doesn’t miss a beat in Orlando team’s opener
Orlando Apollos coach Steve Spurrier acknowledges fans in the stands after the team's Alliance of American Football game against the Atlanta Legends on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Published Feb. 11
Updated Feb. 11

ORLANDO — History will note that the first touchdown in the history of the spanking new eight-team Alliance of American Football was scored Saturday night by the Orlando Apollos at Spectrum Stadium on a play designed and called by … Steve Spurrier.

Spurrier, the Orlando coach, had another one for you as he walked from the turf on the UCF campus in a steady rain after Orlando’s 40-6 win over the Atlanta Legends.

“6-0 in openers,” Spurrier said.

He was right. Tampa Bay Bandits, Duke Blue Devils, Florida Gators, even Washington in the NFL, South Carolina, and now Orlando. Leave it to Spurrier to know that, and for wanting us to know it, too. And one more thing.

“Had some fun out there,” the 73-year-old coach said.

RELATED STORY: D’Ernest Johnson, other locals shine in Orlando Apollos triumph

The AAF’s opening night, while it was watched by only 20,191 soggy, chilly fans in Orlando, was, well, watchable.

“It’s a little unusual when you go out there for the opening kickoff and there is no opening kickoff,” Atlanta coach Kevin Coyle said.

The tempo was fast. The TV timeouts didn’t last long. The whole affair was over in less than three hours. I didn’t mind the AAF’s new rules. The absence of kickoffs didn’t bother anyone. Limiting the number of defensive pass rushers to five helped protect mayhem against quarterbacks, though Orlando still managed some.

I liked that teams are forced to go for two-point conversions every time they score a touchdown, something Spurrier once might have dreamed of while he was at Florida (Orlando went 2-for-5 Saturday). In a league filled with players not ready for the NFL but with the league’s blessing nonetheless, the AAF is off to a decent start. Social media liked it. People enjoyed themselves, including Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, who was in attendance.

“I was riding down in the elevator and he told me, ‘Wow, Coach, this is really cool,’ ” said former NFL coach Jeff Fisher, now an AAF executive.

There wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t realize this was not the NFL. I didn’t need to see Winston to be reminded. But there was something there Saturday.

Fisher said. “You saw pace, you saw tempo. I couldn’t help but watch the fans. Where are the commercial breaks? All of a sudden there’s a score, and bang, here they go again. I don’t think we missed the kickoffs, and the two-point conversions were exciting plays.”

And Spurrier wasn’t about to disappoint anyone and start slowly. On the game’s first play, he let everyone know he was back. Orlando’s offense ran onto the field to the 25-yard line, no kickoff, and Apollos quarterback Garrett Gilbert followed orders.

“We could have scored the first play of the game. We were going for it,” Spurrier said. “Garrett chucked it down there about 50 yards. Didn’t hit it, but we scared them a little bit, anyway.”

“We certainly were trying to start it with a bang,” Gilbert said.

Orlando went three and out on its first series, all incompletions. After one quarter, Atlanta led 3-0. What do you know, we went to the beginning of a daring new league and the Super Bowl broke out. Spurrier did not throw his visor. He wasn’t wearing one. He wore a baseball cap.

“Rain was predicted,” he said. “That dang hat, every time I took the headset off, it clipped the hat over. So I’ll get the visor, even if there’s threat of rain next time.”

But his ball team warmed up. Gilbert threw for 229 yards and two scores, one a 33-yarder to former USF player D’Ernest Johnson. But when Spurrier really got it cooking was for touchdown No. 4, a double-reverse throwback to Gilbert for 5 yards and his first TD reception, just like Spurrier’s days at South Carolina.

“Bruce Ellington threw it back to Connor Shaw in the Capital One Bowl over at Camping World (Stadium in Orlando) back in 2013,” Spurrier said.

The man remembers everything.

I’m not sure who’ll remember Saturday’s opener or how many people will show up the next time the Apollos have a home game. But a new spring league is here, the AAF, with the NFL’s blessing. It might not last, but it’s trying. For openers, the Head Ball Coach and his team went for it.

“I think the rain deterred the crowd a little bit,” Spurrier said. “But I think the fans had a good time after the first quarter or so. We put on a little bit of a show. We’re trying to be Orlando’s, Central Florida’s team, which we are, and hopefully we can earn our way with the fans that they may want to come out and pack this thing before it’s done.”

However, it should be said that near the end of the game, Steve Spurrier settled for, yes, a field goal. Hey, so there are a few kinks that need to be worked out.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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