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The old Steve Spurrier is back in business

The Head Ball Coach, still yelling at QBs, will be on the sideline Saturday in his Alliance of American Football debut.
Retirement isn't for the likes of Steve Spurrier, who at age 73 starts yet another stint as a head coach Saturday night. (Courtesy of Orlando Apollos)
Published Feb. 8
Updated Feb. 8

ORLANDO — Jerri Spurrier, still an exercise fiend, still a team mom, had completed another lap around the football field at Camping World Stadium. She stopped to watch her forever boyfriend out there, her husband of 52 years, chattering away as he showed the proper technique for a two-step drop.

“He’s just so happy,” Jerri Spurrier said. “Can’t you just see it?”

Later, the Head Ball Coach sauntered over.

“How are things in Tampa Bay? Got a new coach there,” Spurrier said.

Some young guy named Arians, just 66.

Stephen Orr Spurrier, 73, is back where he belongs, feeling frisky again, as if it was Florida-Florida State week, only he coaches the fledgling Orlando Apollos of the just as fledgling Alliance of American Football (AAFL). Orlando makes its debut Saturday night when it hosts the Atlanta Legends at Spectrum Stadium, UCF’s Bounce House. The irrepressible Spur Dog has a hop in his step, even on a bad knee and coming off back surgery just three months ago.

“Got players, got a chance to build a good team,” Spurrier said. “It’s what I love doing. It’s what I’m used to doing, coming up with plays.”

No, it won’t be like 1990, when Spurrier the Heisman winner was 45 and returned to his alma mater and changed Florida and SEC football with the Fun ‘n’ Gun. And it won’t be 1983, his first head coaching job, when Spurrier and the short-lived Tampa Bay Bandits wowed the equally short-lived USFL. Bandit Ball. Wide open and loads of fun.

But this just as certainly isn’t October 2015, when Spurrier, having given South Carolina much of its football history, stepped away in the middle of his 11th season there, a losing one, tired, wrung out. It wasn’t his finest hour.

“It was my fault. No, it wasn’t the way to go out,” he said.

“His heart wasn’t in it,” Jerri said. “It was awful. You could feel it.”

Now look.

Spurrier doesn’t need money, though Orlando is reportedly paying him $500,000 for this season, his kind of ball season, no recruiting, no drafts, no nothing.

“Five months,” Spurrier said. “It’s perfect for me.”

Will we see the Steve Spurrier who yells at refs and, well, everyone else with the Apollos? (Times file)

He and his wife and his staff and his players are temporarily encamped at a hotel in downtown Orlando. In the middle of the night, Jerri will look over and see her husband drawing up plays, enough for 10 offenses. He’s happy again. He is still an ambassador at Florida, making speeches and appearances, guest lecturing in a sport management class on leadership, which he dubbed “Winners and Losers.”

But this winner got that itch and had to scratch it. And we’re better for it.

“This is a new lease on life for him,” said Tim Ruskell, Orlando’s general manager and a former longtime Bucs personnel director and NFL GM. Ruskell was a student at USF in 1976 when he caught on with the Bucs as a flunky. One of his jobs was warming up the starting quarterback: Spurrier.

“That’s how our friendship began,” said Ruskell, who later was a Bandits scouting director. “Steve is very loyal.”

You can see it with Spurrier’s staff, people he goes back with, not to mention his son, Scott, who is Orlando’s tight ends coach. It’s still all about the HBC.

“The Dog is back,” Ruskell said. “He’s re-energized for sure. The passion deal. Not letting other people do the plays. He’s on it.”

“He’s always coming up to us when we’re eating, saying he has a new ball play,” said former Florida quarterback Austin Appleby, now on Orlando’s roster. He played for Jim McElwain as a Gator. Lucky him. Appleby, who has worked out for NFL teams, says working for Spurrier, however long it lasts, borders on bucket list.

“He coaches differently than anyone I ever played for,” Appleby said. “Most head coaches, they’re CEOs. You see them at team meeting and that’s about it. But he’s the offensive coordinator. He’s calling the plays. He’s doing the game plan. He’s the quarterbacks coach. He’s telling us where to throw it. And if it’s not going to the right place, he’s the one who rips you. He’s relentless.”

Spurrier and Jerri, who have 14 grandchildren, could be at their beach condo, or off seeing the world.

“That’s so boring,” Jerri said. “We don’t want to do that. This is the life, the anticipation of the games, watching kids grow. We missed this. I did, he did. I knew it when I saw him starting to scream at the quarterbacks. I went up to one of them and I told him, ‘Now you know who he is.’”

Will Steve Spurrier's time in the Alliance of American Football be reminiscent of Bandit Ball? (Times file, 1983)

It’s easy to conjure thoughts of Bandit Ball, Part II. New league, new team. Spurrier loves Bandit Ball to this day. It was his working lab No money, great memories. He and Jerri loved Tampa. The days weren’t long enough. It looked like it would never end, but it did, partly done in by a New Jersey franchise owner who lobbied the 12-team spring league to go head-to-head with the NFL, all the while trying back-door leverage to secure an NFL franchise for himself. It helped torpedo the USFL. He was dubbed a “con man” by Bandits owner John Bassett. Long after the USFL dissolved, the con man managed to find work: 45th President of the United States.

“We didn’t know Trump was going to screw it up,” Jerri said.

Oh, that first game in 1983, people in the stands at Tampa Stadium. Spurrier’s team came out in a no-huddle offense. Early Dog.

“Tampa Bay Bandits vs. Boston Breakers,” Spurrier said. “We won 21-17. In the fourth quarter, we had a fourth and (inches) at midfield and we went for it, we ran up the middle. The other team was offsides. Then we took a knee then to win the game. Somebody asked me, ‘Wasn’t the dangerous?’ I told him that’s not dangerous. But that was considered risky back then.”

The Bandits never won a championship.

“Nah, we pooped out. We had some injuries. Our second year was our best year. We went 14-4. John Reaves threw for over 4,000 (yards). Gary Anderson and Greg Boone, we had two 1,000-yard rushers. That was the first offense to do that — 4,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard rushers.”

Now what? Has the game passed Spurrier by? On the contrary. The UF ambassador would saunter down to the football offices to watch video cut-ups from Gators practices and games.

“Sometimes even those NFL teams don’t look too good on offense,” Spurrier said. “Even in the Super Bowl they struggled. Hopefully we can score some points. People still like to see that, So, we’ll throw it around. Scoring points and playing an exciting brand of ball is what will really help.”

The new nickname?

“Apollo Ball, I guess,” Spurrier chirped.

“To have an opportunity like this in life at our age, it just doesn’t happen,” Jerri said. “Just watch him out there, in the middle of everything again. It’s never boring.

“When is Steve ever going to be boring?”

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

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