I am a Florida fan who was born in 1985. Though I have no memory of it, the first Gator football game I attended was the team's 38-28 win over Kentucky in 1989. I still have the ticket stub. I can lay claim to having been there before the Steve Spurrier era began.
Being able to say I was there for Gary Darnell's interim tenure doesn't mean much, though. The Spurrier era is how I grew up as a fan. It didn't define Florida football for me; it defined football itself.
When you're a young kid, you don't tend to follow much more than your own team. I can remember a time when I had no idea where Ole Miss or Auburn were because they didn't have a state in their names. Around the same time, I can remember thinking that quarterbacks don't run. Not that they choose not to, but that they were incapable of it. I thought that quarterback was the position you chose if you literally could not run and weren't big enough to be a lineman. If all you had watched was Shane Matthews and Terry Dean, you'd have thought the same thing.
I knew better by the time the 1996 Fiesta Bowl rolled around, but that epic beatdown at the hands of Tommie Frazier and Nebraska made me hate option football. It was unnatural. The quarterback's job was to throw it for a guy to catch it. That's what football was supposed to be. I actually had some misgivings when the Urban Meyer hire came down nearly a decade later because he would ask his Gator quarterbacks to run.
I grew to appreciate both the spread and the option in the Meyer era, and the less said about Florida's offense under Will Muschamp, the better. The first few games under Jim McElwain have felt very comfortable, though. He's not running Ralph/Lonnie or Mills, but his offense is closer in spirit and in visuals to the Fun 'n Gun than the proto-spreads of the Ron Zook years, Meyer's spread option, or the hodgepodge of schemes under Muschamp. For someone raised on Spurrier football, this has been a return to form.
Of course, there is more to Spurrier football than just playing pitch and catch. His renaissance at South Carolina came as much from hiring Shawn Elliott to install a spread running attack in the Rich Rodriguez vein as any other single event. What makes him so different is that there is such a great contrast contained within one man.
Everyone knows he is as competitive as people get. He wanted to beat you, and if he put in his backups because he was up by a lot, he wasn't going to tell them to try not to score. He'd do anything it took to defeat his opponents, especially if their names were Bobby Bowden, Bill Curry, Phillip Fulmer, or anyone related to Georgia or Clemson. In Florida's only trip to Athens since 1932, he made a point to become the first visitor to hang half a hundred on them. He hasn't tried to run his beloved Fun 'n Gun in a long time, and as I just mentioned, he hired someone off of Appalachian State's three-time I-AA championship staff to fix his aging offense. Winning was more important to him than winning in a particular kind of way. And of course, he always had something to say after doing so.
At the same time, he did things that suggested he wasn't doing everything he could to win games. His love affair with the game of golf is well documented. He was never the most diligent recruiter, with FSU taking more of Florida's top talent in the '90s and his best years at South Carolina coinciding with several years where the state just happened to produce a bunch of great players in his backyard. Everyone knows he never won in Tallahassee while at UF, but he never won in Starkville either because he'd sometimes pick up losses to inferior teams. He draws a tougher line on player discipline than many other coaches do, and the closest thing to an NCAA scandal under his watch wasn't due to skirting rules to get a competitive advantage but rather just not paying close enough attention to non-football things around his program.
Even if in a small way, everything I see in football gets at least a little filtered through the lens of Spurrier football in the '90s. When someone throws it deep on the first play after a turnover, that's just like Steve. When I see a failed red zone fade route, I don't think "ban the fade!" as so many do these days. I think the coach just didn't teach it as well as Steve did. If towards the end of a blowout win a coach puts in a backup quarterback to hand off 12 times for every pass, I feel bad for that quarterback.
I hope Spurrier has a long and happy retirement. I don't expect him to become some universally loved grand old man of the game, as even during the glory days in Gainesville, I knew Florida fans who didn't like him because of his attitude. But me? I can't help but like the man for all the good and bad alike that made him the unforgettable person he is.
I am, and will always be, a fan of Steve Spurrier. Godspeed, coach.