The details have dimmed with time, but South Carolina’s all-time winningest quarterback still remembers the night of January 1, 1997. He was five years old, Georgia-born and football-mad, a coach’s son with a growing appetite for the game.
He gathered that night in his family’s living room, Dad and older brother beside him, to watch the Nokia Sugar Bowl between #3 Florida and #1 Florida State in New Orleans. The Gators lost to the Seminoles in the final game of the regular season, but a loss earlier in the day by #2 Arizona State in the Rose Bowl suddenly gave Florida a shot at its first national title.
For four quarters, he sat mesmerized as Florida blazed contrails behind a helpless Florida State defense. Quarterback Danny Wuerffel, the newly crowned Heisman Trophy winner, picked apart the Seminoles secondary. Wideouts Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony flew past cornerbacks. The field seemed wider, the running lanes bigger and the Superdome Astroturf faster whenever the Gators had the ball. The game began as a rematch and ended as a rout. Florida beat Florida State 52-20, clinching its first-ever national championship.
“They just beat the heck out of us in every part of football,” FSU head coach Bobby Bowden told the ABC cameras afterwards. He looked into the distance as he spoke, tugging at the brim of his cap, as if he had just stepped out to survey the damage from a summer storm.
The game may not have started the boy’s allegiance to Florida, but it certainly cemented it.
“I grew up in [Georgia] Bulldog country, and I guess I just wanted to be different,” he said years later. “So I went with the Gators.”
A smile forced its way from the corner of his mouth, his lip fighting a losing battle with discretion.
“I just love pissing people off,” he added.
His bedroom walls were painted Gator blue and orange just to hammer home the point. But there was another, more pertinent reason why the boy was drawn to Florida. He was there on the TV screen, jogging toward midfield, orange polo shirt sodden from a post-game Gatorade bath. The mastermind of this high-powered offense that averaged 46 points per game and just delivered a clinic against its bitter rival. The Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who turned the simple notion of “pitchin’ and catchin’” into a ruthless, marauding force that no defense in 1996 could stop.
“Swanny, God is smiling on the Gators, no question about it,” he told ABC sideline reporter Lynn Swann.
Some kids root for a school because of its mascot. Some root for a team because they mimicked the star player in their backyard. Others have allegiance born into them by their parents.
Isn’t it fitting that a coach’s son would root for a team because of its head coach?
Then again, how could a future quarterback not be smitten by that man in the visor? His offense was all swagger, and id, and unapologetic scoring. To a five year-old, it must have looked like a video game sprung to life. Even its nickname – the “Fun N’ Gun” – sounded exciting. And the conductor of that offense, the brains behind the blowouts, was as much a star as his own players.
It was love at first smirk.
His appeal may have had a touch of the subliminal, too. The Florida coach carried himself with an unmistakable air of confidence - arrogance, his critics might say. He knew his opponents were beaten before they did (and often, he was right). Coach’s sons tend to have a more sophisticated grasp of the game than their peers. They’re smarter, more skilled, and not shy about showing it. Perhaps in the coach, the boy saw a little bit of his future self.
His childhood had all the familiar tableaus of a coach’s son. His Dad signed him up for his first team, the White County Warriors, the fall after that Florida Sugar Bowl victory. He and his older brother were ball boys for their Dad’s high school teams.
“When he was coaching, I was watching,” he recalls.
His Dad – a former quarterback in college, #14 at Western Carolina – groomed his sons for the position early. They played on the same youth teams together, even though it meant playing against kids two years his senior.
Their family moved to Flowery Branch, a suburb of Atlanta, when he was in middle school. His Dad had just taken the head coaching job at the district’s new high school. Their house was blocks from the Atlanta Falcons’ training complex. Watching training camp and scavenging for players’ autographs became a summertime tradition.
The Ball Coach also moved, leaving his empire in Gainesville for a shot in the NFL with Washington. Three years later he took the head coaching job at South Carolina, tasked with turning a downtrodden program into a contender like he did with Florida. The boy tracked his career at every step, still fascinated by his offensive schemes. His own football education, growing more advanced by the year, only deepened his admiration for him.
He entered high school the following fall, in 2006. He threw a touchdown on his first career pass attempt, coming on in relief of the starter, his brother. The boy soon developed into a college prospect of his own: 6’2,” with a solid arm, good legs, and a coach’s son’s poise. In his junior year, his first full season as a starter, he threw for 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns and led Flowery Branch High School to the state championship game. He wore number 14, the same as his Dad. Scholarship offers poured in. College assistants started visiting him and his Dad at school, one after another, until that day when…
Let’s let South Carolina’s all-time winningest quarterback finish the story.
“I got called down to my Dad’s office. He let me know the day before that Coach Mangus [South Carolina quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus] was going to come in. I’ve known him since he was recruiting my brother. But I came down, and Coach Spurrier was there. That was my first time meeting Coach Spurrier. I idolized him growing up. So my jaw just kind of dropped. I remember him saying, ‘I understand you were a Florida fan.’”
Connor Shaw, the man who’d become South Carolina’s most decorated quarterback, already knew his answer.
“I said, ‘No sir. I was a Coach Spurrier fan.”