Steve Spurrier quotes Benjamin Franklin. He references Aristotle. He casually brings up the writings of ancient military strategist Sun Tzu.
nullAnd Spurrier doesn’t like using the word “never.” He hesitates to finish a sentence that starts with that kind of absolute. He doesn’t believe things really work that way.
“Winners never — I know most people would tell you they never quit,” Spurrier said. (That’s when Sun Tzu’s ancient military text The Art of War collides with football strategy.) “Sometimes it is smart to retreat when it’s obviously lost.”
In other words, live to fight another day. And never say never.
Spurrier is a thinker. He takes a thoughtful, philosophical approach to coaching that served him well during his nearly 40 years as a college and pro football coach. During that time, Spurrier developed a simple strategy for winning games: Teach your players well, then get out of the way and let them play.
“I just think coaches should allow your players to go play the game,” he said. “And play smart, but if you think you can make a play, go do it.”
In other words: “The players win the game. They do the performance part.”
Spurrier, who retired as head football coach at the University of South Carolina in 2015, said he made a point not to criticize players for failing to make a play — even if it wasn’t a play he called. In fact, he was careful about how much criticism he handed out overall.
“Coaching is a little bit of criticism but also praise,” he said. “Criticism, praise. You balance it. Hopefully I did a little more praising than I did criticizing.”
But that doesn’t mean he was a softie, either. When asked how he thinks his former players would describe him as a coach, he gives a balanced answer.
“I think the first thing hopefully they would say is he made it fun, but he was demanding,” Spurrier said.
He still keeps in touch with many of his former players — which he jokes was one of his goals all along.
“I always used to tell our guys, the plan is twenty years from now, you’ll be in a position to give some money back to your university, have a wife and kids, and want to hang out with your former coach,” he said.
nullSpurrier now serves as an ambassador for the University of Florida's athletic department, where he previously played and coached. He agreed to talk with us as part of the Amway Coaches Poll Inspired Coaches series because he believes mentorship can make a huge difference in both sports and business.
“A great mentor always should lead by example,” Spurrier said. “Words are pretty cheap in life, as we all know. So try to live the life you would like maybe for your players to live also.”
And he said coaches shouldn’t stop trying to learn and improve, just like players.
“In sports, you’re always trying to get better,” Spurrier said. “There’s a saying, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.”
Spurrier said strong leadership is key to success in any endeavor, whether it’s on the field or in the office. And he thinks strong leaders have to study and work on their mentorship skills.
“They leader has to be a guy that everyone trusts and believes in,” Spurrier said. “To be a leader, you have to earn it.”
And that includes taking the blame when things don’t go well.
Spurrier’s memory seems to work like instant replay, recalling football games that happened years ago in vivid detail. Even the games that didn’t end the way he wanted.
“When you lose a close one or a tough one, I believe the coach has to say, ‘I messed up a little bit,’” he said. “I used to sometimes sort of say, we all were pretty bad. We coached poorly and the players maybe did not play their best. But I think sometimes the coach has to say, ‘I messed up.’”
Spurrier said he feels lucky to have had a career as a football coach. After he retired from playing professional football, he wasn’t sure what to do next. But he jokes that his wife was urging him to get a job, so he did.
“I was watching the Gators play and I thought, man, if I could get into coaching it would be fun,” he recalled. “It wouldn’t seem like work.”
Even now, he marvels at how it all came together. He said he feels fortunate.
“I’m not even a person who is supposed to be a coach,” he said.
Maybe that’s why his coaching style is a little more thoughtful and laid-back then what you might typically see on the field.
“Hopefully I’m the kind of coach that tries to instill confidence in the players,” he said.
But he’s quick to point out that confidence doesn’t translate to cockiness. He tells players that no matter how far ahead they are, they can’t relax. They can’t get cocky.
“It’s human nature to relax,” Spurrier said. “And you have to mentally just tell yourself, we can still lose this came. I’m a big believer, no matter how you play, your players need to know they can lose.”
And if you don’t believe Spurrier, maybe you’ll believe Benjamin Franklin.
“You can’t get full of yourself,” Spurrier said. “That’s human nature. Success has ruined many a man, Benjamin Franklin said one time.”