College Football

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gators After Marshall

Sometimes it’s hard to gauge how good a top-flight college team is based on their early season games. Florida is particularly difficult to get a handle on because Head Coach Steve Spurrier can change his mind on a whim and shut his team down or run the score up at will.

Against Marshall, it was obvious Spurrier didn’t want to run it up against his former defensive coordinator Bobby Pruett but at the same time, Steve wanted to get his starters plenty of work in front of more than 85,000. Against overmatched teams, Florida occasionally gets a lead and loses interest. The number of athletes Florida can put on the field, especially when it comes to pure speed overmatched Marshall, despite their reputation as a solid opening opponent.

Still, Florida is the number one ranked team in the country, but are they the best? Hard to tell.

Spurrier was complimentary of Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin, and gave the game ball to receivers coach Dwayne Dixon because he thought the receivers played well. “It was a good pitch and catch game for us,” said the Head Ball Coach.

Steve has said he’d like to see his team run the ball better, and while he thought they accomplished that, it was clear he was more interested in getting the ball in the end zone than something as hackneyed as “establishing the run.” “We just don’t,” Spurrier started before his voice trailed off, “I don’t know, those running teams, it’s just hard to score a lot of points if you’re running it all the time.” Pretty obvious Steve wants to see the ball in the air and subsequently in the end zone.

Seeing Florida in person, they look pretty impressive. Standing on the sideline, the Gators look a little bigger across the offensive line and as fast as ever in the skill positions. They could run it if they wanted with Ernest Graham and Robert Gillespie carrying the load, but that’s not what Spurrier wants to do. The schedule favors Florida as well, getting Tennessee and Florida State at home.

They’ll have to stay healthy, and pay attention on the road, especially at South Carolina. If all that comes together, from what they showed against the Thundering Herd, the Rose Bowl is not that big of a reach for the Orange and Blue.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Charley Pell

I wanted to wait a few days before writing about Charley Pell. Sometimes when people die, everybody’s coming out of the woodwork to say something about that person, good or bad.

I first met Charley in 1978 in a back stairwell in Charleston, South Carolina. He was just getting his feet wet as the Head Coach at Clemson, I was a new reporter. I waited for him after a Tiger booster club speech. He had seen me before the meeting, and knew I’d been waiting.

“You’re a hell of a man,” Pell said as he slapped me on the shoulder. At the time it seemed to me like something he said a lot. But it wasn’t offensive. There was a certain appeal to Pell, he had charisma in a very “old school” way.

He was one of the original throwbacks. A man’s man. He even smoked like that, with a determination that he was going to get the best out of this cigarette, consequences be damned. He talked about his players as “that ‘ole boy” naming their “momma’s and daddy’s” and referred to their hometowns and their high school coaches like old friends. When he spoke, he always acted as if he was letting you in on a secret.

I don’t know if I broke the story or not, but I was one of the first to report Charley was headed to Florida. His friends confirmed it for me, saying Pell thought it was the quickest way back to Alabama. Not a lot is ever made about Pell’s similarity to Bear Bryant, but everything about him said “The Bear.”

He referred to himself in conversation as “we.” He had a self-depreciating style and created a very tight inner circle. He never thought of himself as smart, so he made up for it with dedication, hard work and loyalty. If you were inside, you were set, if you were outside, somehow you were always the enemy. Charley followed Bear’s rules, but they changed the rules along the way, and it got him, and the Gators into trouble.

I helped Charley in some of his early private business ventures, and we played golf a few times while he lived here in town. I went to see him in the hospital the night he tried to kill himself, only to be turned away because security recognized me as media, and not somebody who knew Charley and wanted to help.

As the years passed, I was saddened by the fact that nobody would let Pell do what he wanted to do: coach. Charley was really wrong in how he went about things at Florida, but in a way, he didn’t see it as wrong. It was just how things were done. He was just 20 years too late, because they changed the rules.

Pell’s accusers never saw it as wrong to effectively end his career, and in a way, his life as he wanted it. It was a feeding frenzy when the NCAA sanctions came out. Both in Gainesville and Birmingham, where the sanctions were announced, the media had its hands on a juicy story and wasn’t letting go. For many reporters, it was their first post-Watergate experience, and they were going to prove themselves worthy of it.

Charley’s legacy as a coach is one of success and shame, the person who laid the groundwork for the current Gator success, but branded them as a renegade program for years. He galvanized the alumni, raised money, got the football team out of debt and created an esprit de corps among Gator fans never seen before. He banished the old “wait ‘till next year” philosophy, trading it for winning now. If he seems like much more of a sympathetic figure now, he should be. He wasn’t defiant in the end, admitting wrong doing, but saying taking all of the blame was his biggest mistake.

When he was alive, there was never any public forgiveness, no public acknowledgement of the positive things he accomplished, the people’s lives he touched. Now that he’s gone, I don’t think it’s too late.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Bowl Delay

I saw three bowl games in three days this year. The Gator, Sugar, and Orange Bowls were on concecutive days with local interest, so we put together a plan to cover all three.

A couple things were obvious: Michael Vick and Santana Moss were the best players on their respective fields, and none of the 6 teams were playing anywhere near their peak performances during the regular season. Yes Virginia Tech was the better team, but Clemson didn’t play anywhere near what they’re capable of. Would Tommy Bowden have replaced Woodrow Dantzler at quarterback during a regular season game? I don’t think so. The bowl mentality, the finality of the last game of the year sneaks into every coach’s head and lets him make moves like that. The whole Clemson team seemed overwhelmed at first but they certainly a better team than what they showed.

Vick was totally in control while he was in the game. No wonder he’s now hedged on coming back to the Hokies. What is he going to accomplish? He’ll win the Heisman Trophy, but look at the lack of respect Virginia Tech got from the pollsters and the BCS. Can they win the national championship without some kind of publicity push? They finished 11-1, lost to Miami on the road without Vick in the lineup and

didn’t get much of a whiff from the BCS. Vick’s only concern a bout coming out early is what team would draft him. If he’s projected as the top pick, he said he’d more than likely make himself eligible for the NFL, but he’s told friends his main concern is not wanting to play for San Diego. If the Chargers would be willing to trade the pick to somebody Vick wants to play for, there’s a better possibility he’ll being playing for pay next year.

I was amazed at the lack of attention the Sugar Bowl got in its home town of New Orleans. Even the sports writers admitted they were glad the game was in town, hoped people spent a lot of money in the Crescent City, had a great time and left. They were interested in the Saints, the playoff run, Ricky Williams, and that’s it. The Sugar Bowl was a complete afterthought, and the attendance was proof. Nobody was there! The complete upper deck seemed empty. I know the Hurricanes are notorious for not traveling with their team, but this was silly. Miami was trying to lay claim to half of the national title, and none of their fans seemed to care. Or at least travel.

The Gators had every opportunity to win the Sugar Bowl, but when you can’t execute the offense, especially when the plays are there for the taking. Rex Grossman missed wide open receivers, didn’t see guys running free and just didn’t play well. It’s not that Miami did a lot of things that forced Florida into mistakes, it’s just the Gators didn’t play anywhere near their regular season/SEC Championship level.

Steve Spurrier was not happy. In fact, it was as mad as I’ve seen him in a while. Spurrier isn’t one to run around a yell after the game, he’s already thinking about changes. Don’t be surprised by anything he does.

In South Florida, the Orange Bowl was also taking a back seat to the NFL, and the Sugar Bowl. The regular haunts were crowded with people in for the “season” and the Oklahoma and Florida State visitors got swallowed up with the crowd.

In fact, the Orange Bowl was the third game in seven days to be played at Pro Player Stadium. The turf showed it too, coming up in clumps around midfield.

Oklahoma had the perfect game plan, offensively, defensively and special teams wise. They had just the right amount of “wrinkles” they hadn’t shown during the regular season, but they stuck with a ball control type of offense that chewed up the clock, keep FSU off the field, and produced a few points.

Good planning by Bob Stoops. It was obvious he out-coached Bobby Bowden. When I began to ask Bowden about that after the game, he stopped me, and agreed, “I was thinking about that on the sidelines,” the Head Seminole said. “They had a few wrinkles, and I didn’t have one to go to. If I had a chance to prepare for this game again, I’d do it differently.”

Bowden also admitted he would have treated the Mark Richt situation differently. “We thought we could just line up, play our own offense, run better routes that they couldn’t cover and we’d win. We were wrong, they were a lot better than we thought.”

Bowden’s comment about “maybe the wrong team was here,” was part of a more complete sentence that ended with, “but maybe it’s Oklahoma, maybe they’d have made Miami look like we did.” Most media outlets only reported the first half of the comment. Bowden was disappointed, but more with himself and how he failed to prepare the team for a game against Oklahoma with the National Title on the line.

Throughout the entire game, you thought the FSU offense was going to explode, but they never did, partially because the Sooners had a good scheme, and partially because FSU never did anything different. Same stuff, same “I” formation, nothing fancy, no “wrinkles.”

After the three games were over, I was disappointed as an “observer” of college football, because I thought the teams and the fans were cheated. Cheated out of seeing teams playing at their best. Outcomes notwithstanding, it’s a shame FSU and Oklahoma couldn’t have played sometime in early December. Same for Florida and Miami, and Clemson and Va. Tech. The games would have meant the same, they just would have been better played.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

BCS Blunder

If there’s one thing I don’t like about the BCS, it’s the self-serving attitude of the inventors.

“Oh, it’s just what college football fans want,” they say.
“A true national championship game,” they gush.
“They’re full of it,” I answer.

The BCS is not what college football fans want. They want to see fairness, they want to see competition, and they want to see a playoff. Why is it every other NCAA sport is decided by a playoff, but the biggest one of them all comes down to a . . . vote?

“It really keeps people talking about college football,” they opine. Sure, if you want people talking about how stupid the system is.

This year, hopefully, the BCS will raise enough of the ire of fans that when the contracts run out in 2006, hopefully it will go away.

Computer rankings have Oklahoma #1 followed by Florida State, Miami, Washington and the rest. How do they get those computer rankings? Actually, parts of it are kept a secret, (you know, the intrigue keeps people talking about college football, that’s brilliant) and they throw in record, strength of schedule, eye of newt and love potion #9, plus a compilation of the voters polls.

Hmmm, the voters have a say. Interesting.

Coaches who either let their Sports Information Directors do the voting or vote their opponents higher than they should be in order to make themselves look better if they happen to beat that higher ranked team. The coaches poll has always been known as the poll of deceit. The writers poll is equally flawed, known affectionately as the poll of ignorance. Writers don’t see more than two or three teams in the poll in a season, and these days are influenced by whatever some editor of the nightly cable highlight show decides to air that evening. They can vote, but not about college football.

There are ways to determine a national champion on the field, include the bowls and make money. The problem is, for some conference commissioners, not enough money. The NCAA oversees the college basketball tournament, paying out money to each member team, and additional money to the teams in the tournament. The farther they go in the tournament, the more money the school makes. Sounds like a good plan. Except when you look at the big conferences in college football and their relationship with the bowls.

The money paid out by the bowl games goes to the conferences, and on to the individual schools. A conference without a bowl team (Patriot), gets nothing. A conference with six bowl teams (SEC), gets plenty. Need your 6th place team in a bowl? Fine, invent the Music City Bowl. Split the money up, reward the teams actually in the bowls with a little extra, and move on. Keep those other schools down for fear they might actually be competitive some day.

A playoff with 8 or 16 teams would be easy. Some schools might get left out of the season-ending tournament, but that happens every year in basketball. Let the conference champions in automatically, making the regular season important. Figure out a wild card formula, play it over four weekends and you’re finished by the second week of January, at the latest.

Just think, at this rate, Florida State will be off for 6 weeks before playing for the national championship. Will they be “game sharp?” Of course not. Whoever their opponent is will have a month off as well.

By the time the BCS bowls roll around, just about everybody’s forgotten who’s playing where, except in the game to decide the national championship. It has made the other bowls meaningless, and actually demeans their regular season effort.

“Oh, you’re playing in the Fiesta Bowl, great, is that before or after the Orange Bowl?”

It doesn’t matter to me whether Oklahoma, Florida State, Miami, or Washington get to play in the big game. They all should be playing in a big game at the end of the year. A game that means something to them. A game their fans will be excited about. A game where there’s something on the line.

Like a playoff game.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Spurrier “Genius”

Gainesville –
“We need to not be such loudmouths” was Steve Spurrier’s advice to his team when asked what they’d have to do to get better in the future. That’s one of my favorite things about Spurrier, his honesty. Whether assessing his team’s play, or a players’ ability, Spurrier is honest, sometimes brutally so. “We’ll give another guy a chance,” is Spurrier’s often heard way of making a personnel substitution.

There are a lot of things Spurrier does better than anybody, but his ability to figure out who can play and who can’t is unparalleled. He can do it, and sometimes coldly make a change to upgrade his team. He brought that kind of honesty from the pros, from his days as a player in the NFL and a coach in the USFL. Get the best guys in there no matter what.

He’s revolutionized the way football is played in the Southeastern Conference. He’s influenced offensive attacks on college campuses around the country. He calls it “pitch and catch,” but it’s much more than that. It’s a clear understanding of where everybody will be when a play is called. Ever see Spurrier lean over to a backup quarterback on the sideline and point out just where the open receiver will be, only to see that backup quarterback in the game on the next play throwing a touchdown pass to that open receiver? Last year he even was reading defenses while Doug Johnson was standing at the line of scrimmage. Who else does that?

Steve said one of his highest compliments came from Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. “You coach your football team just like a basketball coach,” Krzyzewski said. “You’re involved.” He’s right. All the way down to the visor throwing, neck-vein popping sideline gyrations, Spurrier is involved. That’s why so many guys want to play for him. They want to know the guy on the sidelines is giving it as much as they are. No question Spurrier is doing that.

He’s one of the most competitive guys you’ll ever meet. So much so, he’ll grind, even if he’s losing, until he comes out a winner. Even if it’s in his own mind. But remember, this is somebody who has never met with anything but success in his whole life. Even the thing that didn’t go right for him, playing professional football, he admits was probably his own fault. Now that’s honest.

I was standing outside the stadium after a game once, and an elderly gentleman walked by and starting chatting about the game. I said, “boy, Steve was into it tonight.” “Always been that way,” replied Graham Spurrier, Steve’s dad. “Ever since he was a boy, hated to lose, wouldn’t accept it no matter what it was.”

I like that about Steve. I don’t like passive acceptance. I like the active pursuit of being the best. He’s straightforward with his players. No gray area here. When two players got into a scuffle in New Orleans before a Sugar Bowl game, they were on the plane home before the media even heard about it. He scared Fred Taylor so bad the third time the former Gator running back got into trouble, Taylor stayed clear of “the dark side” for the rest of his college career.

I’ve spent time with Spurrier away from football and you find out quickly he doesn’t like to waste time. He wants to get things done. He doesn’t want to sit around a talk about trivial stuff.

A couple of years ago at a regular Tuesday press conference, Spurrier was asked about a big purple and black thing on the back of his hand. “Aw, my son Scotty put that tattoo on me and I just left it there for him,” was Steve’s explanation. That’s not what most people want to think about Steve. They’d rather he be the “evil genius” all the time. The object of their hate.

And he doesn’t mind that. Takes the heat off his players. The venomous things heard on the radio in opposing SEC cities would make a sailor blush. Spurrier lets it roll off his back as part of the game. I’ll bet most of them wouldn’t believe it if they were told he gave his number out to a defensive player when he returned as the head coach of Florida. You know, the number he wore while winning the Heisman Trophy? The accomplishment he refused to have acknowledged next to Danny Wuerffel’s at The Swamp. That would surprise some people.

He’s perhaps the best kind of personality to have in a coach: one his fans love and his opponents hate. Many times because he’s not their coach. Who did CBS track down at halftime and following the Tennessee game? Not Phil Fulmer, they wanted to hear what Spurrier had to say, even though his team was getting pushed around and they were losing at halftime.

Not to say he’s right all the time. He’s straight up when talking about most opponents, but whines a bit when Florida State is mentioned. (By the way, he NEVER calls them Florida State. It’s either “FSU” or the “semi’s”) I thought it was really wrong to call that flea-flicker in Athens when they were already whacking Georgia. But you know what? Gator fans loved it! Wanted him to do it again!

I’ve spent some social time with Spurrier, played some golf with him as well and he’s the same: no nonsense and willing to engage in “needling” and gamesmanship with the best of them. In fact, he is the best of them.

I did notice a little less joy last year and I think he did too. That’s why he addressed it right away this season. No sitting around crying over spilled milk for Spurrier.

“We’re going to have some fun,” he said. “Find that medium between serious and casual and we’ll play better. Especially at home.”

Several NFL teams have thrown all kinds of money and power in his face, trying to lure him to the professional game. Some owners are astonished he hasn’t jumped at one of the offers. “I guess I’m just a college coach,” he told me after turning down the Bucs latest offer. Maybe so, but if the right situation came up, I think he’d take the Jacksonville Jaguars job. It seems like the right and only fit for him in the NFL.

College or pro, Steve Spurrier will remain one of the most dynamic personalities in all of sports, not because he wants to be, but because of who he is. I hope he never changes.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Easy Winner, Bobby Bowden

Every time I see him he calls me boy. He calls everybody “boy.”

“Hey boy, it’s good to see you,” is how Bobby Bowden greeted me Saturday night after his FSU Seminoles dismantled an overmatched BYU team. It’s a comfortable sound, hearing Bowden’s voice call after you like a long lost friend. Bowden probably knows most of the names, but it is his nature to be homey, comfortable and friendly.

Detractors (Gator fans) like to think it’s an act, a long involved syrupy act to cover up the ills and win over the media. Knowing Bowden for twenty years, I can tell you, it’s not an act. At a restaurant in Tallahassee, in his office on the FSU campus and in stadiums from Gainesville to Arizona, Bowden is the same. “Hey boy!” he says over and over to familiar faces, friends and family.

That’s not to say everything Bowden has done is right. I think he’s needed a more firm hand with discipline in recent years. He’s been asked about that, rather pointedly prior to the National Championship game last year, and he had a well thought out response. Part of it was about giving players a second chance, particularly those from single parent families who perhaps didn’t know any better. Part of it was his feeling of responsibility toward the players’ entire family, having been trusted with the safety and well being of a teenaged son. Having not been privy to the inside workings of the problem situations at FSU, I’ve relied on my confidence in Bowden to accept his decisions. I really don’t think the man can be devious.

Does he take advantage of the rules? Absolutely. Ask him about it and he’ll say emphatically, “change the rules!” “I’ll play by the rules, whatever they are.” Did his team get a break in 1993 when they dropped only one spot after losing to Notre Dame? Bowden says “probably, but we’re just following the system.”

Bowden has been working the system, whether it’s getting a break from the media because he’s generous and gracious with his time, or getting kids in school who are marginal because the system allows it. He thinks many parts of college football are flawed, but is sensible enough to know he’s not going to change them alone.

There have been National Championship chances gone by the boards with loses in bowl games or an errant field goal costing the Seminoles a shot. The pictures of Bowden in the instant following those disappointments are not of him stomping on his hat, or yelling at some assistant. Rather the resignation and understanding of the moment, a moment he has no control over, a moment ruled by teenagers trying their best, and perhaps coming up short. That’s a parental instinct taking over, something learned or inherited as a coach and something in this day of the “win or else” mentality in sports could be hard to understand for the uninitiated.

Bowden’s not one of my favorite coaches in the country, he’s one of my favorite people. I’ve asked him general questions about football, and extremely technical questions about his team, all met with an easy manner and a plain explanation.

If you think he’s removed himself from running his team, think again. He might not wear the headsets on the sidelines, but he’s in charge. Magically, those headsets appear and he’s making calls in crunch time.

The recruiting, the game planning, the game day coaching, talking to the media, greeting the boosters, they’re all part of Bowden’s repertoire, one with many moving parts, but with a constant positive outlook. I account much of that to Bowden’s faith. He doesn’t flaunt it, but you’ve seen him speak at a Billy Graham crusade. His even temperament follows a certain trust in a higher authority.

I’ve played golf with Bobby Bowden in the past. We rode together in the cart and talked and played for 5 hours. He played well. I think you can learn a lot about people playing golf with them. How they handle adversity, and good fortune, all the while trying to compete. You might not know if Bowden made birdie or bogey by watching him walk off a green.

Perhaps the most underrated part of Bowden’s coaching career is his adaptability. From his days as the “riverboat gambler,” Bowden showed his willingness to take a chance. Why? Because he had to. Bowden knew he didn’t have the horses to beat the big schools, so he had to scheme to compete with them. Remember Octoberfest? Bobby was part of that five game road trip that helped put FSU on the college football map.

Using a two quarterback system Bowden has won. He’s won coaching a Heisman Trophy winner. He’s won with defense, wild offense and a dominant kicker. Whatever he’s presented with, he’s used. At 70 years old, even Steve Spurrier said Bowden looks better and healthier than he has in a decade. I guess winning will do that to you. More than that, winning at life’s game keeps you young.