South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s sudden retirement announcement – or resignation, as he described it – prompted praise and criticism.
Praise came from his career as the all-time winningest coach at South Carolina as well as at Florida, his alma mater. He won the 1966 Heisman Trophy as a Gators quarterback and then 30 years later the 1996 national title during a 12-year stint as head coach in Gainesville.
Criticism was for walking away from his team with six games remaining in a 2-4 season. He told his team privately Monday night and made it official Tuesday afternoon when he met with the media.
Both sides can make valid points.
But here’s what is indisputable: Steve Spurrier spoke out against the state of South Carolina flying the Confederate battle flag from State House and Statehouse grounds long ago – well before public opinion finally caught up with the arc of history and shifted to his view that the flag was a national disgrace.
It took the murder by a white supremacist of nine African-Americans attending a bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., for public opinion in his adopted state to catch up to him as a tipping point, but Spurrier was on the right side of history.
Football coaches are supposed to be leaders, and Spurrier showed his leadership.
Here’s what he said about a 2006 incident on an ESPN College Gameday set in Columbia before the Tennessee-South Carolina game. A South Carolina fan had waved a confederate flag in the background of the broadcast. Spurrier wasn’t shy about offering his opinion when the subject came up during a speaking engagement at a banquet six months later.
“[S]ome clown … waving that dang, damn Confederate flag behind the TV set. And it was embarrassing to me and I know embarrassing to our state.
“I realize I’m not supposed to get in the political arena as a football coach, but if anybody were ever to ask me about that damn Confederate flag, I would say we need to get rid of it. I’ve been told not to talk about that. But if anyone were ever to ask me about it, I certainly wish we could get rid of it.”
He was told not to talk about it, but he spoke up.
The late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times once wrote upon discussing segregated Alabama football teams with Crimson Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant that “Citadels of prejudice have been crumbled by athletics. It is the proudest chapter of its history. The prowess of the Alabama team threatens to turn the pages back.”
We don’t know if Bryant was told not to talk about segregation in the 1960s, but he remained silent. The same was true with Clemson coach Frank Howard at South Carolina’s other prominent football program.
But we do know they were two of most prominent names in college football in the 1960s while coaching segregated teams in the Jim Crow South. They could have influenced public opinion with their words. The pendulum of history had shifted to the Civil Rights movement – Civil Rights bills were passed in 1964 and 1965 – but the Alabama and Clemson football teams (among others) remained segregated until the 1970s.
Bryant’s first black player dressed in 1971– eight years after the school’s campus desegregated in 1963.
Howard, whose school president pushed him to integrate his program in 1967, retired following the 1969 season. The new coach, Hootie Ingram, promptly signed Clemson’s first black football recruit, Marion Reeves, in 1970.
Apologists for Bryant and Howard will say it was a different time, and they couldn’t upset their alumni. That ignores the fact that Maryland was the first Atlantic Coast Conference school to desegregate in 1963, Kentucky the first Southeastern Conference member in in 1967 and SMU the first Southwest Conference school from the defunct league in 1966. Others opened the door for Bryant and Howard to walk through, but they dragged their feet.
Steve Spurrier was best known as the Mouth of the South for winning games and for quips that included digs at rivals schools and coaches. He also tried to be a Conscience of the South.
He should be remembered for speaking up against lingering racism long before his adopted state finally brought down on July 15 the Confederate battle flag that was an insult to right-thinking Americans of all colors.
Here is what he said in 2015 at the SEC media days once South Carolina governor Nikki Haley announced she would support a bill from the state legislature to bring down the flag.
“I applaud our governor for setting the initiative to remove the flag,” Spurrier said. “Obviously it was received very well. Just about everyone in our state and around the country — and obviously all of us in college sports — know the importance of equality and race relations and everybody getting along. Certainly all the coaches all over South Carolina were happy and glad to see the flag come down.”
His words in 2007 didn’t bring down the flag, but they helped shift public opinion. Sadly, it took a tragedy to provide impetus for a state to do right. The state finally caught up to Steve Spurrier.