By Jimmy Hyams
As a coach, Steve Spurrier squared off against Tennessee 25 times.
Whether he was a head coach at Florida, South Carolina or Duke or a Duke assistant, Spurrier was involved in some epic battles against the Vols.
He won more than his share, going 8-4 at Florida and 5-5 at South Carolina, and even scoring a couple of wins while at Duke.
Spurrier’s first year at Florida, the Vols gigged the Gators 45-3 in Knoxville, then drowned Florida in a rainstorm 31-14 in 1992. There was the UT overtime win in 1998.
But Spurrier’s most devastating loss to the Vols came in 2001, the last regular-season game Spurrier coached in Gainesville.
“2001 by far,’’ Spurrier said of his least favorite game against Tennessee. “We were No. 1 in the conference in offense and defense.’’
But that defense couldn’t stop Travis Stephens, who ran for 226 yards, or quarterback Casey Clausen.
“Give Tennessee credit,’’ said Spurrier, who felt his 2001 team was one of his best ever.
His favorite Florida win over Tennessee?
“I don’t know,’’ he said during a recent interview on SportsTalk radio WNML. “The people down here really love the ’95 game where Tennessee had us 30-14 and we scored (a touchdown) right before half to make it 30-21.’’
That was the start of a 48-0 onslaught in which Florida won 62-37 against a stout Tennessee defense.
Spurrier’s favorite game against the Vols was in 1982, when he was Duke’s offensive coordinator. Spurrier had been let go three years earlier at Georgia Tech by Bill Curry. The World’s Fair was being held in Knoxville.
Tennessee had Reggie White and Will Gault and was heavily favored. But Duke used a 92-yard touchdown pass and a kickoff return to get the lead, then milked the last nine or so minutes off the clock to win 25-24.
It was Spurrier’s first game coaching in massive Neyland Stadium.
“As a kid growing up in East Tennessee,’’ Spurrier said, “when the announcer came on and said, `It’s football time in Tennessee,’ that put chill bumps all over me, and to come out of there a winner somehow in that game, it was a fun one, I’ll have to admit.’’
Things haven’t been all that fun for Tennessee or Florida this decade. The Vols have had just one winning SEC record since 2007. Since 2010, Florida has had just three winning SEC records and recorded two four-win seasons.
Would it be good for the SEC if Tennessee and Florida climbed back into the top 10?
“Well, let’s hope so,’’ “Spurrier said. “It would be good for me and good for you, good for Rocky Top and The Swamp people down here.’’
Considering Florida won the East in 2015 and 2016, Spurrier isn’t sure how far away Florida is from contending for the East again.
“I think Coach (Dan) Mullen and his staff certainly have the ability of putting together championship teams down here,’’ he said. “And, or course, Tennessee has tradition and they can put together championship teams. So it’s a matter of a little bit of time right now.
“Those (Georgia) Bulldogs look awfully strong, so we got to try to out-recruit them, out-coach them and out-play them.’’
Much of Florida’s problem has been quarterback play. Some Gator fans argue that not since Tim Tebow has Florida been strong at the position.
But they’ve have quarterbacks like Tyler Murphy, Jacoby Brissett, Will Grier and Jeff Driskell who transferred and did well to great at other schools. Brissett has started in the NFL and Grier is a Heisman Trophy candidate at West Virginia.
“I see a bunch of guys in the NFL and they say they went to Florida and I can’t even remember them doing much when they were here,’’ Spurrier said.
Earlier this season, Florida honored its 1993 SEC Championship team, the first in school history to win 11 games and a Sugar Bowl.
Tennessee is honoring its 1998 national championship team this weekend and Spurrier will be in attendance.
“That was a special year for everyone at Tennessee and I’m glad to see coach (Phillip) Fulmer have that big year, along with all those players,’’ Spurrier said.
“Sometimes you look back and say it was meant to be, and it was meant to be that year for Tennessee.’’
Spurrier said it was meant to be for his 1996 national title team, which lost in the regular season to Florida State but got a rematch in the Sugar Bowl thanks to about four teams losing down the stretch.
As for Tennessee’s celebration this weekend, Spurrier was gracious: “I know that will be a wonderful occasion for everyone at UT.’’