To understand the effect that Steve Spurrier had on Southeastern Conference football, you have to go back to 1989, the year before he arrived. LSU led the league in passing offense, averaging 258.1 yards per game.
LSU finished 4-7.
For all of the 1980s, Vanderbilt led the league in passing offense, averaging 228 yards per game. Vandy won 33 games in the entire decade.
Passing was what you did because you couldn't run. It was an admission of weakness in an old-school league. We can't control the line of scrimmage, so we're reduced to throwing over it.
And then the 44-year-old Spurrier returned to his alma mater, where he had won the 1966 Heisman Trophy as a quarterback (he threw for 2,012 yards that season, by the way). He took over a Florida team that had been wracked not by losing, but by scandal. Coach Galen Hall had paid a player and a few assistants money that the NCAA manual said he shouldn't. Spurrier returned and wasted no time.
"If you want to be successful," Spurrier told S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated in 1995, "you have to do it the way everybody does it and do it a lot better -- or you have to do it differently. I can't outwork anybody and I can't coach the off-tackle play better than anybody else. So I figured I'd try to coach some different ball plays, and instead of poor-mouthing my team, I'd try to build it up to the point where the players think, Coach believes we're pretty good; by golly, let's go prove it."
Five quarterbacks competed for the starting job in Spurrier's first spring. Writer Buddy Martin recalled that Spurrier said he didn't know who would run the offense, but "whoever it is will lead the SEC in passing next year." On the first play of the spring game, the Gators' offense lined up three receivers wide left, and quarterback Shane Matthews threw a 35-yard completion.
The Fun 'n' Gun had arrived. The Gators not only went 9-2 in 1990, but they did it while throwing for 290.6 yards per game. Only the NCAA probation that Hall left behind kept Florida from winning the SEC. The next season, Florida threw for 308.5 yards per game and won its first conference championship. Ever.
Spurrier, the son of a Tennessee minister, was committing football heresy. This was football evolution. The running game, and stopping the run, were no longer enough to win championships, as God or Gen. Robert Neyland had written on stone tablets.
Alabama staved off Spurrier in 1992 with a defense for the ages. But the Gators won the next four SEC titles, beating the Crimson Tide in the league championship game in three of those seasons.
Spurrier won the league playing one quarterback; he won it playing two. He won it with straight-up better athletes -- speedy receivers and tough running backs -- and he won it, most memorably, with trick plays. Florida's winning touchdown drive in its 24-23 defeat of Alabama in the 1994 SEC championship game featured three of them: a fake injury, a double pass and the Emory & Henry formation.
After 1996, when the Gators won their first national championship, and quarterback Danny Wuerffel won the school's second Heisman Trophy, Spurrier would win only one more SEC title, in 2000.
He resigned from Florida after the 2001 season, tired of being a megawatt celebrity and interested in the NFL. His Gators led the nation that season with 405.2 passing yards per game. Four other SEC teams threw for at least 270 yards per game.
Yes, there had been other influences on the passing game in the SEC during the Spurrier era. Hal Mumme brought the Air Raid no-huddle spread to Kentucky with a coaching staff that included Mike Leach. Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe developed quarterback Peyton Manning and won a national championship with Tee Martin.
But Spurrier opened the door when he introduced the SEC to the forward pass. In his first game when he returned to the league in 2005 at South Carolina, Spurrier's quarterback, Blake Mitchell, completed his first seven passes. His Gamecocks offenses never had as much fun or gun as those Gators teams, but they had enough to win 11 games for the first time in school history. That was in 2011. South Carolina did it again the next two seasons.