As the draft unfolded -- I don’t remember whether it was his first or second one -- then-Washington Redskins coach Steve Spurrier stood in a doorway chatting with reporters. Suddenly, he saw something on the TV screen that served as an alarm clock. The Redskins were on the clock.
“Guess I'd better go!" Spurrier said.
And that was Spurrier in Washington: a personable man to be around, yet one who had little interest in all the goings-on of his job. He had one main concern: Could his offense that flourished at Florida translate into NFL success?
So many stories from his days in Washington revolve around his love of offense and little else. During special-teams work, he’d sometimes come over and chat with the media on the sideline. Another time during a drill in which the No. 1 defense went against the scout-team offense, Spurrier was off to the side showing the kickers and punter how he could bounce a ball on the ground and catch it behind his back.
Do I need to mention that Spurrier lasted only two years and went 12-20? Of course, for a Redskins coach in the Dan Snyder era that’s about average. But it was clear from the start Spurrier would struggle. In his first news conference, Spurrier knew of only one player on the Redskins’ roster -- running back Stephen Davis, who had played at SEC rival Auburn.
Perhaps if he’d gone to a better organization, one with a legitimate general manager, Spurrier would have fared better. He needed a strong support system and someone to find the players he needed. Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf maintained, even after Spurrier left, that he would hire him.
Spurrier wasn’t interested in the gathering of players, only the play calls. When they drafted tight end Robert Royal in 2002, Spurrier read from his bio and saw that he had caught 59 career passes. "I guess he can catch the ball," Spurrier said.
But Spurrier was miscast in the NFL. So many stories illustrate that. After a 14-3 win at Seattle in his first season, Spurrier looked deflated. The Redskins gained only 259 yards, but 110 were by a running back. His offense meant everything to him and offense meant throwing the ball. The next week, in a game at Jacksonville, which entered with one of the NFL’s worst run defenses, the Redskins threw the ball 50 times. They lost by 19. His explanation on the pass-heavy game plan (even before the score was out of hand): “It was a good night to pitch and catch.”
Spurrier always seemed confounded when his offense didn’t work. Part of that stemmed from his first preseason game, against the San Francisco 49ers in Osaka, Japan. In that game, it was mostly backups versus backups as the Redskins won 38-7. Spurrier would reference that game often, mystified that this success did not continue. He never quite got the preseason.
And he never seemed fully engaged: Spurrier struggled to remember the names of his defensive starters. One time, before the final preseason game, a reporter asked Spurrier why a particular player had not yet played.
“He hasn’t played? How come?” Spurrier said in reply. But Spurrier made sure to play him in the finale.
There was a charm to Spurrier. He was an honorable and decent man and he could be funny without even trying. There weren’t any Florida-style barbs, though he once tweaked then-New Orleans coach Jim Haslett, whose team was struggling, by saying, “I saw a story saying Jim Haslett comes in at 4:30 every morning -- that's not doing him much good.” Spurrier saw no need to work the 100-hour weeks that coaches do. So he didn’t. As an NFL player, the former Heisman Trophy winner admitted he didn’t work hard enough.
His second and final season ended with a 5-11 record, but you knew he’d be gone before the first game. Spurrier wanted to keep two players in particular: quarterback Danny Wuerffel and running back Kenny Watson. The Redskins cut them. Spurrier’s give-a-damn left that day. It didn’t help that he had lost defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis after that first season. Former Redskins guard Tre Johnson once told a story about the team walking outside in sleet to practice. Spurrier, almost in a panic, according to Johnson, tried to turn them around, apparently not familiar with sleet. Lewis ordered them outside. They went outside.
About the only thing that second season produced was this memorable quote from him during the final news conference: “OK, we wound up 5-11. Not very good. But there was some worse than us. I guess that's one positive way to look at it; we weren't the worst team in the league.”
On the day Spurrier announced he was leaving after two seasons -- he was on the golf course when it became public -- one assistant coach said after being with him he couldn’t understand how he had won in college. But Spurrier was a perfect fit in that environment. He did not belong in the NFL and he clearly agreed. When it was time to go, he knew. But the memory of his time in Washington still hasn’t faded. If nothing else, he was entertaining.