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Spurrier faces psychological test against Gators

Steve Spurrier has a problem. I assure you he is having great difficulty working up his trademark hostility to whip up on the Florida Gators. The Gators are vulnerable, especially against a team like his streaking South Carolina Gamecocks, still soaring after their first triumph over Tennessee in Knoxville. The emotional capital from Knoxville currently stored in the Gamecocks will be hard to access if the head Ball Coach is preoccupied with his own deep-seated attachments.

I tried without success to get inside Spurrier's head when I coached against him, and I won't presume to predict how he will handle this dilemma. But I guarantee he has some funny vibrations this week. I don't care how tough and ruthless you think you are, it takes a cold-blooded soul to think about blindsiding somebody when that somebody is your mama.

Perhaps the most famous line ever uttered by a coach in the context of a job change was Bear Bryant's response when asked why he left a great football team at Texas A&M to return to a downtrodden Alabama program. "Mama called," he said.

Nostalgia
In October I attended our class reunion at my alma mater, Georgia Tech, for the first time in 20 years. This was our 40th, and for the last 19 or so I had been coaching or analyzing football games elsewhere at reunion time. There were quite a few old people there who looked vaguely familiar. Name tags were plentiful, but I was pleasantly surprised at how many of my classmates I remembered. I was more pleasantly surprised at how their personalities had remained consistent and at the affinity we had for one another.

When one fellow I had not seen in all these years approached and stated bluntly before his wife and mine that he loved me, I was floored. He reminded us of the fact that he had been a gymnast and had suffered a gruesome injury. I had carried his books while he was on crutches. He had accompanied me to the post office the day my first check from the Green Bay Packers arrived. He remembered all that stuff. The effect was deep and lasting.

Another longtime friend, who had played on our biggest high school football rival, enumerated the ideas he had derived from my ESPN.com columns. The fact that he read them and approved was heartening and surprising. He also reminded me that we were in the same section of public-speaking class at Tech, and that we were equally abysmal. We laughed a lot.

Our president, Dr. Wayne Clough, came by to present an award to our class for giving the largest gift of any of the reunion classes this year. The sense of warmth and belonging was palpable.

If you think this is getting maudlin, you are correct. I make no apologies. I have a motive. I contend that coach Spurrier has been to many more welcoming reunions than I have, and that he has had similar emotional moments with great friends. I suggest that pointed reminders of what his college experience really meant will detract from his concentration.

I never had to coach a game against my alma mater. Before now I have never thought much about the baggage that would accompany such a moment, but pondering it gives me a headache. When the white and gold runs on the football field behind the Ramblin' Wreck, I'm running out there with them, every time. I honestly don't know if I could handle my players on a rival sideline without betraying myself.

One of the abiding positive characteristics of Steve Spurrier is that he never fakes it. Like him or not, you can never accuse him of being a phony, not even for a moment.

When the white jerseys trimmed in orange and blue jog onto the field at Brice-Williams Stadium on Saturday, is the Ball Coach on the South Carolina sideline going to be all
misty-eyed because he loves the Gamecocks? I think not. Any head coach's demeanor has an impact on his squad, but with Spurrier it is a powerful presence and normally a huge competitive advantage.

Nostalgia is powerful stuff.

Killer Instinct
While Spurrier's offensive genius is a matter of record, it will be his psychological preparation that will carry the most weight with his team in this one. After all, it really is South Carolina vs. the Florida Gators. In the natural order of things, South Carolina never beats the Gators. Never. Well, at least not since 1936. You can look it up.

Another of Spurrier's advantages is his competitive nature, his killer instinct. When he gets opponents on the run, he will destroy them if he can. Interestingly, he never does it in the humiliating fashion most often associated with "running it up" (leaving starters in, continuing to throw the ball). But when he substitutes his backups he expects them to keep playing hard, and at Florida his backups were better than many teams' starters. A big part of his intimidation factor has always been the anger he brings into the arena.

This Saturday, will his mastery of the conquering-hero aura be altered? Yes.

In the sport of football, "killer instinct" refers to the capacity to put an opponent away, finish the job. Considering the firepower of modern offenses, leads once considered safe are now regarded as dangerous. For example, in this season alone UCLA has been behind in the fourth quarter by 10 to Washington, 17 to Washington State, 21 to Stanford and 12 to California -- and won all four games! All they did was to outscore their opponents a combined 83-19 in the fourth quarter and overtime in those games.

In a column last week, I wrote that the Bruins were in dangerous territory, and sure enough Arizona beat them 52-14 on Saturday. It did not take an expert to see where they were headed.

The point here is that no lead is safe in today's football. The head man better have his killer instinct honed and hungry. Spurrier is the acknowledged master of such. His killer instinct will be blunted Saturday, and that reality will play a role in the saga of this game.

I do not bet on football, but I know the people who know the most about setting gambling lines and the like. I promise you the point-spread experts are factoring in the Spurrier sentimental quotient for this game. I am suggesting here that the least sentimental guy in football will be sentimental this week, both in preparation and in his demeanor. It will not be a voluntary-response mechanism, but it will be inevitable, and costly.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations appear each week during the college football season.