The end of the ar­ro­gance

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Thomas Boswell thomas.boswell@wash­post.com

Thomas Boswell on the de­par­ture of Steve Spurrier, a big win­ner and big per­son­al­ity.

Since Steve Spurrier an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion as South Car­olina foot­ball coach on Mon­day, many of us have felt a sense of loss. Who’s left to say how sorry he feels about all those books that got burned up in a fire in the Auburn li­brary, es­pe­cially the “15 of ’em [that] hadn’t been col­ored yet”?

Who’s left to taunt a fu­ture Hall of Famer by ob­serv­ing “I guess Pey­ton [Man­ning] is com­ing back [for his se­nior year at Ten­nessee] so he can be three-time MVP of the Cit­rus Bowl”?

This month, stiff, per­son­al­i­ty­chal­lenged coaches such as Mary­land foot­ball man­nequin Randy Ed­sall and the Nats’ Matt Wil­liams are get­ting fired. If be­ing bor­ing doesn’t save your job, they would have been smart for them to have at least stood up and shown who they were.

Yet how many still do? Davey John­son, a base­ball ver­sion of Spurrier, also re­tired at 70. We’ll wait a while be­fore an­other man­ager gets to the park af­ter his play­ers be­cause he’s go­ing to fin­ish all 18 holes. John­son would show you the grip he used on his 2-iron to kill a poi­sonous snake in mid-strike. Do you be­lieve that? Well, a reporter from Ja­pan once asked John­son a ques­tion in English — and Davey an­swered in Ja­panese.

This dark day’s been com­ing for a while. I once no­ticed that the joy, the fun and the icon­o­clasm were dis­ap­pear­ing from sports. Al­most ev­ery pro coach or man­ager, and col­lege foot­ball coaches, too, seemed like cor­po­rate man­agers: ter­ri­fied of los­ing their jobs, muz­zled and stunted for life.

So I took the pulse of coaches who had taken teams to the Su­per Bowl.

“If you’re not a pup­pet, you’re in trou­ble,” said one.

“You’re the dummy, and some­body else pulls the strings,” said an­other. “Vince Lom­bardi could never make it now.”

“You’re best off if you either haven’t got a per­son­al­ity or know how to hide it,” a third vol­un­teered.

Those opin­ions, by the way, were shared (and pub­lished in the Post) in 1980. (The speak­ers? Ge­orge Allen, Hank Stram and Bud Grant.)

The rea­son we should cel­e­brate Spurrier’s edgy, amused, comin’-to-getcha ca­reer — from Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner to col­lege coach­ing icon, with a 12-20 stop in the NFL witn Wash­ing­ton along the way — is not be­cause he’s the last of a dy­ing col­or­ful breed. It’s be­cause his full-of-life kind is al­ways en­dan­gered. And the part of us that is like him — still got some spunk, don’t tread on me — is al­ways un­der fire, too.

En­joy­ing your life, lov­ing your work but not be­ing a slave to it — and keep­ing your “what-the-hell” alive — is a bat­tle in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion and in ev­ery year. We all have dif­fer­ent amounts of Spurrier in us. But “any” is of­ten too much for so­ci­ety. Joy is of­ten an inch from in­sub­or­di­na­tion. Hu­mor lives next door to “edge,” which is only a block away from dan­ger.

In­di­vid­u­als of­ten cut us slack. But those same peo­ple in a group — in gov­ern­ments, in­sti­tu­tions, leagues, teams where a mesh of rules is needed — of­ten don’t. That’s just how it works. Fear that our can­did words (or tweets) may be thrown in our faces by the bit­ter, the cyn­i­cal or the anony­mous is hardly new. The crimp­ing of de­light, of idle play or just of time to re­vive the spirit never goes away.

Ex­u­ber­ance and mis­chief are nat­u­ral to a child. But in the name of ma­tu­rity, much of that gets dis­ci­plined, co­erced or drubbed out of us. One of the dis­guised chal­lenges in grow­ing up is de­fend­ing as much of our child­ish­ness as is com­pat­i­ble with be­ing a func­tion­ing adult. No­body of­fers a course in Pre­serv­ing Play­ful­ness. As we age, we learn new plea­sures — but not many. Pro­tect the old ones.

Those like Spurrier who seem to have way too much fun are of­ten ac­cused of be­ing ar­rested ado­les­cents. Yet all those SEC ti­tles seem proof he grew up plenty. He just didn’t grow old.

That’s part of why we love those who dare to live large, de­mand el­bow room and, mostly, get away with it. Spurrier, at 70, is a fine re­minder of how lit­tle dam­age is usu­ally done by the pranksters, the fun-lov­ing, the dev­il­ish.

Al­most every­thing Spurrier ever said that was ac­cused of be­ing ar­ro­gant or cocky now seems in­no­cent, for­giv­able, with­out enough mal­ice even to fill a thim­ble. Pey­ton Man­ning’s ca­reer sure went to the dick­ens af­ter Spurrier nee­dled him, didn’t it? And which of his con­tri­bu­tions truly en­dure? Look for the flam­boy­ance, the au­dac­ity, the ball coach him­self call­ing for the bomb — the true “fun” in the Fun ’n’ Gun — in any col­lege game this Satur­day (es­pe­cially all those with fi­nal scores in the neigh­bor­hood of 52-35).

In each gen­er­a­tion, at least so far, the type re­curs. Some­times, it’s undis­guised. Whitey Her­zog, the great St. Louis man­ager, got up at 6 a.m. on most sum­mer days then spent three hours fish­ing or play­ing a round of dew-sweep­ing golf. Af­ter a late break­fast, he took a good nap, then he went to the ball­park.

Once, be­fore Game 6 of the World Se­ries, the White Rat gave his team the day off. He planned to fish in the morn­ing AND play golf in the af­ter­noon. “How can you jus­tify that?” re­porters in­ter­ro­gated.

“Weath­er­man says it’ll be a nice day,” he an­swered. Per­haps that sub­tly in­stills con­fi­dence in play­ers more than the 240th straight day of bat­ting prac­tice.

Who still makes us laugh? Who takes the job as se­ri­ously as it de­serves but still un­der­stands that we play and watch games to find some joy? Who still has a ball in sports for a whole life­time — from be­ing a fine ath­lete when young to be­com­ing a suc­cess­ful coach un­til old?

It’s sel­dom too late to change. Ori­oles Man­ager Buck Showal­ter was in his 50s, and fired three times, be­fore he dis­cov­ered he was a bet­ter boss, and a hap­pier man, af­ter he stopped be­ing so up­tight and be­gan to let his team have some fun. Soon, Buck him­self was a kick to be around.

“Noth­ing goes on for­ever,” said Spurrier, an all-Amer­i­can quar­ter­back 50 years ago. “I didn’t plan on go­ing out this way. I planned on be­ing on the shoul­der pads of the team com­ing out of the Georgia Dome with an SEC cham­pi­onship. “But that didn’t work out.” Oh, it sure did. For more by Thomas Boswell, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/boswell.

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