The end of the arrogance
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.