TAMPA - Tampa Bay's most beloved football coach? Surely Tony Dungy would get a lot of votes. But it would be hard to find anybody who goes back to the mid-1980s who wouldn't put Steve Spurrier in the top two.
Well before his legendary run at the University of Florida, Spurrier coached the United States Football League's Tampa Bay Bandits. The team, in stark contrast to the Bucs of the era, was exciting and successful, and Spurrier was young, personable and had a swagger that was more fun than arrogant.
The ol' ball coach - that nickname didn't come until the Florida days - has returned as coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks for Thursday's Outback Bowl against Iowa. He has a strong bond to the Tampa Bay market, forged through his days as a Gators quarterback and coach, a Bucs QB and the Bandits coach.
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A punter and backup quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, Spurrier joined the expansion Bucs in 1976 and became their first starting quarterback. The experience of quarterbacking an 0-14 team has given him an endless supply of jokes for his speaking engagements, including one he told this week about having 13 men on the field, relaying a message from the coach that two dummies should get to the sideline and looking around and seeing only four players left.
Tampa is a big Gators town, and that is one reason Spurrier has always been well-received here. He won the Heisman Trophy as Florida's quarterback in 1966, then returned as coach in 1990 and led Florida to six SEC titles and a national championship in 12 years. He doesn't wear a championship ring, joking after a practice this week that he prefers to "stack 'em up."
The Bandits job was Spurrier's first as a head coach, and it helped launch his career. His wide-open offenses, led by quarterbacks John Reaves from Florida and Jimmy Jordan from Florida State, started 9-3 in each of his three seasons and won 35 of 54 games. Spurrier would coach pro football in Tampa one more time, watching his Redskins beat the Bucs 40-10 in a 2002 preseason game.