Ran Henry, “Hold That Line”
If the plot of all fiction is trouble, the subject of a biography is pain.
“It’s going to be like seeing your life flash before your eyes,” I told South Carolina Football Coach Steve Spurrier on an April morning in his office overlooking his field, when he finally asked to read the biography I’d spent seventeen years researching and writing.
The subject of my fixation stood by his collection of helmets, trophies, manly maxims, family photographs, footballs from big wins and a crystal golf ball for his first hole in one, showing me a poster celebrating three straight eleven-win seasons at USC. That was far better than par for the losing-est college football team in the land. The Gamecocks were believed for over a century to be cursed -- by a governor, senator and lynch mob leader named “Pitchfork,” who begat South Carolina’s blood rival Clemson. Reason enough right there to trust the entertainment value of the truth.
Took a minister’s son to beat that kind of curse, I had to believe, remembering to watch my words. Really, even in the depths of dying, does your lifetime actually flash past?
Coach Spurrier considered my words with the wry look he gives friends and foes, always playing his game, eyeing those match-ups only he can win. We looked out at the rooster red stadium where he’d won 18 straight games, best home record of any college in the nation. “This is my author,” I could still hear him introducing me to a fellow writer on that field, after a sweltering scrimmage last August.
What’s your relationship with the subject of your non-fiction story? I finally had to own up to being the writer, not the hero.
“I’ll let you read it in August,” I blurted out. That would put my version of Spurrier’s life before him as his team hit the Proving Ground for fall practice, a few weeks before Spurrier the book was due to be published by Lyons Press.
His noncommittal nod was chilling, making me wonder if a real gamesman would’ve made that move. For sure that brash promise wouldn’t please my editor, who feared a football coach’s power in the Internet age and planned to send Spurrier a book “as a courtesy” in September.
When his elevator doors opened, splitting Carolina’s fighting rooster emblem in two, I dropped down to the parking lot with my own quest for greatness flashing past. Starting with the mad desire to write a biography as well as Steve Spurrier picks defenses apart.
In the fields where we all need inspiration, guidance, coaching, even, is it really important to know what fuels our heroes’ fires? Like other Americans who live by codes drawn up on locker room chalkboards I grew up reading sports biographies, thinking football makes your anger socially acceptable.
When Spurrier became a Florida Gator and flummoxed opponents by passing to set up the run, winning the Heisman Trophy, coming back to campus to coach a Heisman Trophy winner, flinging his visor when his quarterbacks threw interceptions, finally winning Florida a trophy worth bragging about, not everyone could cheer.
“He acts like a maniac on the sidelines,” groused my editor at Tropic, The Miami Herald Sunday Magazine, hitting a Nerf Ball basket in his office overlooking Biscayne Bay as pelicans peered in. Tom Shroder was a former editor of The Alligator, the University of Florida student newspaper, who hated the way Spurrier represented his school, trophy or no trophies.
“Go up to Gainesville and find out why he’s so pissed off all the time,” my writing coach ordered.
I rode into Gatorsville thinking I already knew. In Johnson City, Tennessee, they said the All-State quarterback, kicker, shooting guard, shortstop and pitcher who brought home two state baseball titles for Science Hill High couldn’t satisfy the minister at Calvary Presbyterian, who always wanted to coach his son. Of course people in Johnson City cheered for the Volunteers. And Spurrier had turned into a reptile at Florida, his Gators taking championships from Tennessee almost every season.
That’s football. Heroes change uniform. Mysteries deepen. What burned inside The Ball Coach couldn’t be explained in a Sunday magazine story.
“I’m writing a book about Steve Spurrier,” I told my Dad back in the hills of West Virginia.
“You’ll never do it,” Dad said. You know, to spur me on.
On a moonless north Florida night in early April, 2000, Reverend John Graham Spurrier went to sleep beside his wife and woke up in heaven. I held my Dad’s hand while his good eye closed on a foggy August night in 2001 when Spurrier was the coach of the number one Gators, I was a hero as a caregiver and my father was a prophet. No biography of Spurrier graced his shelf. I kept working, to please or defy Dad, not sure which. Getting inside the mind and heart of one competitive man could be a life-long mission.
Looking up at the coach’s office atop South Carolina’s stadium I had to decide who to try to please. I cajoled my editor into sending a manuscript to Spurrier in July, before another pressure-packed football campaign got going. Imagining him relishing a story people only thought they knew.
His great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Spurrier, was the stonecutter in Winnsboro, South Carolina, just north of Columbia, until General Sherman marched through, I discovered with the help of New York genealogist Susan Olsen – both of us stunned Spurrier became South Carolina’s coach without knowing where his father’s people were from. Wondering anew, as August dawned without a word from Columbia, how a biographer could presume to know more than his subject.
On a quest to win an unprecedented SEC Football Title for South Carolina, beat the Curse of Pitchfork and get the Confederate flag taken down from the State House grounds, Coach Spurrier had no idea he had kinfolk in the fight. He just instinctively defied his great-great-great grandfather the slave owner.
“Too busy making history to worry about the past,” his mother told her eldest son Graham, who knew all along why his little brother should endure derision in South Carolina for downing that flag. Begetting a twisted thought:
Would it make us all soft, a nation of football talkers, if we had nothing to prove to our Dads?
Surely Spurrier could see he was a hero in my book. He finally called during Media Day, ignoring all the sports reporters in his stadium, telling me parts of the book were “real good” but he didn’t like the way his father was portrayed.
“My dad was a loving dad,” a wounded son said.
Indeed he was, Coach, I had to agree. Reverend Spurrier did everything in his power to make the smallest, slowest boy at Kiwanis Park the biggest overachiever on earth –only man in South Carolina who could overcome Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman’s legacy, or try to re-write his own.
Riding the elevator up to his office to talk about his father’s role in the book I ran into his boss, the Athletic Director, and USC’s lawyer. Knowing I teach Football Writing in the USC Honors College the coach figured those men had authority over me, too.
“My daddy is in heaven, and I’m here to defend him,” was his explanation for not talking with me man-to-man. Back in Florida, 17 years ago, he almost threw me out of his office in the stadium he called The Swamp for insisting his Dad had surely helped him, some way or another, on his quest to be the best.
Reverend Spurrier’s determination for his son to succeed is a big part of the story, and can’t be played down, I told them all, in a conference room overlooking South Carolina’s end zone, and that son of a minister cursed at me – using words even his most irksome quarterback never heard. Then he walked out to commission a ghost writer for his autobiography, and see that my book would never be published.
Everyone makes mistakes. Lawyers and fact-checkers for Lyons Press and Spurrier couldn’t find any. The coach and his attorney Todd Ellis, a legendary USC quarterback and sportscaster, realized they could forbid the use of family photographs Reverend Spurrier gave me in 1997, that my editor didn’t think we needed a son’s permission to publish.
Lyons Press attorney Dennis Kelly said the first editions ofSpurrier, boxed for book stores, made one big fire.
Jed Lyons, CEO of Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, bought Lyons Press, checked out my reporting and stood by the book. Spurrier would be re-printed without the disputed photographs and published in November, 2014, the weekend Spurrier went back to Gainesville to beat his old school.
Football can be like that. Heroes who uplift you let you down. As kick-off approached for the Gators and Gamecocks, Ellis called and threatened to “take two hundred grand out of your ass,” then rang up my editor.
“Anything scandalous, or libelous, in the book?” Keith Wallman of Lyons Press said he asked Ellis.
“No,” Ellis told Wallman, “but we might sue anyway.”
How does that work, I wondered. No editorial control was given, but it could be taken. How does a biography of a living person get published in these litigious times without being a puff piece?
“If they want to draw attention to Spurrier’s father they’ll persist, we’ll resist, and articles will appear about Spurrier’s father that otherwise wouldn’t have,” veteran publisher Jed Lyons reassured me. Neither of us could believe the word “authorized” hadn’t been changed to “definitive” on the reprinted cover -- giving Spurrier another opening to attack his own story.
I thought he’d enjoyed a childhood of ball games and church, that gave him a charmed adulthood, but what can even the most meticulous writer and researcher really know about another living soul? Just like a doting father I lived through Steve Spurrier’s story, including a seemingly necessary but not happy chapter.
He had to admit to Bob Gillespie, sports media reporter for The State newspaper in Columbia that my book can’t be legally challenged, “since there’s nothing libelous in it.” Sure he taught me a lesson, and squelched sales of someone else’s version of his life. Leaders lead. Writers follow.
He turned 70 in April, on Adolph Hitler’s birthday. Not hanging up his coaching visor, despite suffering his sixth loss of the 2014 season at Clemson. Making me wonder if putting him through another childhood played right into Pitchfork’s hands. Or maybe he could’ve just owned up to the facts of his life and called better plays.
The truth all non-fiction writers must face is, we revere living, breathing subjects but are most loyal to words on a page. Some of us might wish we’d soft-pedaled the hard father stuff and gotten our book promoted on ESPN. But what would that say about a father who quoted the writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, even though their details don’t always agree?
I stand on his newly-sodded field at Gamecock Park after the first practice of 2015, expecting punishment. Welcoming a hug from his wife. All of us looking for redemption.
“They let you in here?” Coach Spurrier asks, rolling up in his Gamecock golf cart.
“And they should have,” I say to a quarterback and coach words can’t truly describe.
“Not after what you wrote. Bunch of lies, bunch of lies,” Spurrier says, gunning his golf cart before I can say, “Name one.”
Still fuming at his father’s words. Thinking he’s drowning out the messenger.
Ran Henry is the author of Spurrier: How the Ball Coach Taught the South to Play Football, the definitive biography of an All-American quarterback and coach. Henry was a Ralph McGill Scholar at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University and wrote for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, the St. Petersburg Times and Tropic, The Sunday Magazine of the Miami Herald. He teaches writing courses he designed for the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program at the University of Virginia, as well as a course in Football Writing at the University of South Carolina Honors College. He and his wife Linda own Blue Mountain Weddings in Charlottesville and divide their time between Virginia, Columbia, South Carolina and a home in the mountains of West Virginia.
Excerpt from the book
Chapter Fourteen: South of Leesburg
He was the lone guy on the field at twilight, surveying the stadium his team would fill the next day for the University ofSouth Carolina Spring Game televised on ESPN. Stepping up to the stage where Hootie and the Blowfish would play, the coach met a writer excited about the back-to-back National Championships the University of Florida just won in basketball.
“How ‘bout those Gators!” the writer greeted the coach, holding up his palm for a high five.
“Lord,” Spurrier said, “I’ve got my own troubles right here atSouth Carolina.”
He thought he knew the amount of trouble he’d stir up -- walking up the stadium steps in the dusk, getting his wife and tie and heading downtown to speak out against a symbol of racial oppression in his state.
At the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center on Lincoln Street, Spurrier walked on stage directly above the ballroom where a black presidential candidate from Illinois was delivering a speech.
“The Confederate flag,” Spurrier said, seemingly just thinking about it while accepting a Citizenship Award from a young adult advocacy group called City Year, “should be taken down from the State House grounds.”
No one asked him about that flag, the Ball Coach said. But if they did, he’d say the people of South Carolina didn’t need the Confederate flag waving over the State House, holding back the whole state.
Big speech at the Convention Center on the News at Eleven. Steve Spurrier a hotter topic than Senator Barack Obama, across a state still fighting the Civil War. What kind of leader enrages his own people?
An army of rebels made a stand at the USC Spring Game on Saturday, April 14th, 2007, disowning their coach. Giving roving TV crews comments about Spurrier that couldn’t be broadcast.
“Send him on his way to Hell if he wants to leave the South,” one of the milder comments, led to a South Carolinian’s ultimate put-down: “He’s not even from here!”
Some USC fans recalled too well the day Spurrier first set foot in Columbia, as coach of the hated Gators -- driven from the airport to the hotel to the stadium to humiliate the Gamecocks. That “Black Out Game” in Columbia, with Williams-Brice Stadium filled with USC fans dressed in black, “helped us see our receivers better,” the Gator Coach had said.
How did a “classic carpet-bagger” who’s “offended my whole family” and “played right into the hands of the racist N.A.A.C.P” get to be South Carolina’s football coach in the first place?
A city burned to the ground by General Sherman does not forget. Neither does Spurrier.
The Gamecocks had been “cursed,” their coach knew, by a one-eyed South Carolina governor and senator named Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman – a founder of Clemson University. Furious when the student body at USC wouldn’t agree to march across the state and enlist in his “agricultural school” excluding black students, Tillman legendarily stuck his pitchfork into the ground at the USC Horseshoe, looked to the heavens and hollered, “I curse the University of South Carolina.”
A hundred fifteen years later, fans of a school that had lost more football games than it won since the 1892 season still believed in that “Chicken Curse.”
Steve Spurrier’s father didn’t raise him to let the guy with the pitchfork win.
The Ball Coach would defy the curse of a “citizens’ militia” leader terrorizing former slaves after the Civil War, the prime advocate of South Carolina’s 1895 segregation laws, a governor who approved of lynching his state’s black citizens. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1900, Pitchfork told his fellow senators, “We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them, and we would have done it if we could. We took the government away. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
Someone had to show Pitchfork that wasn’t the Garnet Way.
On the South Carolina State House grounds, Ben Tillman’s black marble statue kept a baleful eye on the Confederate flag in front of the capitol, from behind a Palmetto tree. A sight Spurrier believed the Gamecock football team and a new generation of South Carolinians didn’t want to see.
“He needs to be careful, very careful …” one rebel wrote.
The Ball Coach had to ask how he got to a place where some Gamecock fans hated their coach more than they hated Clemson, driving around town with bumper stickers urging, “Punt Spurrier, Keep the Flag.”
ESPN, the USC Daily Gamecock and a close family member reported that Spurrier received death threats for his comments about the flag. ESPN also reported death threats were received by “at least one member of his staff. The memories of the hate mail and the threatening phone calls won’t soon be forgotten in the South Carolina Football offices at Williams-Brice Stadium,” according to ESPN Senior National Columnist Gene Wojciechowski. Spurrier downplayed those threats, then denied receiving them.
After an infamously hot summer in Columbia, Spurrier heard the flag wavers say, “If he’s going to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong, he’d better win.”
That, Spurrier said, he understood. No one would listen to a football coach talking about taking down that Confederate flag until he won at South Carolina, and won big.