BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -Winning the national championship has changed Steve Spurrier.
He'll deny this, of course. He'll maintain he's the same cocky coach who always drove his opponents crazy, and sometimes even his University of Florida players. But the difference was noticeable at this week's Southeastern Conference Football Media Days.
Spurrier's smile is more genuine, his gaze less critical. The famed reservoir of energy remains, but it's more positive energy now. He just sort of dances in place. Happily.
He still zings his sportswriter pals, but the one-liners almost seem half-hearted. It's impossible to imagine this gentleman flinging a visor down the sideline.
He seems almost ... pleasant.
Surely this can't be the same Evil Genius who once mocked his opponents and ran up the score. This can't be the same boyish 52-year-old who dubbed his team's most bitter rival "Free Shoes University" in its weakest hour. This can't be the same thin-skinned, cactus-prickly "Steve Superior" who restored big-time pride to Gator Nation.
That Spurrier wouldn't walk around saying he feels "very fortunate, very blessed" to get a second chance at Florida State last season.
Of course, that Spurrier didn't have a new contract extension worth $2 million a season. (Only Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson make more to coach the sport.)
"We realize that when you're on top everybody writes and says good things about you and when you lose one, you get bad things said," Spurrier said this week. "One thing that's happened to the Gators over the last five years is we really do not pay a lot of attention to what people say about us or what's written about us. We have learned you don't (worry about) all the little things that are part of the game we play."
Understand that when Spurrier talks about "the Gators" he's basically using the royal "we". Like the dozen or so other personality cultists running college sports programs - Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Bob Knight are a few of the others - Spurrier is indistinguishable from Florida football. And vice versa.
So when he stands before a crowded room of sportswriters and offers the equivalent of a verbal shrug, ears prick up. And skulls slowly shake.
Surely this can't be the same Spurrier.
"We know who we are," this impostor was saying. "We don't need our opponents or our enemies. What they say about us doesn't affect us anymore. It used to bother some of our people, but not anymore."
Such is the power of accomplishment.
Such is the intoxicating aroma of success.
Such is the first indication that the Florida football machine may soon acquire a chink or two.
Spurrier has gone soft, we say!
Then again, maybe not. Perhaps after five SEC titles in seven years, after 73 wins in 88 games, Spurrier has the Fun 'N Gun purring so smoothly he can sit back and enjoy the show.
Maybe he knows he has so much talent at his disposal - in school and on the way - that nothing can touch him now. Not his detractors in the media. Not the jealous opposing coaches. Not even the NCAA.
How else could Spurrier afford to dismiss the jibes of his rivals?
This kinder, gentler version of America's villain offers a broad smile and soft-spoken assurance.
"I can assure you that when they poke fun at me, that's OK too," he said. "I do not get upset when they call me names."
Pretty tame, huh? Pretty boring.
Sort of makes you wish the Free Shoes Seminoles could have won the Sugar Bowl, just to keep things interesting.
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