I’ve highlighted many times on this website that the Head Ball Coach has been an important figure in my life as a sports fan, even though I’ve never met the man. The excerpt offered on GN on Tuesday got me more excited to read the book about the man who, in my opinion, is the greatest college football coach of my lifetime.
Of all the things I am most look forward to reading in the book, I’m curious about his relationships with his quarterbacks. Steve Spurrier forever changed the way college football was played in the South with the introduction of his Fun ‘N’ Gun offense. While many ran it for Spurrier, Shane Matthews was the first at Florida — and he made it a resounding success.
Matthews signed with Florida in 1988 — when Galen Hall was coach — out of Pascagoula (Miss.) High, where he had been USA Today’s Mississippi Player of the Year as a senior. He chose Florida over Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida State.
“My dad played at Ole Miss and I thought about going there,” Matthews told GN. “LSU is closer to home, but after visiting Florida, my mom and dad were impressed with their campus and the academics, so I chose Florida. I wanted to play in the SEC, so I ruled out FSU.”
Matthews admits he didn’t know much about Spurrier when he was hired.
“When I got to Florida, I honestly didn’t know who Steve Spurrier was. This was pre-Internet and there wasn’t all the Spurrier stuff in the end zone,” Matthews said. “He was just a guy that wanted to trust his QBs to run his system, which is simply based on process of elimination.”
Matthews had played just two downs of college football when Spurrier arrived at Florida.
“I was buried fifth on the depth chart,” Matthews said. “But due to some injuries and my relationship with tight ends coach John Reaves, I had an opportunity to play in the (1990) spring game in Jacksonville and did well enough to have an opportunity to compete for a starting position.”
He won the job in fall camp and helped the Gators go 9-2 overall and an SEC-best 6-1 in conference play in ’90. He threw for 2,952 yards and 23 touchdowns, and was named SEC Player of the Year. That’s how you earn the trust of your head coach, especially one who wanted to stretch the field vertically, as opposed to the “ground-and-pound and run-the-clock-down” offense Florida (and the rest of the SEC, really) had run in the late 1980s.
In his three seasons at Florida, Matthews’ numbers never fell below the standard that he set for himself in 1990. He also was the SEC Player of the Year in 1991, and his highest yardage total came in ’92, when he threw for 3,205 yards. He finished his career at Florida with then-school records in passing yards (9,287) and TD passes (74).
Statistics don’t tell the whole story, though. Matthews helped build what we now will call “Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.” Sure, the foundation was laid by the Head Ball Coach, but Matthews helped put down some important bricks in his three seasons as the Gators’ starters. They were the bricks that helped put the program on the national map in the 1990s.
“Coach Spurrier and I connected on a lot of levels,” Matthews said. “We were both coaches’ sons. I knew how to run his system. I wasn’t the best quarterback in the country. I couldn’t throw it the farthest and my skinny frame wasn’t the biggest, but I had the brain for the game. That’s what Spurrier looked for first — smart quarterback play.”
Matthews said Spurrier “changed the game of college football, in my opinion. He’s the best college coach ever. He had swagger and he made the game fun. What we respected about him most, as players, is that he wasn’t afraid to take chances. He didn’t coach scared. He’d take shots, and if they didn’t work, we’d get them on something later in the game.”
Matthews, who later played 14 years in the NFL despite going undrafted in 1993, said, “Coach Spurrier was the best at developing quarterbacks and their understanding of offenses and defenses.”
One thing Spurrier mentioned in the “Florida Gators Podcast” this week was that Matthews was 18-0 at home as Florida’s starting quarterback. You can’t beat perfection, and that’s a stat that may never be touched again.
(You can follow Dan Hancock on Twitter @danhancock1978)
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