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Spurrier Leaves Florida for NFL

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ The most coveted free agent in the NFL this year is a 56-year-old guy with a decent arm, a bad back and a heck of a flair for the dramatic.

He's coach Steve Spurrier, who stunned the football world Friday when he unexpectedly announced he was resigning from Florida to pursue a job in the pros.

``I'm not burned out, stressed out or mentally fatigued from coaching,'' Spurrier said. ``I just feel my career as a college head coach, after 15 years, is complete, and if the opportunity and challenge of coaching an NFL team happens, it is something I would like to pursue.''

While some NFL city _ Tampa? San Diego? Washington? _ will soon be in for an interesting ride with Spurrier at the helm, the Gator Nation the coach built on the strength of his prickly personality and amazing football mind is in shock.

Athletic director Jeremy Foley said he knew nothing of Spurrier's decision until Friday morning, when he received a phone call. Halfway through the conversation, Spurrier stopped.

``He asked if I was still there,'' Foley said. ``I think he thought I had fainted.''

Indeed, Foley insisted, life will go on. But it surely won't be the same. Not without Spurrier, the coach you either loved (if you were a Florida fan) or couldn't stand (pretty much everyone else).

He was man with the visor, that distinctive Tennessee twang and, of course, the Fun 'N' Gun offense that not only turned his alma mater into a winner after decades of mediocrity, but revolutionized college football in the process.

Foley will choose Spurrier's successor. A source familiar with the search told The Associated Press that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is the top candidate.

Stoops, who was defensive coordinator for the Gators when they won the national title in 1996, did not return messages left at his office, or on his cell phone. Nor did he answer the phone at his vacation house in Crescent Beach, not far away from where Spurrier also has a beach house.

If Spurrier really is interested in the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers both have openings, although the coach has always been partial to the state he's called home since 1990.

Tony Dungy of Tampa Bay has been considered a possible candidate to leave his job after the season.

The Washington Post, citing unidentified NFL sources, reported on its Web site Friday night that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder intends to pursue Spurrier.

Before Friday, the closest Spurrier ever came to leaving was in 1995, when he almost signed with the Buccaneers, one of two NFL teams he played for after college.

The Spurrier-NFL watch is nothing new. It has happened almost every year since he came back to Gainesville 12 seasons ago, a former Heisman Trophy winner determined to make exciting champions out of the not-so-lovable losers his Gators were for so many decades previous.

Spurrier went 122-27-1 with Florida, 142-40-2 counting the three seasons he spent at Duke. He led a program that had never won a Southeastern Conference title to six of them. He also led the Gators to their only national championship in 1996.

Many experts predicted a second national title this season, but the Gators wound up 10-2, ranked third in a season that ended with a 56-23 thumping of Maryland in the Orange Bowl on Wednesday night.

Spurrier benched quarterback Rex Grossman for the beginning of that game for missing curfew. It was his last _ make that second-to-last _ startling move as Florida's coach.

Grossman entered in the second quarter and threw for four touchdowns in the romp. Once again, Spurrier made the right decision, and his quarterback and offense were at the center of it.

``I've studied his offense a lot and picked up a few things from it,'' said his chief rival, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. ``It's not that is so complicated, but he is brilliant with the passing game. It's the timing, execution and rhythm of his offense that is so good.''

And to think, almost nobody believed he could do it.

He came to Florida from Duke, where he used the passing game to turn the downtrodden Blue Devils into Atlantic Coast Conference champions in 1989.

But that was Duke and the ACC, in the days before Florida State joined the conference and changed its complexion.

Surely nobody could do that in the SEC, right?

This was a conference built on running, defense, Bear Bryant and Herschel Walker. Quarterbacks and receivers were afterthoughts. Except, of course, in 1966, when Spurrier won the Heisman.

Spurrier quickly proved them wrong.

With Shane Matthews throwing for a then-school-record 2,952 yards, Spurrier led the Gators to the best record in the SEC in 1990. He still claims an SEC title for that 9-2 season, although the record books say differently: Florida was ineligible because of NCAA sanctions that year.

But there were six titles that nobody can dispute and no more NCAA troubles.

There was also a legacy being built. All those five-receiver sets in vogue these days have long been part of Spurrier's scheme. So are the complex attacks of two-deep zones, the growing popularity of the shotgun formation and so much else on the offensive side that most teams and fans take for granted now.

``Everybody said there was no way you could win consistently unless you used the I-formation, and played field position and defense,'' said Spurrier's confidante, sports information director Norm Carlson. ``He wanted to try to do it differently. He wanted to prove he could do it his way.''

He's leaving his way, too.

For the first time in several years, talk of his departure was at a minimum in December, the month the NFL rumors normally start swirling.

Maybe, Florida fans wanted to believe, he had finally decided that things would never be any better for him than they were in Gainesville.

They may have been right. But still, the NFL beckons.

The magnitude of the surprise reminded Foley of a conversation he had with a former Florida athletic director, Bill Carr.

``He told me, `Steve will leave when you least expect it,''' Foley said. ``Boy, I sure thought about Bill Carr this morning after I picked myself up off the floor.''
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