How have you been sleeping lately?

I’ve been struggling over the last few months. Even if I am lucky to fall asleep quickly, I often find myself staring at the ceiling at 4 a.m. There is plenty to think about these days.

Perhaps the Groundhog Day effect of COVID-19 has me more anxious than usual. Maybe it’s the stories in the news that beat me into a feelings coma day after day. Maybe I shouldn’t have started a business during a pandemic. 

But there is a question — it’s almost a realization at this point — that haunts me more often than it should, especially in those moments when my eyes are shut but my mind is wide open.

“What if Georgia has their Steve Spurrier?”

It’s not just because UGA Head Coach Kirby Smart has the haircut and khakis to get him into any afternoon Nassau at Athens Country Club. After starting with an 8-5 record in 2016, Smart is 36-7 over his last 3 seasons. He’s won the SEC East Division three times in a row and added an SEC Championship, wins in the Rose and Sugar bowls, and a trip to the College Football National Championship Game.

In the same way that Steve Spurrier untapped Florida’s potential as a program, it feels like Smart is building the best version of what a Georgia Bulldogs team can be. Georgia hasn’t been this close to a national championship since Vince Dooley and Herschel Walker were on the sidelines. 

But Dooley is a garden enthusiast who — as many older friends in Athens have reminded me over the years — played for and graduated from Auburn. He won six SEC championships in 25 years, and there were plenty of forgettable teams in that run, too.

Smart seems different to me. To make matters worse, he seems familiar. 

Growing Up Winning

Steve Spurrier is more of a spirit animal than a hero to me. 

Growing up 30 miles south of Gainesville, I was first raised to be a Kentucky Basketball fan by my dad’s family. But my dad moved to Florida in 1980 and fell in love with the Gators the day Lindsay Scott and the Georgia Bulldogs beat them on their run to their last national championship. By the time Spurrier became Florida’s head coach in 1990, the Gators had played SEC football for nearly 70 years and never officially won the conference.

That quickly changed.

The first Gator game I remember watching was their 1991 Thanksgiving weekend clash against Florida State. Florida won 14-9, and I was decidedly a Florida fan from that point on.

That Spurrier-coached team won the 1991 SEC Championship. And then they did it again in 1993. And 1994. And 1995, 1996 and 2000.

Not only was Florida winning, but we were destroying some good football teams in the process. For my mom’s parents, who had been going to Gator games since the 1950s and got to see Spurrier’s playing career at UF, the 1990s were a payoff for investing in a lot of mediocre football.

By the time I started tagging along to non-conference games with my grandpa in 1995, Florida had become a perennial national title contender. Spurrier’s swagger carried over to the team to the point where fans like me went to every game thinking we were going to win — and have fun doing it.

And while the season-ending game against Florida State would often have national title implications, I was taught that the Seminoles were not the biggest enemy on the schedule.

That honor belonged to Georgia.

Rewriting the Paradigm

My grandparents saw Florida lose to Georgia at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville so many times that they eventually stopped making the trip — in the 1970s and ‘80s, Georgia beat Florida 14 times in 20 meetings. My grandma in particular, always a gentle soul, would often remind me of those hard times and how hard Georgia fans were to be around.

Steve Spurrier - Photo from 1967 University of Florida yearbook
Steve Spurrier won the 1966 Heisman Trophy in his senior season, but he lost to Georgia again. Photo from 1967 University of Florida yearbook

None of this made any real sense to me. I made it to my first Cocktail Party in 2000. Florida won by a couple of scores, and we all made fun of “Who Let the Dogs Out” on the way home.

Spurrier never beat the Bulldogs as a player at UF, and he wanted everyone to know about it. If there was a chance to hang an extra touchdown on Georgia as a coach, he always took it. He beat Georgia 11 times in 12 years, helped end the careers of Ray Goff and Jim Donnan, and got Mark Richt off to a losing record in the series.

The recipe was easy enough. Spurrier wanted to throw the ball all over the field, get his best athletes in space to do the most damage, and then keep doing it until the other team could stop it. A lot of teams couldn’t.

In a league often dominated by run-first teams who won games at the line of scrimmage, Spurrier showed up with lessons learned in the USFL and at Duke and melted the minds of opposing defensive coordinators and free safeties alike.

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Add in his vocal jabs at other coaches in the press, his anxious, exaggerated persona on the sidelines, and his postgame explanations about God smiling on the Gators, and it was clear that Spurrier — born in Miami Beach and raised in the land of Volunteers — had ascended into the best of what a Florida Man could be.

Seriously, can you think of a greater Florida native alive right now? Me neither.

In 1995, when the Florida-Georgia game was played on Georgia’s campus, Spurrier kept calling pass plays as the Gators became the first team to score more than 50 points on Georgia “Between the Hedges.” The next year, Spurrier gave UF its first football national championship.

My spirit animal left Florida rather suddenly after the 2001 season — I still remember turning on ESPN after school, seeing the news on the Bottom Line, and crying in the bathroom. He had to see if his wild brand of play calling and light office hours could work in the NFL. It did not.

Spurrier’s successor at Florida, Ron Zook, beat Georgia two times in three years. Urban Meyer won five of six. In fact, from 1990, the beginning of Spurrier’s reign at Florida, to the end of Meyer’s run in 2010, the Gators were 17-3 against the Bulldogs.

Georgia may have still had the overall series lead, but it was only a matter of time until Florida moved ahead.

Well, about that…

The Man Comes Around

Ron Zook wasn’t Steve Spurrier, and he couldn’t beat any rival except Georgia. Urban Meyer was certainly not Steve Spurrier, but he won just enough — pairs of SEC and national championships in 2006 and 2008 — for fans like me to overlook the dark clouds on the horizon.

By the time we met Will Muschamp at Florida, my friends and I had never experienced a football season worse than 8 wins and an Outback Bowl loss. I was suspicious, as Muschamp had played his college football at UGA, but if I could love living in Athens, a Georgia man could love coaching in Gainesville.

Any love was lost after three long trips to Jacksonville and three longer rides home. Mark Richt put together one of his best teams in 2012, and they held off a late Florida drive to win one of the best games I have ever seen. 

But Richt’s 2012 team fell just short of a title — about 2 yards short in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama — and a pair of bad losses to lousy Florida teams in 2014 and 2015 was enough for Georgia fans to run him out of Athens. 

Enter Kirby Smart.

A Bulldog graduate — Smart and Muschamp were teammates, which makes plenty of sense — from the Nick Saban coaching tree, Smart had never been a head coach before he took the job at his alma mater. Just like Spurrier, Smart was a beloved player who had a knack for making explosive plays on the field — he recorded 13 interceptions at UGA, good enough for sixth on the school’s all-time list that includes a lot of secondary royalty. 

And, just like Spurrier, Smart had a losing record as a player in the Florida-Georgia game.

And as much as Spurrier is a Florida Man, Smart’s teams play a brand of football that follows the blueprint recommended by fans in a lot of UGA message boards. They are big and imposing. They want to run over you. They do not like rain.

And they do not like Florida.

The Other Side

By the time the 2017 Florida-Georgia game rolled around, I was living in Jacksonville and Jim McElwain was on his way out of Gainesville. Two and a half years of football under his tenure had resulted in two SEC East titles, some really funny wins against Tennessee, and some made-up death threats that UF officials were quick to denounce.

I had front-row seats with a couple of my best friends behind the Florida bench. We left before the end of the first quarter. Spurrier passed us in the parking lot looking for his car at halftime. 

Georgia won 42-7.

In 2018, Florida moved onto another new head coach, Dan Mullen — the offensive mastermind behind Meyer’s championship teams, we like to tell ourselves. Mullen has some Steve Spurrier in him. He wants to score as many points as he can. He can get unhinged on the sideline. He’s not that into recruiting, comparatively speaking.

On the other hand, Mullen has lost his first two Florida-Georgia games. And while Mullen has Florida climbing back up the college football polls, Georgia is still a space or three above. 

Wait a minute. Is Dan Mullen Florida’s Mark Richt?

That thought is going to cost me an hour tonight. But that’s not to say the clock isn’t ticking on Smart, too. 

As Smart kicks off his fifth year at the helm in Athens, Georgia is still looking for its first national title since 1980. All of its rivals — Florida, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Tennessee — have won at least one title more recently. 

Florida has won three, but none since the games were broadcast in HD. While we Florida fans find ourselves nervous going into games against teams like Missouri and Kentucky, it’s now Georgia carrying Smart’s swagger, expecting to beat every team they face.

For Florida to get back to where it wants to be — the top of the SEC —  it now has to go through Georgia. And given how Smart has built his Georgia program, Florida may be stuck on the second step for a while.

This season — Lord willing — Smart will have a chance to win four games in a row against the Gators. 

The last coach to win four games in a row in that series? Spurrier.

It’s going to be a late night.

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Joe VanHoose is a writer and promoter based in Athens, Georgia. He is a Florida man who recognizes that Florida is too hot to inhabit, but rumor has it that he was a Gator Football booster for nearly 20 years. Joe has more enthusiasm than talent for playing music, but he can put you on a good band or barbecue restaurant just the same. On the weekends, you can find him in a haze of red clay at one of the dirt tracks of Northeast Georgia. He is not ashamed of the gospel of short track racing.