By Mark Long/The Associated Press
DESTIN, Fla. — South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier fondly recalled one of his best jabs.
“Citrus and UT, now that’s original,” the head ball coach said Wednesday.
The former Florida coach was referring to his late-1990s joke about rival Tennessee, which played in the Citrus Bowl three times over a four-year span.
“You can’t spell Citrus without U-T,” Spurrier said back then.
That kind of razzing continued for years in the Southeastern Conference, with coaches drawing hearty laughs with witty one-liners aimed at heated rivals. Most of those came at annual booster tours, which were basically offseason pep rallies. Remember the famed spat between Lane Kiffin and Urban Meyer?
Now, thanks partly to the growth of social media as well as a few recent slip-ups directed at Alabama coach Nick Saban, that kind of back-and-forth frivolity could be headed the way of the wishbone.
“I think it’s sad that you can’t go to your whatever clubs and just have a little fun and get everybody to get a good laugh,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “They come to see their coaches and they’re all true-blue Bulldogs or whatever contingent they’re with. If you can’t say anything about anybody else without it becoming a big issue, it makes it less fun.”
Of course, it also could mean fewer apologies.
And there have been plenty of those around the league this year.
Florida coach Will Muschamp and athletic director Jeremy Foley called Saban to apologize for an assistant coach’s words at a recent booster club.
Gators offensive line coach Tim Davis called Saban, his former boss, “the devil himself.”
“I was very disappointed with what Tim said,” Muschamp said Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s reflective of how his true opinion of Nick and the opportunities that Nick gave him at Miami and at Alabama. I’ve talked to Nick about the subject, and Tim, and we’ve moved forward. And I’m just very disappointed.”
So was Saban.
“It’s not really bothersome to me,” Saban said. “I was disappointed because when guys work for you, you have feelings for them. You’re hopeful that they don’t feel that way. But if somebody did feel that way, I just wish they’d tell me because I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad.
“But when you’re in a position of leadership, sometimes you have to make people do things they don’t want to do for the betterment of the program and to get them to do their job the way they need to. And I’m not directing that to anybody in particular. But somebody may not like that. You may not like it when your boss tells you to do something you don’t want to do.”
Davis wasn’t the first SEC coach to compare Saban to the devil.
Vanderbilt’s James Franklin referred to him as “Nicky Satan” at a high school banquet in Georgia in January. He later apologized.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that all these things come from a place of unbelievable respect for what that program has done and what Nick has done over his career,” Franklin said. “You can’t argue with the success he’s had on all levels. When people are talking about you and your program, that’s a sign of respect.”
Saban didn’t quite see it the same way.
“If we’re in a position of leadership, we should set an example that somebody should want to emulate,” Saban said. “That’s the way I see it. Why do we need to say things like that, that’s detrimental to somebody else? If you’re in a position of leadership, you don’t need to do that.
“You don’t need to tear down somebody else to make yourself look better or whatever. You should focus on what you need to do and your programs so that you can be the best that you can be. And that doesn’t have anything to do with what anybody else has going on.”
Just about every football coach at the SEC’s annual spring meetings in Destin said those recent remarks, which spread quickly via social media, changed the way they view those booster tours and just about any public speaking engagement.
Not Spurrier, though.
He was famous for ripping Tennessee and Florida State during his 12 seasons in Gainesville. He memorably referred to FSU as “Free Shoes University” in 1994 after the school started investigating allegations that eight players were accused of taking part in an after-hours shopping spree at a sporting goods store.
“I think you can joke around a little bit,” said Spurrier, adding that he calls North Carolina the favorite school of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “At one time, Dabo said, ‘The real Carolina, North Carolina, their tradition in basketball and so forth. That’s his favorite Carolina, North Carolina, so I say that. I don’t know if that’s going to be funny or what. No big deal. Dabo’s starting to laugh about it now.”
Maybe so. But the SEC coaches are opting to err on the side of caution right now.
“You say something at the grocery store and somebody tweets it, that becomes national news,” Richt said. “So you’ve got to be careful what you say, which in some ways is real good, is healthy. In some ways, it takes a lot of fun out of these events.”