Ball Coach at Twilight: The definitive biography covering Steve Spurrier's career as Heisman-winning player and coach
Spurrier Wins Heisman in Publicity Blitz!
We all need someone to give us an opportunity, and some publicity.
More than fifty years after Steve Spurrier won the 1966 Heisman Trophy, forever changing the history of Florida, South Carolina, and the sport of football, his arrival in Johnson City, Tennessee, at age 11 is shrouded in mystery and myth.
We might never have heard the name Spurrier if his family had stayed in Newport, a feisty little town in Cocke County, Tennessee, known for moon-shining, cock fighting, prostitution and boozy arguments over roosters and women that led to murder. Steve’s father, Reverend John Graham Spurrier II, the pastor of Newport Presbyterian Church, tried desperately for almost year to move his family to a safer place, with better schools and sports programs. And in August of 1956, he miraculously succeeded.
Over in Johnson City, a railroad town of 25,000 in the hills of East Tennessee, they all heard that 11-year-old Stevie Spurrier was such a talented ball player he’d gotten his father the job of pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church on Wilson Street.
“Who’s your Daddy?” the athletic director of the city school system supposedly asked a boy playing catch with his big brother at a church camp in Montreat, North Carolina. Sid Smallwood, the steely-eyed athletic director, saw such talent at play that church elders moved the Spurrier family into the red brick preacher’s “manse” above Kiwanis Park by the end of the week, so the story went.
In reality, only Jesus of Nazareth could become pastor of a Presbyterian church in less than seven days. To get through the hiring process at Calvary Presbyterian, Reverend Spurrier had to deliver two pressure-packed “trial sermons” to win the approval of church elders in Johnson City, Presbyterian records show. When he finally got the job in early August, a preacher full of faith in his youngest son’s athletic ability concocted a story to give Stevie all the credit.
Isn’t every father sure his son will be a star? Of course people would believe Smallwood brought an eleven year old to town to light up the scoreboard, Reverend Spurrier assured the athletic director who’d been his family’s savior. Only two people could know otherwise. Smallwood swore he’d tell no one in the preacher’s lifetime, not even Mrs. Spurrier or Mrs. Smallwood, how the Spurriers actually got to Johnson City.
Steve Spurrier’s devoted, demanding father died in his sleep on a moonless night in Green Cove Springs, Florida, in April, 2000, secure in the knowledge that his friend in Johnson City kept his promise. In a subsequent interview, followed by four more, Smallwood disclosed the secret he’d kept nearly fifty years, with Presbyterian "session minutes" confirming his revelation.
Smallwood had white hair, silver glasses, a hearing aid, a scratchy voice and a twinkle in his eye, sitting in front of the portrait he’d painted of Steve Spurrier, talking about the tale told by Reverend Spurrier that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Smallwood had no children of his own, and lived to guide young people to the Lord and the ball field. In October, 1955, he went to a youth gathering at Montreat to serve as “guidance counselor,” and heard a pastor from Newport, of all places, speak stirringly to young souls at a vesper service in the mountain twilight.
At the final service of the weekend, Smallwood told Reverend Spurrier the kids liked the way he told bible stories.
“They said you talked their language,” Smallwood said he told the preacher.
Reverend Spurrier began talking about his family back in Newport, and how his boys lived to play ball. Smallwood could see the pastor from a rawboned mountain town wanted out. He’d done his homework, and “had heard about Science Hill High School in Johnson City, and the excellence of the academics and athletics.” Most memorably, the preacher took Smallwood’s hand and said, “If ever there’s an opening at a church in Johnson City that needs a pastor …”
Smallwood promised to keep the preacher in mind. Reverend Spurrier would do more than pray that the men would meet again. Back in Newport, he realized that a veteran at his church needed monthly check ups at the Mountain Home Veterans Hospital in Johnson City, and volunteered to drive the man there for medical care.
In Johnson City, Smallwood sat behind a desk strewn with books and magazine articles about helping young people play better ball, expecting to see Reverend Spurrier in the doorway once a month. On a real fateful day in July of 1956, Smallwood said he greeted “Brother Spurrier” with good news. An athletic booster and church official named Raymond Huff needed a pastor at one of First Presbyterian’s “mission churches” in Johnson City, in a hard-working neighborhood above Kiwanis Park.
The preacher immediately said yes. The athletic director picked up the phone and made his pitch. Huff set up the two trial sermons, and church elders decided that Reverend Spurrier was the man for the job. When he heard that his family would be leaving Newport for a land of opportunity, his first impulse was to make his son the hero of the story.
The good father gave his son the glory, Smallwood had to agree. The impressive one at Montreat had been the preacher.
The story didn’t fool the elders of Newport Presbyterian. Since April 22, 1956, they had someone else sign the session minutes in Reverend Spurrier’s name, initialed by Clerk L. W. Morrow. Did a tipster reveal their pastor’s intentions, or were they just street smart? They’d undercut Reverend Spurrier’s authority and paid him only $370 all summer, the session minutes show.
But no church elder would contradict the tale of an athletic director seeing Stevie Spurrier play ball and hustling his family to Johnson City. No Christian father would question how that kid could be so good a church would hire his Dad within a week.
What can a jolt of confidence do for a youngster? Reverend Spurrier helped turn dreams into reality, playing catch with his son almost every day in the back yard of the "manse," as Presbyterians call the preacher's house. Stevie's father did all he could to make Sid Smallwood look like a real sharp talent scout. Certainly the Spurrier family and the people of Johnson City looked on with pride when Steve Spurrier put the town on the sports page – along with underdog universities in Durham, North Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina and Gainesville, Florida.
In 1996, the National Championship season of Gator quarterback Danny Wuerfell made Spurrier the only Heisman Trophy winner ever to coach a Heisman Trophy winner. One demanding coach, a man with one demanding Dad, could actually do what he asked his players to do.
How much stock should we put in our own legend? All Steve Spurrier would say in numerous interviews about the story his father told, and the townspeople believed, is, “I didn’t meet Sid Smallwood until I moved to Johnson City.” He left the seminal episode of his childhood out of his second autobiography, published in 2016, along with any mention of his mentor, friend and portrait painter Sid Smallwood.
Coach Smallwood and Reverend Spurrier were not the only game-changing publicists in Spurrier's career. His 1966 Heisman Trophy marked the dawn of the modern Heisman publicity campaign. Back in the sixties, when football games in the South weren’t newsworthy elsewhere, Spurrier’s publicist at Florida, Norm Carlson, sent weekly highlight tapes of his quarterback’s exploits to TV stations across the land --- resulting in the New York Times covering a football game in Gainesville for the first time ever, in November of 1966, when the Gators played Auburn. Spurrier quarterbacked, punted and kicked his team to victory with a last-second field goal that surely won him that trophy in New York.
Everyone needs a fatherly blessing, a great narrative, and a friend who keeps secrets.
“I recruited the Reverend,” Smallwood was finally able to say, before his death in the summer of 2014 in the Tennessee town he loved. “Steve was a bonus!”
"Committed to piercing the media-hyped myth of Spurrier, Henry has written a wise and honest biography of a man who has revamped the strategy of college football, making it more exciting for players and fans alike."
Publishers Weekly (Sept.2014)
"Ran Henry's 'Spurrier' is the most comprehensive book that will ever be written about the life and career of the iconic coach."
Dan Wakefield, author of New York in the Fifties and Going All the Way
“You’ve done a first class job. You’re a great writer. You did what you needed to do. And you did it all, because this is a good picture of Steve.”
COACH PEPPER RODGERS on Spurrier, the definitive biography and cover photo
"Ran Henry's Spurrier is the most comprehensive book that will ever be written about the life and career of the iconic coach."
~DAN WAKEFIELD, author of New York in the Fifties
"Ran Henry has written an all-American story of grit talent,and triumph. This meticulously researched biography details the life of one of college football's most iconic and galvanizing figures, Steve Spurrier. You may love him or hate him, but after reading this riveting tale, you will admire him. Spurrier is more than the story of one outrageously talented and preternaturally determined athlete; it's the story of how football came to be America's game, and it should be required reading for all SEC fans."
~JOHN DUFRESNE, author of No Regrets, Coyote and Louisiana Power & Light
"Ran Henry takes his subjects so personally that the depth of the details he reveals is packed with originality and an uncanny insight into the human condition. His journey into the heart and soul of a Southern football legend is a marvel."
~T.M. SHINE, author of Nothing Happens Until It Happens to You
and Fathers Aren't Supposed to Die