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Analysis: Steve Spurrier's favorite win over Tennessee football might surprise you

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Steve Spurrier went 14-10 as a head coach against Tennessee throughout stints at Duke, Florida and South Carolina, but theking of the quip and the longtime thorn in UT’s side counts 15 victories.

Spurrier’s tally includes Duke’s 25-24 triumph in the 1982 season opener at Neyland Stadium.

Spurrier was Duke’s offensive coordinator, and it marked his first trip to Neyland as a coach after never having played Tennessee while he was Florida’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in the 1960s.

Spurrier considers that initial appearance against the Vols to be his favorite game against Tennessee.

“They had Reggie White at defense end, Willie Gault at wide receiver and a bunch of guys. I don’t think they were real fired up for us Dukies, and we came in there and won,” Spurrier, 76, told me this week.

“As a kid from Johnson City [Tennessee] and going to Knoxville and watching the Vols and all that, it was my first time (competing against Tennessee). I got chill bumps all over when the announcer came on and he said, ‘It’s football time in Tennessee.’ That’s my home state, and it was football time.”

Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 SEC) and No. 11 Florida (2-1, 0-1) will play Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) at The Swamp in a rivalry that isn’t what it used to be. The Gators have won 15 of the past 16 installments.

Can’t spell Citrus without UT

Spurrier was born in Miami Beach but grew up in East Tennessee. He became a star athlete at Science Hill High School in Johnson City and attended games at Neyland Stadium.

“When I was a kid, my dad was a preacher, and somebody gave him three free tickets,” Spurrier recalled. “We couldn’t afford the four or five bucks, whatever they cost. But, we would go to Neyland Stadium about once a year. Shields-Watkins Field, it was called back then.”

It was Spurrier who turned this game into a rivalry, along with the launch of division play in 1992.

As much as the rivalry was Florida vs. Tennessee, it was Spurrier vs. Phillip Fulmer, a pair of Tennesseans who are as dissimilar as fire and ice.

The comedian vs. the statesman, with the comedian enjoying the upper hand, not only in wisecracks but also in victories.

Spurrier, while Florida’s coach, went 7-3 against Fulmer.

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The rivalry hasn’t been the same since Spurrier departed Florida for the Washington Football Team after the 2001 season, and certainly not since Fulmer’s last season as UT’s coach in 2008.

Spurrier’s jabs at the Vols cranked up the rivalry heat.

Tennessee played in the Citrus Bowl three times during a four-year stretch from the 1993-96 seasons. During that period, the Gators won a national championship and played three times in the more prestigious Sugar Bowl and once in the Fiesta Bowl.

Spurrier drove the disparity home when he quipped that you can’t spell Citrus without UT.

“I told the joke, and then we went to the Citrus Bowl, and they went to the national championship,” Spurrier recalled, with a laugh.

Asked about his Tennessee barbs, Spurrier said they were meant to entertain Gators fans.

“All of my corny little jokes were in the summertime,” he said. “During the season, I didn’t say all that stuff. It was in the summer when I would talk to the Gator Clubs. I had to do – and it really didn’t bother me – 21 or 22 Gator Clubs every summer.

“So, we’d usually play a nice golf course that day, and then I’d come talk to the Gators. So, I’m just talking to the Gators. They want to hear something funny. Bobby Bowden did the same thing. He’d go around and do the Seminole Clubs, and he’d tell little corny Gator jokes, but for some reason, the media, ah, they didn’t think his were as funny as mine.”

Florida-Tennessee rivalry lost its luster

Florida became the SEC’s premier program in the 1990s, ahead of Tennessee and Alabama.

The three schools each won a national championship during the '90s. From 1992-2000, only three programs won the SEC Championship – Florida (five times), Tennessee (twice) and Alabama (twice).

The Florida-Tennessee game in September charted the course for the SEC Championship.

“If you want to win the division, you had to beat Tennessee. And if you want to win the SEC Championship, you’ve got to beat Alabama. That happened for us a bunch of times,” Spurrier said.

This year marks the 20-year anniversary of a time that didn’t happen.

The Florida-Tennessee game was postponed to the regular-season finale, on Dec. 1, 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Florida was ranked No. 2 entering that game. The Vols foiled the Gators’ national championship course.

Tennessee won 34-32 – its first win here against Florida in 30 years – behind Travis Stephens’ 226 rushing yards. UT stopped Florida’s two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter to preserve the win.

“Travis Stephens ran it down our throat,” Spurrier said. “That one hurt us. When you have a team that has a chance to win everything, and you lose your division, you have no chance to win anything, really, except the Orange Bowl.”

Spurrier opened a Gainesville restaurant, Spurrier’s Gridiron Grille, earlier this year, where memorabilia from his playing and coaching careers is displayed. He frequently stops by to chat with fans and take photos, and he’ll sometimes blow a whistle to bring everyone to attention before addressing diners.

The vibe around Gainesville was at a fever pitch last week, when the Gators hosted No. 1-ranked Alabama. Florida lost 31-29 in front of a sellout crowd.

The energy isn’t the same for this weekend’s game against Tennessee.

Florida’s fourth-year coach, Dan Mullen, is restoring Florida to prominence. Tennessee lags behind.

And a once-heated rivalry is relegated to memories.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.