In 1996, Florida played at Florida State in a #1 versus #2 match-up. Florida State won the game 24-21. In the process, the Seminoles engaged in a fairly clear campaign to injure the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, Danny Wuerrfel. The famous phrase that emerged after the game was that FSU defenders pursued Wuerrfel “to the echo of the whistle.” How did Spurrier respond? Take it away, Orlando Sentinel:
One after another, the hits come to Danny Wuerffel. Steve Spurrier's VCR hums on, and the longer it runs, the more punishment his quarterback absorbs.
This, Spurrier insists, isn't right. Which, of course, is why this videotape exists in the first place.
Spurrier asked his videographers to splice tape of plays that show Florida State defenders delivering late hits to Wuerffel, the newest Heisman Trophy winner. The tapes, taken from end-zone cameras used by schools, generally are unavailable to TV networks or reporters.
Joined in his office last week by several reporters for an invitation-only viewing session, Spurrier grimaces or shakes his head at the conclusion of each play--eight in all--from FSU's 24-21 victory over Florida last month.
"I don't know what we've got to do about it, but that kid's not going to be somebody's tackling dummy," Spurrier said.
Following FSU's hits are some selected plays from Florida's victory over Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. In terms of punishment to Wuerffel, there's a noticeable difference.
A spear by an unidentified Florida State tackler on a sack--"That's criminal," Spurrier said--and a forearm hit by nose guard Andre Wadsworth draw particular attention.
Because of Texas upsetting Nebraska in the inaugural Big XII Title Game, Florida got a second shot at the Seminoles in the Bowl Alliance Championship Game. Spurrier’s media campaign put the Seminoles’ pass rush at the center of attention going into the game. Florida got an early late hit penalty against FSU. The attention to the Noles’ pass rush, combined with tactical adjustments by Spurrier (most notably increased use of the shotgun) and the basic fact that Florida was simply a better team (Danny Wuerrfel versus Thad Busby?), led to the Gators winning in a rout.
Contrast Spurrier’s reaction to Brady Hoke refusing to comment on Michigan State engaging in a similar campaign to injure Michigan’s star quarterback. In both instances, Hoke’s and Spurrier’s teams were visiting their in-state rival in a big game. In both instances, the rival elected to engage in an apparent (obvious?) effort to injure the opposing quarterback. In Spurrier’s case, he went on the offensive and got what he wanted: (1) media attention on the tactics of his opponent; and (2) a more favorable refereeing environment the next time the teams played. Florida won the next two games against the Seminoles. In Hoke’s case, he has chosen to say nothing.
Now, there are several distinctions to be made here. First, Michigan did actually get several calls from the refs on Saturday, although they didn’t call all of the potential personal fouls and, most inexplicably, they did not eject William Gholston from the game when they had two obvious opportunities to do so. Michigan certainly got more protection than Florida got against FSU, although I would also add that FSU did not go quite as far as Michigan State did. Second, Florida was playing FSU again in the same season, so there was a more immediate reason to try to get the Noles on the defensive. Third, at the time that Spurrier called reporters into his office to show them video clips of the illegal abuse that his quarterback had taken, he had a massive amount of political capital. Spurrier had just wrapped up his fourth straight SEC title and his team was playing for the national title for the second consecutive year. In other words, when Spurrier talked, people listened. In contrast, Brady Hoke has been coach of Michigan for all of seven games. His career record is barely over .500. Michigan has now lost four straight games to Michigan State for the first time in a half-century. Hoke might feel, with some justification, that he is the new guy to the party and it isn’t his place to speak up. In four years, if Hoke has re-established Michigan as a Big Ten power, then he might be in more of a position to instruct Michigan staffers to splice together footage of Michigan State acting outside of the rules against his players. Given that the Spartans are doing all of the heavy lifting* to make the rivalry one of the dirtiest in college football, Hoke needs to do something.
* – I would not have guessed, by the way, that Auburn-Georgia has been the dirtiest rivalry game over the past five years. Last year’s episode of escalating retaliation was not an outlier. And if you want to know why ACC football is dreck right now, the fact that Miami-FSU is not on this list, but Duke-UNC is should tell you all you need to know.