My birthday is Tuesday. I'll be 34. On my ninth birthday, Dale Carter ran the second half kickoff back and the Vols unleashed 38 straight points on Florida in a 45-3 triumph. It didn't seem to mean much for the long-term in the moment, just a huge win against a first-year coach of a team we didn't play every year. Gators got us back the next year.
And then league expansion put us together in 1992, and Tennessee has spent every year since being defined in large part by what it does against Florida. Ask Butch Jones.
And so I realize sitting here tonight, that night 25 years ago? That was it. That was the only time in 25 seasons (minus three years on Daniel Snyder's payroll) we beat that guy the way we'd spend the next two decades wishing we could.
After he came to Florida in 1990, Tennessee beat Steve Spurrier nine times. That's it. Four at Florida, five at South Carolina. The biggest margins came first, that October night in '90 and then two years later in a driving rainstorm, 31-14 with a fresh-faced Phillip Fulmer filling in.
It wasn't a rivalry yet though, not back then. What made it was the next five years, and specifically 1995, 1996, and 1997.
We talked a lot about how much the losses to Oklahoma and Florida hurt last month, and they're certainly on the list as the largest blown lead in Neyland history and a game that just should have been over that wasn't, a chance to end a decade streak. But neither of them hurt quite the same as '95, '96, and '97 against Spurrier because the Vols were far too good to get beat for a decade.
Some younger fans today don't know what it's like to be up 30-14 in The Swamp and lose 62-37, then finish the year 11-1, then welcome the Gators back to Knoxville with the Vols ranked second in the nation...and fall behind 35-0 in the second quarter. It is still the only time I've left a game before halftime.
And then your quarterback, THE quarterback, comes back for his senior year to right these wrongs. And you lose again.
And suddenly you're very much in a rivalry, only it's one you can't win even with your very best teams. And this guy is saying things that will take us like 15 years to laugh about in Knoxville, which make you want to beat him even more, and then he beats you even more.
Steve Spurrier made Tennessee fans (among others) hate an item of clothing. That's impressive.
I've typed this sentence a number of times on this blog, usually to discuss Fulmer being underrated, but it's just as powerful for Spurrier: between an October 1994 loss to Alabama and a November 1999 loss at Arkansas, Tennessee went 1-4 against Florida and 37-0 against the rest of the SEC.
What makes a rivalry really great and a villain truly a villain is getting the best of them every once in a while. I don't care for Nick Saban or Urban Meyer, but it's nothing compared to the way I used to feel about Spurrier. With Spurrier, we got a true rivalry by getting a true payoff just enough to make it matter. Tennessee's wins in 1998 and 2001 over Florida remain two of the ten biggest in the 119 year history of Volunteer football.
I enjoyed that 2001 win not just because it gave the Vols the SEC East and a chance to play for the BCS title, not just because it ended a 30 year drought in The Swamp, but because Spurrier left a month later when ten wins weren't enough for the Gators anymore. Tennessee got the last word. And then Spurrier came back to South Carolina, a team the Vols had beaten a dozen years in a row, and immediately beat us again. And after Vol victories in 2006 and 2007, Spurrier put the nail in Fulmer's coffin in Columbia in 2008. And I still get mad writing that sentence.
It's changed since then. Yeah, the Vols beat him 31-13 in 2009 with Lane Kiffin, but that year doesn't exist in the midst of most Tennessee fans. And then South Carolina swept Derek Dooley, but so did everybody.
In these last few down years, we've seen a twilight appreciation for Spurrier. In part I think we've missed the opportunity that used to be there when the visor was on the other sideline. In part we've come to laugh at ourselves a little more. And in part respect has worked its way into the equation in a way it never could when Spurrier was in Gainesville.
For those who us who remember those days, Spurrier will always raise the blood pressure even if it no longer requires medication. If I'm being totally honest, there's a part of me tonight that is going to enjoy the fact that the Vols got the last word on Spurrier again, with Butch Jones 2-0 against the ballcoach.
But there's another part of me that is realizing, reaching all the way back to age nine, that I don't know what it's like to be a Tennessee fan and not have Spurrier as the villain. He was only gone three years before, always a threat to return. But this time he may be gone for good. And I doubt we'll see anything like him again.
Much of what we said we wouldn't miss when he left Florida we came to appreciate, at least in part, at South Carolina. But I will miss, without question, the chance to watch Tennessee try to make him pay for it every year.
Steve Spurrier got the best of Tennessee more often than not. Tennessee got the best of Spurrier often enough to make it a real rivalry. And I will miss the opportunity to get the best of him again. In my time there's been no one better, no one more infuriating, and no one more fun to beat. And we're going to miss him.