Tom Keiser continues his look at the evolution of Steve Spurrier by talking with one of his most influential mentors, former Georgia Tech coach Franklin "Pepper" Rodgers. You may know him better as the head coach of the Memphis Showboats, or as one of the only men ever nicknamed "Pepper."
Pepper Rodgers is one of the most interesting people in college football. A star college football player and later head coach for Georgia Tech, Pepper also coached John Riggins at Kansas, future TV star Mark Harmon at UCLA, and Reggie White while with the USFL’s Memphis Showboats. His personal website is full of amazing stories and photos that are too incredible to describe succinctly.
Perhaps the greatest football mind Pepper Rodgers is associated with is Steve Spurrier. Pepper was an offensive assistant at Florida while Spurrier was playing. Even though Rodgers left before Spurrier’s Heisman Trophy run in 1966, the two have remained close friends and have coached with and against each other. As director of football operations with the Washington Redskins in the early 2000’s, Pepper was instrumental in bringing Spurrier to the NFL. Pepper was gracious enough to speak with me about The Old Ball Coach, and to give a glimpse of one of the greatest coaches of all time.
TK: You coached Steve Spurrier as an assistant in Florida. How was Steve recruited by Florida, and did you already think he was something special way back then?
PR: Steve’s a Tennessee guy but U of T was a single-wing team, and he didn’t want to play that. The University of Florida was a really attractive place (good weather, etc.) but he wanted to play in the T formation, under the center. [The single-wing is] a really famous old offense but they now call it the shotgun, and every one wants to play the shotgun! He was a great punter and a great athlete. Anything that he wanted to play (golf, tennis) and he could punt that ball very accurately and out of bounds. You don’t win the Heisman Trophy without being special, obviously. (laughs) He was a great athlete, too.
PR: Did you see any parallels between yourself and Steve, as he grew from being a star college quarterback/special teams player to a quality assistant and then a pro and college coach? How well did the two of you work together, first at Georgia Tech and then with the Redskins?
PR: Steve and I had always liked one another. I proved I could coach good players and proved that I couldn’t coach bad ones. When Steve came to me at GT I paid him the highest compliment and let him call plays; I called plays wherever I’ve been and after so many games I had complete confidence in him and he was obviously very good at it (brave, risk taker, and odds player). I was with [Washington Redskins owner] Dan [Snyder] and Dan knew I was close to Steve and we had tried to hire Steve the year before and he decided to stay the year and when he resigned he wanted to hire Steve and through my association with Steve we went out and hired him. He would’ve been a great NFL coach if he wanted to be but it just didn’t fit with what he is, which is a great college coach. It was a bad fit.
PR: What traits do you believe the two of you share when it comes to coaching, and how do you differ?
PR: He believes that you get the job done and you don’t have to bend the rules to win and play by the rules and I think that’s the way Steve’s right on in everything. He’s fair and treats his players fair, and I think I tried to do the same. We like each other, and we won a tennis tournament together while we were both at GT. I think Steve would take more chances than I would but as we get older we don’t take as many chances, but I wouldn’t say we were different in hardly anything. But he’s a risk taker, and not many coaches take as many risks. He’s a scary guy to coach against because he takes those chances.
TK: Is Steve Spurrier the same vivid, witty personality he is in private that he is in public? What do you think few people know about Steve?
PR: He’s an upfront guy and he’s very confident in his abilities to get the job done and he’s just a remarkable guy and I don’t think there’s anything that you see in public that he is different from in his private life. He is honest straight forward guy, and a tough guy to coach against because you don’t know what he’ll do when he has the ball. He’ll always makes you unnerved. He’s not a normal guy when on the football field. He’s way above average.
I’ve told this a lot of times, but there was the time we coached in the USFL and we surprised his team (the Tampa Bay Bandits) with an onside kick after we (the Memphis Showboats) had the lead. Not only did he do it once but he did it twice. He wanted to top his old coach, and son of a gun if he didn’t do two [onside kicks] the next game!