In the college football world, there are plenty of iconic head coaches—names like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh are among the elite in their field. But only one man has earned the title, "Head Ball Coach," and he has quite the personality to go along with the nickname.

And for all Steve Spurrier has done as a player and coach, the roots of the Head Ball Coach sit squarely in Durham, where he spent six seasons as the offensive coordinator and then head coach at Duke.

"If I had not gotten hired at Duke University, I wouldn't have had a coaching career," Spurrier said in a phone interview Tuesday. "Everything that's happened to me in coaching is because of Duke. My son went there, he loves Duke—we all love Duke University."

During Saturday's contest with Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils will honor the soon-to-be College Football Hall of Fame inductee with a presentation at the same Wallace Wade Stadium where Spurrier once roamed the sidelines. The 1966 Heisman Trophy winner at Florida quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers for nearly a decade before ultimately retiring and starting his coaching career.

After jumping between four different teams from 1978-1985, Duke came calling for Spurrier in 1987, giving the then-42-year-old his first head coaching job. He headed for Florida just three seasons later in December 1989, racking up five SEC Coach of the Year awards and a national title in 1996 with the Gators, before he spent two years with Washington in the NFL and 11 seasons at South Carolina.

Many coaching peers, like current Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe, cannot say enough about a man who has accomplished about as much as anyone in the sport.

"He influenced a lot of us who are my age, and I'm not that much younger than him," Cutcliffe said. "He was a trendsetter in throwing the football—'fun n' gun' or whatever you want to call it. And he was a competitor of ours, the long battles between Tennessee and Florida, but his taunting of us at Tennessee stirs a lot of memories."

"He's a Hall-of-Fame player, he's a Hall-of-Fame coach, which is a rare breed, so I'm proud that Duke is taking the step to honor him and he'll have a good time here this weekend."

Spurrier will spend the weekend in Durham with players from all of his Blue Devil teams—both from 1980-82 as an assistant and 1987-89. Although Duke sputtered to just 14 wins during his initial stint, then-Blue Devil athletic director Tom Butters made the decision to bring Spurrier back.

And in only three seasons, it paid off handsomely.

"Let me tell you what, the '87 team, we went 5-6 and five of the six losses were by seven or less points," Spurrier said. "The '87 and '88 teams were close in talent with the '89 team, it's just that the '89 team went 6-1 in conference play and won the ACC."

His last two seasons in Durham, Spurrier picked up ACC Coach of the Year honors, and in 1989, he led Duke to seven consecutive victories—capped by a drubbing of North Carolina at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill and a team photo on the field in front of the scoreboard.


Chronicle File Photo

After the Blue Devils beat North Carolina 41-0 on the road in 1989, they took a famous photo in front of the scoreboard at Kenan Stadium.


"[The Tar Heels] were terrible that year," Spurrier said. "We beat them 41-0 and it should've been 65-0. We threw away 20 points easily down around the goal line."

But one of the longest winning streaks in program history began earlier that season with a remarkable 21-17 home upset of No. 7 Clemson. Of all the games from his time in Durham, that one still sticks out in Spurrier's mind.

"We were behind Clemson 14-0 at half and it was a rainy, rainy day," Spurrier said. "The few students that came to the game went back to the dorms. So we came out for the second half and there was hardly anybody there. All of a sudden, some stuff started happening, the scoreboard said 14-14 and they all came streaming back in.

"We ended up winning 21-17 and they tore the goalposts down, so we had a good crowd, no crowd and then a big crowd."

Cutcliffe and Spurrier never met as SEC head coaches, but the two talked before Cutcliffe took the Blue Devil job in 2008, and Spurrier encouraged the move.

Although the pair will always be connected by Duke and the SEC, it is a missing piece of memorabilia that may be the deepest thread between the current and former Blue Devil head coaches.

"One thing I wish I had was the chin strap I got from him when he was a collegiate player at Florida," Cutcliffe said. "My brother [Paige] played with Spurrier at Florida, so I had his chin strap. And wouldn’t you know that somewhere along the way, it got lost. Not very smart on my part."