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Putting South Carolina on the Map

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page D03

COLUMBIA, S.C., April 17 -- A plaque in South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier's office reads, "Why Not Us." The former Washington Redskins coach borrowed the phrase from the Boston Red Sox, whose 86 years of futility ended last year when they won the World Series. Spurrier knows the challenge he faces here might be as daunting as ending "the Curse of the Bambino."

Spurrier, who turns 60 on Wednesday, took over a program that has won one conference championship and two bowl games in 111 years. In Saturday's spring game, played in front of a record crowd of 38,806 at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gamecocks looked like themselves, dropping passes, missing blocks and blowing too many assignments.

Steve Spurrier is happy to be coaching in college after leaving the Redskins. At South Carolina, Spurrier will call the plays and make the main decisions. (Perry Baker -- AP)

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So why would Spurrier, one of college football's most recognizable and winningest coaches, take over a program that has largely been insignificant year after year after year?

"South Carolina has basically everything that I was looking for," Spurrier said, during an interview outside his office a few minutes after his Black team beat the Garnet team, 20-10, on Saturday. "It's in the South, it's in the Southeastern Conference and it's a big state university with wonderful facilities. Their tradition is not that good, so we've got a chance to do some things that have never been done here before. And it was the first job that came open."

Actually, South Carolina's vacancy, created in November when Lou Holtz retired after producing three winning records in six seasons, was the second opening in the SEC. Florida, where Spurrier won the 1966 Heisman Trophy as the Gators' quarterback and 122 games, six SEC titles and the 1996 national championship as his alma mater's coach, fired Ron Zook in late October. Spurrier, who resigned from Florida after a 10-2 season in 2001 to take over the Redskins, said he never seriously considered returning to his old job.

Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley and President Bernard Machen did not interview Spurrier before hiring former Utah coach Urban Meyer, who led the Utes to a 12-0 record and an unexpected berth in the Bowl Championship Series last season.

"First of all, the job was never offered to me," Spurrier said. "I didn't feel like going back and doing what we'd already done. I think the president down there felt the need to bring in his own guy. I think it worked out best for everybody involved."

It certainly has worked out well for the Gamecocks, who have long been starving for attention and success in football. Spurrier already has helped South Carolina gain more exposure. ESPN2 televised the Gamecocks' spring game and their Sept. 1 opener against Central Florida will be televised by ESPN.

"We've not done anything to earn the spotlight," Spurrier said. "We appreciate it. We'll have to earn the attention in the future."

South Carolina already has taken several significant steps to help Spurrier succeed. The school dedicated a new $3 million football facility on Saturday, the same day the school hired Texas Christian University's Eric Hyman as its new athletic director. At Spurrier's request, South Carolina has given its stadium a facelift, painting large areas garnet and black and hanging portraits of former players and coaches.

"I feel very fortunate to be here," Spurrier said. "These people are starving for success. They're loyal and they don't complain. They deserve a winner."

Turning the Gamecocks into a winner won't be easy, however. After more than a month of spring practices, Spurrier still hasn't settled on a starting quarterback. One of his team's best receivers, Noah Whiteside, dislocated his right ankle during the spring game and might miss the start of the season. Spurrier dismissed Demetris Summers, the team's leading rusher, for violating school policies. Worse, 11 South Carolina players have been arrested for various offenses since he took over, including two who were arrested for simple marijuana possession early Sunday morning.

"If you're not going to follow the rules, you won't be here," quarterback Blake Mitchell said. "He sets the rules and he's in charge. He's made that pretty clear."

Despite the off-field problems, Spurrier seems happy he is back in his element. He hired his son, Steve Spurrier Jr., to coach the receivers, and his youngest son, Scotty, will play football at nearby Charleston Southern this fall. And it hasn't taken long for Spurrier to rekindle his feud with nemesis Phillip Fulmer, the coach at Tennessee.

During two regrettable seasons with the Redskins, in which his teams lost 20 of 32 games, Spurrier seemed miserable. He was forced to hire an offensive coordinator who called the plays, delegated more responsibilities to his assistants and didn't have the final say in personnel decisions.

"It was no one's fault but my own," Spurrier said. "I missed being in charge -- running the program and being the coach. That's the way I've always done it."

Spurrier earns about $1.25 million annually at South Carolina, and at least three other SEC coaches -- Auburn's Tommy Tuberville ($2.3 million), Fulmer ($2.05 million) and Georgia's Mark Richt ($1.5 million) -- are being paid more. After he was paid $10 million by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, Spurrier could afford to take less.

"When people ask me what I got out of pro football, I tell them a whole bunch of money," Spurrier said. "Of course, [Snyder] pays a lot of people a whole bunch of money. I might have been overpaid, but I'm not the most overpaid person he's ever had."

If Spurrier turns the Gamecocks into a winner, he'll have earned every penny South Carolina is paying him. "We believe he's going to take us to the promised land," tailback Cory Boyd said.

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