Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks, 6-2 and ranked 17th in the country, fell out of the national title picture with back-to-back losses to LSU and Florida this month. He can’t hide the disappointment that accompanied those defeats but can still recite off the top of his head all the superlatives about Gamecocks football in recent years. Here’s one: “Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Clemson — those are probably our four big rivals. The coach before me, in 24 games was 3-21. Let’s see, right now, we’re 15-15. That’s the difference we’ve made. And in the last two years now, we’re 9-1 on those teams.”
Another program turned around. Time and age haven’t changed much, he said. His feats at Duke seem almost like mythological lore. Florida is a perennial powerhouse because of the foundation Spurrier laid. And now South Carolina football has risen from SEC dreck to become a top-25 mainstay. In fact, the only place Spurrier didn’t win was the NFL.
It has been 10 years since Spurrier roved the Washington Redskins’ sideline. When he left the Gators to become the NFL’s highest-paid coach — $25 million over five years — he was just another pricey acquisition in an era when the Redskins were tossing around cash for impressive résumés.
“I look back and can say that was a mistake,” Spurrier said of his tenure in Washington. “The lifestyle of an NFL coach is more time-consuming with football than I enjoy doing. I enjoy an offseason, playing golf, getting away from it — this, that and the other. Some guys love being consumed with football 12 months of the year. I like to get consumed four or five months during the season. And then a little more here and there.”
After two rough seasons and a 12-20 record, Spurrier walked away from the Redskins, saying his “give-a-damn was busted.” A year later, the lifelong Gator showed up in Columbia, taking over for the retired Lou Holtz, finding a program not unlike the Duke and Florida teams he’d previously inherited. He was again starting almost from scratch.
Florida Coach Will Muschamp was asked last weekend what satisfaction he derived from beating Spurrier, a Heisman winner when he played for the Gators who has a statue in front of the stadium he nicknamed.
“It has to do with the respect that I have for him as a football coach, and not necessarily what he did at Florida,” Muschamp said. “What he did at Duke. What he is doing at South Carolina. . . . I’ve got as much respect for him as I do for anybody who has been a coach, for what he has accomplished and for what he did for this university.”
‘All kinds of ways to win’
Spurrier arrived in Columbia hoping to work off the same blueprint. The community already had passion: South Carolina was ranked No. 11 in the country in attendance in the midst of a 21-game losing streak in 2000. But the Gamecocks had been the SEC’s doormats since entering the league in 1991.
“Part of the problem is there was a self-defeatist attitude — doom and gloom,” said Todd Ellis, the school’s leading career passer (1986-89), “where we were always talking about how we were going to come up short, talking about things we can’t do or complaining about taking on too much. That all changed right away.”
The program looks entirely different today. Spurrier has overseen nearly $50 million worth of upgrades, from the stadium to the locker room to the parking lot. They’ve also added a $12.6 million academic enrichment center, and a $14 million indoor facility is in the works.
All the while, Spurrier can see that the football landscape has changed, both in the SEC and the NFL. Oft-criticized for forcing his pass-heavy “Fun-n-Gun” offense — with its play-action, draw plays, audibles and multiple-receiver sets — on the NFL when defense and running backs won championships, Spurrier is now running the ball and relying on a swarming defense in the SEC. The NFL, meantime, has evolved into a quarterback-driven league, not unlike his old Florida teams.
“You got to do whatever the strength of your team is. . . . In the NFL, teams got to do what fits,” Spurrier said. “There’s not many teams that throw every down except Green Bay, New England, Denver — they throw a lot. But look at the Bears, they still play defense, get turnovers.
“There’s all kinds of ways to win. Whatever your talent suits is what you should do.”
‘Never been done before’
The Gamecocks appeared in the SEC title game two years ago. Last season, they posted their first 11-win season in school history. They could match that mark this year. With junior Marcus Lattimore in the backfield and sophomore Jadeveon Clowney on the defensive line, Spurrier has plenty of weapons.
“It’s definitely a fun time to be a Gamecock,” said T.J. Johnson, a fifth-year senior on the offensive line. “It really is.”
Spurrier, who still calls offensive plays and works with the quarterbacks at practice, insists he enjoys winning with defense as much as offense, even if the games aren’t as thrilling to watch.
“I do think it’s still difficult on him,” said Ellis, who co-hosts Spurrier’s weekly coach’s show. “His blood is to attack, attack, attack, get a lead and then run the ball.”
It’s a philosophy laid out by Alabama Coach Nick Saban and one that any team hoping to be competitive in the SEC must follow. But Spurrier said his goals are different than those of Saban and LSU’s Les Miles and Florida’s Muschamp. He uses a different measuring stick to gauge success.
“I’d rather win an SEC title here — I’d rather win a division here — than a national championship at Alabama or Southern Cal or something like that,” he said. “That’s been done before. The things we’re trying to do here, they’ve never been done before.”
It seems like yesterday that Spurrier was making jokes about Bobby Bowden being too old to recite his own players’ names at Florida State. In South Carolina’s game notes, Spurrier is called the Head Ball Coach, no longer the Ol’ Ball Coach. But he’s 67 now. He had a knee replaced a year ago, but said he’s as active and enthusiastic about the job as ever. Still, Spurrier is determined to not overstay his welcome on the sideline.
“I’m not going to coach a lot longer,” he said. “I’m not going to be a lifer, to where you coach until they run you out.”
Whenever that day comes, he’ll almost surely leave behind a better South Carolina team than the one he inherited — just as he did at Duke and Florida.
“He launched our program,” Ellis said. “I don’t care if he retired tomorrow — he has proven to everyone around here, you can go all the way at South Carolina. He’s shown the next guy to come along that you can do anything at South Carolina.”