COLUMBIA, S.C. — College football’s biggest troll, to use the parlance of our times, is 69 years old and doesn’t have a Twitter account, which is probably for the best. He likes to play golf in his downtime and, if it’s hot enough outside, will take off his shirt in public and stand barefoot on the grass under a floppy hat.
He is from east Tennessee, likes cheap beer and NASCAR, but maybe the only thing he enjoys more than football is sharing his opinions on football — its coaches, its issues, its current and future welfare. He thinks college players should be paid, and, well, here he comes, sitting in front of a microphone in a meeting room at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“The media boys picked us to win the East,” South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier said of reporters’ Southeastern Conference predictions, and what the so-called “media boys” think — including that, before Thursday night’s opening game against Texas A&M, the Gamecocks are the nation’s ninth-best team — is meaningless but worth mentioning. Everything, to Spurrier, is worth mentioning. A good team gets Spurrier excited, and that means he talks more, trains his sights tighter on his preferred targets.
Last month, he took his latest shot at his favorite foil, Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney. Clemson is South Carolina’s rival and Swinney is Spurrier’s. And Spurrier tweaks the 44-year-old any chance he gets. A few years ago Spurrier suggested that Clemson couldn’t possibly play in “Death Valley,” as the Tigers’ Memorial Stadium is casually known, because “Death Valley” is on the LSU campus. Swinney fired back, saying his players don’t play at USC — which is what locals call South Carolina — because USC is in Los Angeles.
And away they went, paired together on an unlikely dance card, the most minuscule of their run-ins shared and retweeted, perhaps making Spurrier a peculiar face of the sports social-media landscape.
Swinney joked with reporters recently that he and Spurrier were simply from different planets, Swinney from Mars and Spurrier from Pluto; Spurrier, apparently remembering that Pluto was decommissioned as a planet 2006, thought this was great. “Dabo still thinks there are nine planets out there,” the Gamecocks coach told ESPN reporters during a visit to the network’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters.
A month earlier, Spurrier poked Alabama Coach Nick Saban, criticizing the four-time national champion for landing top-ranked prospects each year but winning just two Southeastern Conference titles in seven seasons at the school.
“If you had the number one recruiting class every year and so forth,” Spurrier told The State, the Columbia newspaper, “I don’t know if he has maxed out potentially as well as he could.”
He takes digs at the NCAA and college football’s old guard, suggesting college players and their parents should be given a few hundred dollars per game. He likes high scoring, hates anything slow and boring, and isn’t so sure about the new SEC Network.
“I said: ‘You know what that means, don’t you, fellas?’ ” Spurrier told his players, according to local reporters. “ ‘More money, but not for you.’ ”
Last season, he told reporters that he had coached more games at Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium than some of the Volunteers’ own coaches, a shot of the turnover in Knoxville, and after a 52-7 win at Arkansas last October, Spurrier felt almost guilty. “That’s no fun,” he said, “getting your butt beat at home, homecoming and all that.”
It bears mentioning that, a week later, South Carolina lost to unranked Tennessee, Spurrier has zero conference championships in nine seasons with the Gamecocks, and has yet to lead the team to a BCS bowl. His two seasons coaching the Washington Redskins (2002 and 2003) are remembered as a hilarious disaster, so much bluster and hype before he lost 20 games and then quit.
But back in the college ranks, Spurrier has turned around South Carolina’s fortunes, completing an unlikely change from one of the nation’s worst teams — the Gamecocks were a combined 1-21 in 1998 and ’99 — to one of its contenders. Even amid a turnaround, the offseason months pass slowly in SEC country, making what Spurrier calls “talking season” a manageable way to pass the time.
Not that everyone finds the conversation so much fun. Swinney, who usually rolls his eyes at Spurrier’s approach, can't help but return fire, which only gets the South Carolina coach more excited, and years ago, he caused headaches for the men hoping to keep him on point.
When he took over at Florida in 1990, Norm Carlson and John Humenik ran the sports information department. At first they occasionally asked Spurrier to stay on script, avoiding certain high-octane topics, but that didn’t last long.
“You can’t say, ‘Don’t do that again;’ because he will,” Carlson said with a chuckle. “He’ll say what he thinks, and sometimes it’s not always politically correct. . . . He probably doesn’t understand how it sounds, but he doesn’t care. He says what he thinks.”
Two years ago he initiated a cold war with Ron Morris, The State’s occasionally critical sports columnist, refusing to speak with other reporters — and indicating he might even resign — if Morris was allowed to ask questions. Under pressure from Spurrier and his athletic department, the newspaper caved, refusing to allow Morris to write columns about the enormously popular South Carolina football team — a bizarre and revealing commentary on a college coach’s actual influence in the Southeast. The ban lasted months but was eventually lifted, and when Spurrier met with reporters this month for the school’s media day, Morris was sitting in the front row with his hand raised.
“That’s right,” Spurrier said, “you’re back asking questions, aren’t you?”
Then he moved on to lighter subjects, including suggesting it was more difficult to beat East Carolina, the plucky American Athletic Conference team the Gamecocks will face in Week 2, than most representatives of the Big Ten.
He suggested his team might be pretty good this season, though he has made similar predictions in the past. “We know we’ve got a chance,” Spurrier said, turning his attention to that first game and the end, for better or worse, of talking season — a loss or two on his record, sure, but not nearly as many wins.