Spurrier Has The Challenge He Needs

HOOVER, ALABAMA — “Obviously all of you know the history of football at South Carolina — and it’s not all that super duper — is in our trophy case. The biggest one in there right now is an Outback Bowl win over Ohio State. South Carolina did win the ACC back in 1969 which is the only championship in the school’s over 100 year history.” — Steve Spurrier.

You want to know why Steve Spurrier is the head ball coach at South Carolina when he could have held out and hand picked another school somewhere else from quite a few callers? Your answer is in that quote. You don’t need a decoder ring to figure out that Steve Spurrier is the coach at South Carolina because he saw the kind of challenge that he not only wanted but he desperately needed.

Now we can debate till the cows come home why he left the University of Florida in the first place. No need to go there since everybody has their own theories about it so let’s just say he had his reasons and leave it at that. Whether you like or agree with the reasons is inconsequential. He gave Florida the best 12 years in its football history and then he left.

He was a genius when he left Florida and two years later, when he had failed in the No Fun League, everybody was saying the game had passed him by. Some of the same folks that claimed he was one of the greatest college football coaches in history in 2001 were saying two years later that they knew all along he had reached the pinnacle of his success and left while the leaving was good for the NFL.

It’s an undeniable fact Steve Spurrier wasn’t equal to the NFL challenge. Blame Spurrier for part of it. In a lot of ways, he was his own worst enemy in the NFL. You can also hand out a good share of the blame to a meddling owner that insisted on the incompetent Vinny Ceratto as the director of player personnel. No matter who is to blame and no matter how much blame we assign is irrelevant. The bottom line is that the same Steve Spurrier that won at Duke, a place that nobody wins, and the same guy that won six SEC championships and a national title at Florida didn’t cut it in the NFL. Maybe that’s why the NFL failure stung so badly. He had to figure that how tough could it be in the NFL considering he had won at Duke?

Spurrier was taking a season off from coaching when Florida fired Ron Zook after the Mississippi State game in October of 2004. It was automatically and instantly assumed that the first name on the replacement list was Steve Spurrier and there was some flirtation there, for sure. It’s one thing to flirt with the pretty girl. It’s another thing to ask her out for a date.

For reasons that only Bernie Machen, Jeremy Foley and Steve Spurrier know, somebody said thanks but no thanks before there was ever a formal offer. Really, though, does it matter who it was that came to the conclusion that this was one prom that needed another queen?

Some folks still insist that if Steve Spurrier really wanted the Florida job he could have had it, that all he would have had to do was summon his Bull Gator and Silver Sixties buddies and it would have been done. As much truth as there may be to that theory, if you know Spurrier, you have to know he would have never forced himself on the University of Florida. That’s just not his style.

Let’s just agree that Spurrier Part II wasn’t and probably couldn’t have been a great match. None of that is important now, however, because South Carolina got the man it wanted and needed and Florida got the man it wanted and needed in Urban Meyer. A year or so later, it’s probably safe to say declare this one a win-win situation. South Carolina has a rejuvenated coach that wants to coach at least another 10 years and Florida has a 41-year-old coach that wants to retire after he’s coached at Florida another 20 or so years. South Carolina has a coach capable of doing something that’s never been done before in Columbia. Florida has a coach that’s capable of taking the Florida program even further than Spurrier ever did.

Florida got Meyer because the Gators weren’t going to repeat the mistake of Ron Zook by bringing in a coach with no track record. In Meyer the Gators got a young coach with a proven track record and a plan to build the program into the best in the nation.

South Carolina got Spurrier because it needed someone to undo a growing mess created by Lou Holtz and it needed someone squeaky clean. Spurrier fits that bill perfectly. The Old Ball Coach needed a venue to prove that he still has what it takes to win and what better place than South Carolina? There are only small pockets of success in South Carolina’s football history. If Spurrier averages seven wins a year for another eight years, he’ll be the winningest coach in school history. If he averages eight wins a year he could run for governor. If he ever wins the SEC, they’ll be naming schools and public buildings after him.

That lack of success in the past makes this a tailor-made situation for a coach that needs a serious challenge to re-prove himself, and you better believe he needs this challenge.

“The challenge is to achieve some things that have never happened before,” said Spurrier, whose 7-5 record at South Carolina in 2005 included wins over Tennessee and Florida. “The win in Knoxville was the first time ever. First time in 66 years we beat Florida. I think it was the first time we’ve won five SEC games. I know we won five in a row for the first time ever. South Carolina has never been to a major bowl. I don’t know if we’ve finished in the final rankings in the top ten. There are a whole bunch of achievements that can be done and we’re looking forward to trying to do it.”

He needed a challenge and there wasn’t a better one than a place where nobody’s ever won with any consistency. It was obvious Thursday that he savors the opportunity to make South Carolina a winner. He knows that some of the top analysts in the country think that even if he is Steve Spurrier, he can’t win at South Carolina. He referenced Lee Corso, noting that the ESPN analyst has gone on record to say that winning at South Carolina just can’t be done. All that does is fuel Spurrier’s personal fire and it’s a fire that gets stoked every time someone says he can’t do it. At Florida, everybody knew he could do it. At South Carolina, nobody but maybe Spurrier and his staff really and truly believe.

“Trying to make South Carolina a winner is a challenge,” he said. “It’s fun, though. We can tell recruits that you’ve got a chance to come here and do something that’s never been done before in the history of the school. We can tell them that if you go to Florida, Tennessee, Alabama or Auburn … they’ve already won SECs so you’re just another one. You can come here and do it for the first time ever.”

He proved last season that he’s still got the ability to win games on the field. Winning the recruiting battles may be even more difficult. If you go by the national rankings of Spurrier’s first two recruiting classes at South Carolina, then the sales pitch is being met with only moderate success. However, if you look at how South Carolina recruited pre-Spurrier, then he’s doing just fine. He thinks he’s got things on the right track to win a conference championship.

“That’s our goal right there, to win the SEC someday,” he said.

Winning the SEC would mean winning the SEC championship game in Atlanta. Spurrier had the Florida Gators in the first SEC championship game and he’s always liked the one-game playoff to determine the league’s champion. He has never understood why it’s so easy to have a conference championship game and not an NCAA playoff.

“I remember (SEC) Commissioner (Roy) Kramer was here back in about ‘90,” said Spurrier. “I said, ‘Why do you want a playoff for the SEC championship but you don’t want one for the national championship?’ He just looked at me funny. He couldn’t answer it. He didn’t have the answer for that one.”

The standard answer from athletic directors and university presidents is that it adds too many games. Spurrier scoffs at that idea.

“The Division I-AA guys, when they get in playoffs and I think they play 14 or 15 games,” he said. “It not a problem at all for them. I watch basketball and girls basketball. They’ll play four straight nights at the SEC Tournament. I don’t hear them bitching and complaining that they’re playing too much.”

There may not ever be a playoff system while Steve Spurrier is coaching college football. He may not ever win a Southeastern Conference championship at South Carolina, either, but don’t bet against him. He’s got the challenge he wants. It’s the challenge he needs.

Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.