"I don't want to coach too far into my 60s. By then, I'll be playing golf four or five times a week."
-- Steve Spurrier on Jan. 6, 2002 after resigning at Florida
CONWAY, S.C. -- He does play some golf, but not as much as he predicted. Last week, Steve Spurrier sat behind a table in a gazebo on a boardwalk overlooking the Waccamaw River. He had turned 69 three days earlier, and he remains employed as a football coach. The autograph line at this Gamecock Club function had thinned after a few hundred, but some stragglers still came to procure the signature of the man whose pen stroke is so consistent that South Carolina staffers once had to shoot video of Spurrier signing to prove a machine didn't scrawl his name. "It's a light grip," Spurrier said of the secret to his speed and stability with the pen. One of those autograph seekers asked the burning question of the day.
Did you play a few holes?
"Yeah, we played," Spurrier said. "I was the low man in the group. Still shot 86." He spat out the number like a piece of gristle. Spurrier loves winning, but he also loves winning with style. This particular win at The Dunes in Myrtle Beach didn't meet Spurrier's exacting specifications. Instead, he settled for discussing other wins with the audience that came to hear him speak.
As he travels the state meeting the Gamecocks faithful, Spurrier gives each group the same poll. He lists four of South Carolina's victories from the 2013 season and asks those in attendance to yell the loudest for their favorite. The crowds always pick the same game. They did in Conway, and they did clear across the state in Greenwood the previous night. And their answer explains an awful lot about why Spurrier is still coaching at South Carolina instead of playing golf four or five times a week.
Here are the options, which Spurrier presented to his audience in chronological order. See if you can guess the answer.
|South Carolina 2014 Schedule|
• Missouri: A week after an inexplicable loss at Tennessee on Oct. 19, the Gamecocks trailed 17-0 as they entered the fourth quarter in the SEC's newest Columbia. Injured quarterback Connor Shaw came off the bench and led the Gamecocks to a 27-24 double-overtime win over the eventual SEC East champ.
• Florida: The Gamecocks gutted out an ugly 19-14 win on Nov. 16 over a team that would finish the season 4-8. Spurrier includes this one because it broke the school record for consecutive home wins.
• Clemson: Spurrier pronounces it Climp-son, probably because he knows this drives Clemson (Clem-sun) people crazy. (When he was at Florida, he routinely shortened Florida State's Seminoles to "Semis.") Clemson tied the score at 17 late in the third quarter on Nov. 30, but South Carolina owned the fourth. The 31-17 win over a team that went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl was the Gamecocks' fifth in a row in the series. "The game went about like all of them went," Spurrier said, driving the needle in a little deeper. Ryan Nanni's "Hatin' Ass Spurrier" posts on EveryDayShouldBeSaturday.com, which masterfully express the views of a completely unfiltered -- albeit fictionalized -- Spurrier, still don't quite capture the utter dismissiveness of a genuine Spurrier jab.
• Wisconsin: In his final college game, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw threw for three touchdowns, ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass to lead the Gamecocks to a 34-24 win over the Badgers in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day. Spurrier calls Shaw "the best quarterback in school history," and with apologies to the man who sported the finest mullet in college football history, Spurrier is probably correct.
So, which game was it? Not Florida. Too ugly. Too boring. Wisconsin? Not dramatic enough. Missouri? "Saved our ass," one South Carolina football staff member said later. "When I asked our players and our coaches' wives, that was number one," Spurrier told the crowd in Greenwood last week. "Of course they don't live in Greenwood like you do." Nope. Not Missouri, either.
Of course it was Clemson. Both crowds, Greenwood and Conway, went nuts when Spurrier mentioned South Carolina's rival from the Upstate. The Gamecocks looked up at the Tigers -- geographically and metaphorically -- for a long, long time. How thoroughly has Clemson dominated historically? South Carolina could win the next 20 matchups in a row and the Tigers would still have a four-game lead in the all-time series. For Gamecocks fans, who suffered through more than 100 seasons before their team notched its first bowl win and kept faithfully showing up, 11 wins and a No. 4 ranking in the final AP Poll is nice. But beating Clemson every year is still enough.
That's the difference between South Carolina and Florida, where Spurrier resigned in 2002 after 12 seasons. In the same press conference that produced the coach-into-his-60s quote, Spurrier also said this: "It's like a disgrace when we lose and a relief when we win." It doesn't feel that way at South Carolina yet. That's why Spurrier doesn't seem as married to the idea that a coach should only stay so long. He said that when he left Florida. He has offered that advice to colleagues. But as he enters his 10th season at South Carolina -- yes, he has been there that long -- he doesn't quite see the end in Columbia. "It depends on if you want to go somewhere else," Spurrier said last week between the autograph gazebo and the stage. "See, I don't want to go anywhere else. I could go between 10 and 15."
Spurrier has already surpassed his stated goal of becoming the winningest coach in South Carolina history. "It was only 64," said Spurrier, who has won 77 games at his current job. "It looked like it was going to take 12 years to do it, then all of a sudden we started winning 11 every year." Indeed, the Gamecocks have won 11 games in each of the past three seasons. Just as Spurrier set new expectations at Florida*, he has set new ones at South Carolina.
*Full disclosure: I was a walk-on offensive lineman on Spurrier's 1996 national championship team at Florida. He doesn't remember me for any of my achievements as a human-tackling dummy -- nor should he. What he remembers best is a 2005 story I wrote when I covered the Gators for The Tampa Tribune. Florida was playing at South Carolina in the 12:21 p.m. slot, and the Gators needed to win and have Georgia lose to Auburn a few hours later to win the SEC East. The Gamecocks were 6-3 and winners of four in a row, but they had been living dangerously for weeks. Florida was 7-2 and had recovered from beatings at the hands of Alabama and LSU to upset Georgia. My story included quotes from Florida coaches wishing the Tigers luck. Someone sent a hard copy to Spurrier, who highlighted passages and read them to his team before South Carolina's 30-22 win in Spurrier's first game against his alma mater as a head coach. "That helped us win the game," Spurrier said later. So, in spite of the fact that I was once on his team, that was probably the only time I helped Spurrier win a game.
So how long will it take before fans in the Palmetto State begin to demand more? Their requirements have ticked upward, but they haven't come anywhere near the level of some of their fellow national-title-or-bust SEC fan bases. South Carolina fans packed Williams-Brice Stadium for years to watch some pretty mediocre squads. Excuse them for enjoying this before they start clamoring for more. Spurrier even tried to remind them last week that beating Clemson isn't everything. "We still haven't won an SEC," Spurrier said. "We still have a ways to go. We have not arrived yet. We're still pushing. Still climbing. Still trying to get to the top."
The Gamecocks must start by winning the SEC East for the second time. They won it in 2010 and lost to eventual national champ Auburn in the conference title game, but the following three seasons were like a football version of Groundhog Day. "Eleven and two, 6-2 in the conference," Spurrier said. "We beat the division winner, but they didn't lose again and they went to the championship game and got beat by the western division side."
It's true. In 2011 and '12, the Gamecocks beat Georgia and watched the Bulldogs go to Atlanta. Last year, they beat Missouri, but none of Mizzou's other opponents could help them. In two of those three seasons, South Carolina lost games it had no business losing. The home loss to Auburn in '11 finally convinced Spurrier that Shaw was his quarterback, but last year's loss at Tennessee didn't teach any valuable lessons. It merely knocked the Gamecocks out of contention for the East crown.
Spurrier will try to keep climbing without Shaw, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles. But the Gamecocks were quite young last fall and return nearly everyone else. Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds offer a potent combo at tailback, and senior quarterback Dylan Thompson got plenty of experience spelling Shaw, whose damn-the-torpedoes style got him banged up at several points throughout his career. The East seems up for grabs again. Georgia must replace quarterback Aaron Murray. Missouri lost quarterback James Franklin and defensive ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. Vanderbilt went through a coaching change. Florida is overhauling its offense. Tennessee must replace every starter on its offensive and defensive lines. Kentucky, despite recent progress on the recruiting trail, remains Kentucky. South Carolina will likely enter the season as the favorite in the division, a prediction Spurrier will likely mock at SEC Media Days. But when Spurrier is poking fun, it means he's confident.
A day after the Conway gathering, he discussed SEC scheduling with local beat writers. "Alabama and Tennessee like each other," he told The State's Josh Kendall. "I don't know why Tennessee would keep liking them though." Of course, two days earlier, the man who once cracked that you couldn't spell Citrus without UT waxed rhapsodic about the joyful experience of playing in the Capital One Bowl.
Maybe Spurrier has mellowed a bit as his sixties come to a close. Or maybe he's simply enjoying a place where the wins still feel like wins -- even if he still doesn't have as many as he would prefer.