On January 4, 2002, Stephen Orr Spurrier stunned the college football world and left Florida for the NFL. "We didn't win anything," Spurrier told me not long after his stunning decision 10 years ago to take a $5 million-a-year deal to coach the Washington Redskins. "We had nothing to show for it."
Spurrier was tired, felt unappreciated and considered his final season in Gainesville a bitter disappointment.
So after an 11-2 season, including a victory in the Orange Bowl and No. 3 ranking in the final AP poll, Spurrier left his alma mater, where he had won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 and compiled a record of 122-27-1, including a national championship in 1996, and six SEC titles in a 12-year run.
After failing miserably in Washington, Spurrier took a year off to recharge his batteries and rehabilitate his bruised ego, but was overwhelmed by the itch to coach in college again.
South Carolina was the first to come calling, although it was widely believed LSU was longingly eyeing him in 2004 as rumors were rampant that Nick Saban was going back to the NFL.
However, exuding patience is not one of Spurrier's virtues and he jumped at South Carolina's offer. Alabama called him two years later after Mike Shula was fired, but after a brief flirtation he stayed put. I'm sure the irony of the successes found in the job he could have had at LSU and the one he turned down at Alabama has not been lost on Spurrier.
Spurrier, now 66, is on the verge of yet another amazing comeback story. However, in a year when most of the oxygen in the Southeastern Conference, as well as nationally, has been sucked out by LSU and Alabama, few outside of South Carolina have seemed to notice what Spurrier and his No. 9 ranked Gamecocks have accomplished this season.
If you understand the tortured and seemingly jinxed history of South Carolina football (the Gamecocks were 0-11 in 1999), Spurrier deserves his due. It was only two years ago that some pundits and fans were writing off Spurrier, saying a once great career was going down in flames and that he would never win big at South Carolina. Others foolishly suggested that he was too old to coach today's college players and had lost his magic touch coaching his offense and developing quarterbacks.
With a victory on Monday against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl, Spurrier's Gamecocks would win 11 games for the first time in school history. If that happens, the Ole Ball Coach has said he will give his players rings to commemorate the special occasion. To do so, South Carolina needs to end a three-year losing streak in bowl games.
It is difficult to find new ways to express praise for a man many consider the best SEC coach since the legendary Paul Bryant walked the sidelines 30 years ago. However, this 10-2 regular season may have to be considered one of Spurrier's finest coaching jobs. That's saying something for someone with a lifetime college coaching winning percentage of .722.
Although South Carolina was picked to win the SEC East, in the first half of the season Spurrier battled the demons of longtime starting -- and often suspended -- quarterback Stephen Garcia. After a stunning home loss to Auburn on Oct. 1, Spurrier jettisoned Garcia for the final time for off-the-field transgressions. Spurrier then lost sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore, a preseason Heisman candidate, to a season-ending knee injury. Many feared the loss of Lattimore would devastate the offense and lead to several more losses, badly the ending a season which had started with such promise.
Instead, the Gamecocks only lost once down the stretch, at No. 6 Arkansas. In the regular-season finale, South Carolina beat Orange Bowl-bound and ACC champion Clemson, 34-13, the third straight win over its in-state rival. That had not happened in 40 years.
At times during Spurrier's seven-year tenure at South Carolina, it has been excruciatingly difficult and frustrating, especially with several disappointing finishes after very good starts and high expectations. But Spurrier finally turned the corner with big-time recruiting hauls which helped South Carolina to go 6-0 over his top SEC East rivals Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the last two seasons. The Gamecocks announced their arrival on the national scene when they upset No. 1 Alabama 35-21 last season in Columbia. When they also beat Florida in Gainesville for the first time ever in 13 games, they won their first SEC East championship.
In 2009, No. 1 Florida beat South Carolina and it appeared Urban Meyer was on the verge of his third national championship at what used to be considered Spurrier's playground. But after Meyer's two resignations, Spurrier still reigns as the Gator's most respected and beloved former coach.
With the success of the past two seasons, Spurrier has forever earned the respect and admiration of Gamecock fans. Beating Nebraska on Monday would be icing on the cake. It has been a long 10 years of roaming the wilderness for one of the greatest coaches in college football history. South Carolina has just rewarded him with a two-year contract extension that runs through the 2015 season. It shows what a lifetime of experience can do for an aging gunslinger and former NFL quarterback.
Hopefully with the smorgasbord of bowl games over these next few days, people will pause long enough to recognize Spurrier's amazing accomplishment this season.
Without being too sentimental for a legendary coach, the sport is in dire need of more people like Steve Spurrier.