GREENSBORO, Ga.—Steve Spurrier lines up his putt and lightly taps the golf ball in front of him. It rolls toward a hole about three yards away, but breaks right at the last moment, narrowly missing its target. Spurrier shakes his head, steps back and tries again. “That looks like a pretty good putt,” he says, holding his follow-through. “That’s got a chance.”
Again, it breaks right. Spurrier laughs. “Aw, that was the same way, wasn’t it?”
It’s lunch break at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Challenge, an annual charity golf tournament held at the Reynolds Plantation 85 miles east of Atlanta. Spurrier stands on the practice green of the resort’s 7,000-yard Oconee Course. Most of the 12 other college football head coaches in attendance are busy eating. But Spurrier—bulky shades, striped polo, trademark visor and all—is fine-tuning his game.
The Head Ball Coach downed a chicken sandwich, waffle-fry chips and a chocolate chip cookie about 10 minutes before anyone else did. Then he grabbed his putter and strutted over to the green. Through nine holes, Spurrier isn’t satisfied with his play. He worries that his partner, former South Carolina wide receiver Sterling Sharpe, is carrying the load. “It’s hurting me,” says Spurrier, 70, “but Sterling’s knocked ’em in pretty close for most of the day.”
Spurrier needs no more than a second to identify the team atop the leaderboard. “[Nick] Saban and Mark Ingram are six-under,” he says. That competitiveness is one reason Spurrier has long cemented himself as the SEC’s elder statesman. It’s also why he faces one of the most critical off-seasons of his storied career in 2015.
South Carolina entered last year as a top-10 team that was expected to compete for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. It needed to win three out of its last four games to avoid finishing with a losing record. Ever since the coach who built the Gamecocks into perennial SEC contenders has faced constant questions about retirement. Asked about the topic, Spurrier points to the fairway. “I just got through playing with [North Carolina basketball coach] Roy Williams,” he says. “How come nobody’s asking him or Coach K that? We’re all about the same age.”
Spurrier doesn’t offer an answer to his question, but probably knows it: Williams and Mike Krzyzewski keep winning. He didn’t do so much of that last fall.
The Gamecocks opened the 2014 campaign with an embarrassing 52-28 home loss to Texas A&M on Aug. 28. They rebounded to beat Georgia 38-35 two weeks later, but the rest of the season proved to be a disappointment. If not for a 24-21 victory over Miami in the Independence Bowl, Spurrier would have posted his first losing season as a head coach. South Carolina snapped a streak of three consecutive 11-wins seasons by going 7-6, its worst mark since ’09.
Leaning on his putter, Spurrier says his defense should be better this fall. South Carolina ranked 12th in the SEC in points allowed (30.4 per game) and 14th in yards per play allowed (6.22) last season. Spurrier named Jon Hoke, who coached with him at Florida before serving as an NFL assistant from 2002-14, as the team's co-coordinator alongside Lorenzo Ward to help address the problem. Spurrier hopes the return of eight starters on the unit will turn things around.
“Gosh, we couldn’t be any worse,” Spurrier says. “We set school records for giving up most yards and most points ever. We were pretty fortunate to go 7-6 probably with all that, win the bowl game and so forth.”
On offense he describes his quarterback situation as “unknown.” Redshirt junior Perry Orth, redshirt sophomore Connor Mitch and redshirt freshman Michael Scarnecchia are all competing to replace Dylan Thompson, but after the spring game Spurrier told reporters his staff was “still trying to see if one guy is better than the rest.” Standout running back Mike Davis, All-America guard A.J. Cann and left tackle Corey Robinson are also gone. That’s why Spurrier said he expects receiver Pharoh Cooper to emerge as a big-time playmaker. The rising junior made 69 catches for 1,136 yards last year en route to first-team All-SEC honors.
Perhaps most importantly, Spurrier knows the effect feelings of complacency had on his 2014 team. His priority is making sure those don’t seep into his roster again this season. “We had some false hope that it was just going to keep going, 11-2, 11-2,” he says. “A lot of the media guys picked us to win again [in ’14], but they didn’t pick hardly any of our players on the preseason All-SEC [team].”
At this point Spurrier steps to the other side of the green and lines up a 20-foot putt. However, just as he gets ready to enter his backswing, Clemson’s cart hums by on a path. “We’re coming for you!” shouts former Tigers quarterback Steve Fuller, who is coach Dabo Swinney’s partner for the day. Spurrier points in their direction. “Where y’all goin’?” he yells. “We goin’ out?”
Retirement talk sounds out of place with Spurrier. He doesn’t resemble someone entering his 26th season as a college head coach in the eighth decade of his life. He still exercises regularly—watch the video of his workout session with Josh Kendall of The State for evidence—and plays golf four to five months out of the year. When this reporter greeted Spurrier, he offered a fist bump in lieu of a handshake.
Speculation about how much he has left in the tank is inevitable, and will only grow louder if the Gamecocks struggle again this fall. Yet Spurrier, a man known for his honesty, downplays such chatter with his confidence.
Asked if he still has it, Spurrier swings his putter and jokes, “You mean on the treadmill? On the bike? I put in the same hours I always have coaching. It’s not overkill. It’s not that stressful. Some games last year were stressful. When we couldn’t hold two-touchdown leads with four minutes left in the game, that was stressful. But overall, health-wise, I’m pretty much the same.”
If Spurrier chose to hang up his visor tomorrow, few would question his legacy. He won six SEC titles and a national championship during a dominant run at Florida from 1990-2001. He has taken the Gamecocks to remarkable, unexpected heights since he took over before the ’05 campaign, including reaching bowl games in nine of 10 seasons. (They’ve won the last four.) But Spurrier’s next South Carolina team might shape the final stage of his career, even if that doesn’t sit well with him.
Standing in the hot Georgia sun, Spurrier isn’t ready to declare that he has another contender in Columbia. He has been around long enough to know unpredictability often reigns in college football. He prepares another putt and takes aim at the hole.
“We’ll have a good team,” Spurrier says. “How good? Well, who knows?”
North Carolina (in Charlotte, N.C.)
at Texas A&M