In 1999, after going 0-11 in his first season at South Carolina, Coach Lou Holtz famously said: “We raise more money per win than any school in the land.”
Like the long-suffereing Chicago Cubs fans in baseball, South Carolina fans are among the very, very best in college football. It doesn’t matter if the opponent is Alabama or Western Carolina or Presbyterian. Under normal conditions they fill up Williams-Brice Stadium every Saturday.
But to be a South Carolina football fan is to also experience moments of joy separated by long stretches of mind-numbing disappointment. Consider:
In the 55 years since the 1966 season there have been nine head football coaches at the University of South Carolina. Only three—Jim Carlen, Joe Morrison and Steve Spurrier—posted winning records. In those same 55 years South Carolina has won one conference championship (ACC, 1969) and one division championship (SEC East, 2010).
So as South Carolina begins its search for a new football coach to replace Will Muschamp, here is some history to show that you can build a winner in Columbia. But maintaining it is another matter:
Paul Dietzel (1966-74): South Carolina was convinced it had a coup when the school convinced Dietzel, who had won a national championship at LSU in 1958, to leave Army and become the head coach and director of athletics.
Dietzel led South Carolina to its only conference championship (ACC) in 1969 but the rest of his nine seasons in Columbia were mostly disappointing. In 1971 South Carolina left the ACC to become an Independent. Dietzel resigned after a 4-7 season in 1974.
Jim Carlen (1975-81): Carlen had posted winning records at West Virginia and Texas Tech when South Carolina hired him as head coach and athletics director in 1975. A big moment came in 1980 when he coached an 8-4 team that featured Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers.
In 1981 the Gamecocks posted the biggest upset in school history, beating No. 3 North Carolina 31-13 in Chapel Hill. That game remained the school’s biggest win until the Gamecocks beat No. 1 Alabama in 2010. South Carolina went 6-6 in 1981, Carlen’s last season. He was fired for undisclosed reasons with five years remaining on his contract. He later sued and won a $500,000 settlement from the university. He never coached again.
Joe Morrison (1983-88): The former New York Giants player was coming off five winning seasons at UT-Chattanooga and a 10-1 season New Mexico when South Carolina hired him. He will always be remembered for his all-black attire on the sidelines and for creating the team’s now-famous smoke-filled entrance to the field to the theme from “2001—A Space Odyssey.” In 1984 South Carolina started 9-0 and rose to No. 2 in the rankings before being upset by Navy 38-21.
Morrison posted 8-4 seasons in 1987 and 1988.
He died of a heart attack on Feb. 5, 1989. He was only 51.
Brad Scott (1994-98): Brad Scott was the hot assistant coach as the offensive coordinator on Florida State’s 1993 national championship team. He was given the credit for the no-huddle offense that made Charlie Ward a Heisman Trophy winner. Scott’s highlight came in the first year when the led the Gamecocks to their first-ever bowl win in the Carquest Bowl against West Virginia. He was let go after a 1-10 season in in 1998.
Lou Holtz (1999-2004): Athletics director Mike McGee knew he had to make a bold move so he convinced Holtz to accept the challenge of coming out of retirement to take over the program. After an 0-11 season in 1999, Holtz led South Carolina to an 8-4 season and a win over Ohio State in the Outback Bowl. The following year the Gamecocks went 9-3 and again beat Ohio State in the Outback Bowl. It was the first time South Carolina had ever played in back to back New Year’s Day games.
Then Holtz went 5-7, 5-7, and 6-5. He retired after the 2004 season.
Steve Spurrier (2005-2015): After 12 years at Florida and a bad experience in the NFL, Spurrier took over the program and became the winningest coach in school history. Spurrier’s teams posted three straight 11-win seasons (2011-2013) and 42 wins in a four-year span (2010-2013). In 2010 Spurrier led South Carolina to its one and only SEC championship game appearance, where the Gamecocks lost to Auburn, the eventual national champion.
Spurrier always said he would not “stick around and be a 7-5 coach.” He went 7-6 in 2014 and strongly considered retiring. But he came back which he now says he should not have done. After a 2-4 start in 2015 he stepped down.
The point? A number of coaches have had success at South Carolina but only Spurrier was really able to sustain it for over a decade.
Muschamp was let go after posting 28-30 record in less than five seasons. After going 4-8 in 2019, it appeared that South Carolina had righted the ship with a 30-22 win over Auburn on Oct. 17. But the Gamecocks have just collapsed in the past three weeks losing to LSU (52-24), Texas A&M (48-3), and Ole Miss (59-42).
South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner believes he has a lot to sell as he goes looking for a new coach.
“This is a very, very good job,” said Tanner during a ZOOM call on Monday. “We’re in a situation that facility wise and resource wise this is about as good as it gets.”
That is not an exaggeration. Tanner, a two-time national championship baseball coach, has invested heavily in football facilities in order to give Muschamp a chance in the hand-to-hand combat that is SEC recruiting.
In 2019 South Carolina opened the $50 million Cindi and Kenneth Long football operations center, which includes a 20,000-square-foot weight room and over 200 mounted televisions. The recreation area for the players includes a recording studio donated by South Carolina alum Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish.
The 110,000-square foot Steve and Jerri Spurrier Indoor Practice facility, opened in 2015 at a cost of $14 million, is one of the very best in college football.
A high-end apartment complex, 650 Lincoln, is home for many South Carolina athletes.
The point: Whoever gets the South Carolina job will benefit from a lot of building that Tanner and Muschamp have done over the past 4 ½ years.
But there are other factors that a candidate for the job will have to consider.
The landscape of the South Carolina job has changed significantly since Spurrier left in 2015. During Spurrier’s run the state of South Carolina produced future NFL super stars like Alshon Jeffery, Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore, and Jadeveon Clowney. Spurrier got them all. He also beat Clemson five times in a row.
“Spurrier had some great recruiters on his staff while he was here,” said long-time Columbia radio host Phil Kornblut. “But over the last few years the overall level of talent has dropped in this state.”
Right now there is only one high school player from the state of South Carolina included in the ESPN Top 300 for 2021. Defensive tackle Tyrone Ingram-Dawkins of Gaffney, S.C. is verbally committed to Georgia. Of ESPN’s top 31 players in the state only two are presently committed to South Carolina.
Then there is the matter of Clemson’s rise to one of the elite programs in college football.
Since Spurrier left Dabo Swinney has won two national championships at Clemson (2016, 2018) and has turned the Tigers into a national recruiting juggernaut. Now Swinney has beaten South Carolina six years in a row.
The new coach at South Carolina will also find himself squeezed by the border states.
Kirby Smart arrived at Georgia in 2016 and gets his pick of the in-state recruits. Georgia has always been very important recruiting territory for the Gamecocks.
And there is Mack Brown, a fierce recruiter, next door at North Carolina. He currently has a commitment from the No. 3-ranked player in the state of South Carolina, wide receiver J.J. Jones of Myrtle Beach.
The top five high school players in the state of South Carolina are currently committed to Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Florida State, and Alabama.
So whoever takes the job at South Carolina must change the landscape of recruiting if the Gamecocks want to challenge Georgia, and Florida in the SEC East.
“Whoever the new coach is he is going to have expand the recruiting base and compete for the four and five stars that Georgia and Clemson are getting,” said Kornblut. “It’s a tough job.”