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Head Ball Coach has high hopes for South Carolina


COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Steve Spurrier points to a box on the back wall of his office, the one that hangs about 10 feet from where his 1966 Heisman Trophy sits. "That's from my first hole-in-one at Augusta National," the South Carolina coach says, grinning. "It was just the par-3 course, though."

After a visitor notes that the yardage chart on the enshrined scorecard from this past spring marks the distance of hole No. 7 distance at 115, Spurrier's famous photographic memory -- for golf shots and ball plays, at least -- engages. "One-fifteen? It played longer than that," he says. "Hit an 8-iron uphill against a little breeze. Played it for about 130."

Later, Spurrier invites a second examination. "You see that ball?" he asks. In the spot where the average ball might bear an Ernst and Young logo are three words: HEAD BALL COACH. Spurrier has called himself the Head Ball Coach for years, and when his Florida teams dominated the SEC in the '90s, that was the preferred nomenclature among his fans. Those who didn't like him, and they usually lived near Athens, Ga., or Knoxville, Tenn., called Spurrier the evil genius, shiny pants, Darth Visor or any number of unprintable epithets.

Lately, though, when some talking head refers to Spurrier, it is as "the Ol' Ball Coach." Spurrier believes that moniker first surfaced when he coached during his disastrous two-year tenure with the Washington Redskins. It probably took off after some sportswriter mixed up the real nickname, but by the end of the 2003 season, the goof seemed prescient. As the Redskins slogged to the finish, Spurrier appeared to have aged 10 years in two seasons. The NFL had sucked the life out of him.

Returning to the college game at South Carolina in 2005 rejuvenated Spurrier, but the new nickname still stuck. Now, as Spurrier starts his fourth season in Columbia trying to snap a five-game losing streak in Thursday night's opener against N.C. State, it seems fair to ask how much longer he plans to attempt the Herculean task of making the Gamecocks relevant. The question seems especially appropriate after Spurrier made the unthinkable decision this offseason to cede some of his playcalling duties to son Steve Jr., the Gamecocks' receivers coach.

From afar, it's an easy question to ask. Up close, as Spurrier munches on a salad and talks about all the work he has left to do at South Carolina, the question never even passes the lips. To paraphrase Scott Bakula from Necessary Roughness, the Head Ball Coach is not that Ol'.

At 63, he's in better shape than most 30-year-olds. The fire that helped him win six SEC titles and a national title at Florida still dances in his eyes. And if your team has the ball and your life depends on the result of the next down, he's still the guy you want drawing up the play.

Spurrier talks as if he intends to coach South Carolina into the next decade, but will the flame stay lit if the Gamecocks don't improve dramatically from last year's 6-6 season? The rest of the SEC has improved, and at South Carolina, Spurrier may never beat out Auburn, Florida, Georgia or LSU for players. Spurrier hates losing more than vegans hate Brazilian steakhouses, but a gift for drawing plays and an unquenchable desire for victory can take a team only so far in today's SEC.

Spurrier would check out only on his own terms. South Carolina isn't Florida, which Spurrier left in 2002 after 10-win seasons became fodder for offseason grumbling. Fans in Columbia won't take up torches and pitchforks if the Gamecocks stumble to a five-loss season. And if Spurrier somehow leads South Carolina to the SEC east title, they'll build a statue of him. South Carolina fans often get compared to Chicago Cubs backers, but at least Cubs fans have 1908. The Gamecocks are more like the Rays before they shed the Devil, but the American League East-SEC East analogy only works if the Cardinals (Tennessee) moved into the division alongside the Yankees (Georgia) and the Red Sox (Florida).

Of course, the Rays finally did build a contender from the ground up. Spurrier hopes he's done the same thing. "We look like an SEC team now," he says. "We've got guys who are 6-5, 6-6. We've got some depth on our team."

Spurrier loves the word depth. After he took over at Florida in 1990, a local columnist asked for an assessment of the Gators' depth. "What position does that guy 'Depth' play?" Spurrier replied. At South Carolina in 2007, depth wore a jersey and jeans and stood on the sideline next to star linebacker Jasper Brinkley and his bum knee. By the time the Gamecocks reached the teeth of their schedule -- they closed last season with Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and archrival Clemson -- their injury-riddled defense had imploded. In consecutive weeks, South Carolina allowed Heisman Trophy runner-up Darren McFadden to gain an SEC-record 323 yards and allowed Heisman winner Tim Tebow to rush for five touchdowns and throw for two more.

Brinkley is back this season. So is an experienced secondary that may be among the SEC's best. Spurrier believes he found the correct man to lead them. When defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left in January after three weeks for the Atlanta Falcons, Spurrier plucked Palmetto State native Ellis Johnson, who aborted a plan to join Bobby Petrino at Arkansas. Spurrier hopes Johnson, who coached the past four seasons at Mississippi State, gives his team the same jolt his Florida team got in 1996 when Spurrier hired a hotshot coordinator named Bob Stoops.

"Every year they write that we're going to be better on defense and this, that and the other," Spurrier says. "But I really believe that we are going to get better this year. That's because we've got Ellis Johnson."

For the Gamecocks to play like an upper echelon SEC team, they'll need help from their youngsters. Spurrier points out that all 27 members of the touted 2007 recruiting class remain on the roster. He even rattles off that class's lofty rankings from various media outlets. Yes, Stephen Orr Spurrier puts stock in recruiting rankings. Sort of. "Well," he says, "when you can brag about them, you can."

That's shocking enough, but Spurrier's offseason decision to relinquish some of the playcalling to Steve Jr. seemed completely out of character. Spurrier give up his ball play sheet? That's like Gen. George Patton giving up his riding crop. What will Spurrier throw when he gets frustrated? Rest assured, Steve Jr. said, the Head Ball Coach will not take the field without a play sheet.

He'll also have veto power, and he'll use it. The elder Spurrier can spot from the sideline weaknesses in a defense that ordinary coaches need two sets of game tape to see. If Pops sees something, he's probably calling the play. "He still has a strong hand on what we do and how we do it and how we manage what we're doing," Steve Jr. said. "He's just allowing me to get it in and get it going, but he still controls what we're doing."

On the field, the controls belong to Tommy Beecher, the fourth-year junior Spurrier named as his starting quarterback after spring practice. Beecher's only other scholarship offer came from Division I-AA Richmond. Spurrier learned of him through an old friend at Duke, and Beecher's leadership of Concord (N.C.) High to a state title as a senior prompted Spurrier to offer a scholarship.

Beecher beat out sophomore Chris Smelley and redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia, the jewel of that 2007 class who has done everything possible to torpedo his college career. After a third legal scrape -- this time for drinking underage outside his dorm in March -- Garcia was thrown out of the university for the summer semester. The school and Spurrier allowed him back, but during preseason camp, Garcia proved he hasn't learned his lesson yet. While nursing a sprained ankle, he neglected to visit the trainer one day for treatment. On a Friday during camp, he skipped a mandatory team breakfast. "We had one guy on the whole team miss breakfast," Spurrier says, shaking his head. "And it was Stephen Garcia."

So Beecher, a math major with an emphasis on actuarial mathematics and statistics, will pilot the offense. "I think the players will get more and more confident in my ability," Beecher says. "I think the coaches will get more and more confident in my ability. Hopefully one day, Coach Spurrier will know he made a good decision."

Spurrier seems pleased with the way Beecher has commanded his teammates' respect since being named the starter. The last time Spurrier felt completely comfortable with his quarterback was at Florida in 2001, when Rex Grossman threw for 3,896 yards and 34 touchdowns as a sophomore. While Beecher has yet to inspire that kind of confidence, Spurrier does enjoy having a designated starter to act as a bell cow for the offense. That, of course, will mean nothing if Beecher overlooks an open receiver Thursday and throws into triple coverage.

"I've never had [a quarterback] yet that I never had to yell at a little bit," Spurrier says. "And coach. And take him out of the game. And put him back in."

SEC defenses could frustrate any coach into playing quarterback roulette, but Spurrier should understand better than most how the league's units got so good. It's mostly his fault. Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun at Florida dragged the SEC kicking and screaming into the 20th century. Schools scrapped the prevailing good 'ol old boy network and sought innovative defensive coaches to break Spurrier's stranglehold on the league title. The result? A conference loaded with bright defensive minds and quick, bruising defensive players. That paradigm shift invited more innovation on offense and more spending on coaches. Now, Spurrier is one of five SEC coaches with a national title on their resumes. Another, Auburn's Tommy Tuberville, has led his team to an undefeated season.

Spurrier may not look or act his age, but he has seen enough football to know that most of the fan bases who pay the bloated salaries of all those successful coaches won't end this season smiling. "Everybody expects to win," Spurrier says. "But guess what? There's only going to be one winner this year. Some teams may barely even make a bowl game. They may not make a bowl game. Everybody can't win."

Maybe that's why Spurrier responded the way he did one night recently when his wife, Jerri, flipped on the local sports talk radio station. After a few minutes of breathless anticipation from a fan base convinced he can drag South Carolina up the Everest that is the SEC, the Head Ball Coach used his veto power and called another play.

"I listened to it a little bit," Spurrier says. "Then I put it back on the country music station."