It is not politically correct to discuss the length of a man's hair, but Steve Taneyhill's cannot pass without comment. It is a plate-glass window waiting for a brick. About 14 inches long and dirty blond, it hangs from the back of his football helmet like a mud flap. On a rock guitarist or a tennis player it would be unremarkable. At an old Southern school, the University of South Carolina, it has elevated Taneyhill from starting quarterback to cultural icon.
But here's the thing. Take away Taneyhill's hair and he's Cal Ripken Jr.: square-ola. No rebel, Taneyhill is another one of those country-bred sports heroes from Pennsylvania's quarterback nursery. "I only do one thing," he says. "Sports." And in each sport he has tried, the one thing he has done is win. Lately Taneyhill has won for—and won over—South Carolina.
Last season Taneyhill was a prized but controversial freshman recruit with a lush mane, a bold mouth and, to complete the ensemble, a faux diamond stud in his left ear. He told coach Sparky Woods, "Start me and we win." His cheek proved to be warranted. After the Gamecocks lost their first five games, Woods, desperate and facing a team insurrection, started Taneyhill. The team won five of its last six games to finish 5-6. Now the Gamecocks are talking about a bowl season in '93.
Walk into any sporting-goods store in Columbia these days and you can find a billed Gamecock cap with a yellow ponytail hanging from the back. But Taneyhill chafes at being so much in fashion. He doesn't like conformity. "If everybody grew out their hair," says Woods, "he'd probably cut his."
August 29, 1993
Taneyhill also dislikes superficial labels. "I don't see myself the way others do, as wild," he says. "When people get to know me, they don't see the hair." What he really hates is being recognized from the back. The last time somebody approached him from behind and said, "Hey, you're Steve Taneyhill," he shook his head, said, "No, I'm not" and kept walking.
Taneyhill is still amazed by how fast his hair became celebrated in Columbia, especially because it was criticized at first. "Some people just didn't like it," he says. "I guess I showed them it doesn't matter what you look like." But South Carolinians were skeptical of more than just his hair. Taneyhill seemed the stereotype of the Yankee loudmouth. He was a cultural alien, a 6'5" blue-chipper with blunt speech and a
swagger he had brought from Altoona, an old railroad town in western Pennsylvania, the region that produced Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath and George Blanda.
One of his first nights in Columbia, Taneyhill and a couple of friends went into a local tavern. A couple of other men, beers in hand, started giggling at Taneyhill's hair. "Why don't you get a haircut?" they taunted. Taneyhill got into a less-than-philosophical discussion with them. Soon they were scuffling.
Taneyhill says he didn't throw a punch, but the incident got him called into Woods's office. "If your hair turns into a problem, I'll ask you to cut it," Woods warned Taneyhill. It never came to that; Taneyhill avoided other confrontations, though he continued to be teased and occasionally insulted. Veteran Gamecocks threatened to treat him to a trimming party. The idea still makes him pale. While his hair may not be a window onto his soul, it's still a key to his self-esteem. "I just wouldn't be the same person if I cut my hair," he says.
The last person who tried to force Taneyhill to cut his hair was his father. Art Taneyhill is a girls' basketball coach as well as a neat dresser. He guided two Altoona High teams to national championships, both of them starring his daughter, Debbie, a high school Converse All-America in 1988 who went on to be a standout at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where she is now an assistant coach. The Taneyhill family had a reputation for discipline and quiet good manners—until Steve became a three-sport star whose obstreperousness grew with his talent.
One afternoon Art noticed that his 16-year-old son was letting his hair curl around his ears and neck. He sent Steve to a local barber, Paul Caracciolo. When Steve came back, Art met him in the front hall of their house.
"I thought I told you to get a haircut," Art said.
"I got one," Steve said.
"No, you didn't," Art said. "You're going back there."
"No, I'm not," Steve said, trying to brush past him.
Art caught Steve by his shirt and started to haul him out the door. Steve pulled free and ran out of the house. He was gone for hours. At first Art didn't say anything to his wife, Susan, who is a school nurse. When Steve still wasn't home at about 10 p.m., Art confessed that they had argued.
After a series of calls, Susan found Steve at a friend's house. Susan went over and got him. Steve went to bed wordlessly. The next day Art paid an angry visit to the barber. "You had him in the chair," Art said. "Why didn't you cut it?" Caracciolo said something that ended the hair problem in the Taneyhill household: "Is a little bit of hair really worth ruining your relationship with your son over?"
From then on Art and Susan let Steve go unpruned. "One thing about great athletes," Art says, "is that they're a little different. You have to let them be themselves."
Steve's flamboyance grew in other ways, too. Every evening the door of the Taneyhill home would burst open and Steve would bound into the kitchen, announcing, "Couldn't be stopped today." Back then, he acknowledges, "I'd tie my shoes, and my mouth would start running."
But Taneyhill was not exactly a braggart. He simply had a sure sense of himself. And he practically never lost at anything. Steve was eight years old when he joined a hapless Little League team that went 3-27 his first year. He pitched and played shortstop, and the team won back-to-back local championships his last two years. In the fourth grade he joined a flag football team; they won three straight area titles. He led Altoona High's basketball team to its first state championship finals in 27 years. Steve blew kisses to fans and pointed his fingers like six-shooters after sinking jumpers. For that he was ripped in the local papers and targeted for cheap shots by opposing teams.
Art and Susan watched with a mixture of pride and alarm. Finally they suggested that Steve tone down his act. "No," he said. "That's me." Susan winced but let it go. "You just hope people see the truth in this kid," she says.
His ability has never been hard to see. Taneyhill became Altoona's starting quarterback his junior year, and after a 1-3 start he led the team to six straight wins—five of them with last-minute scoring drives—and a 7-3 record. The next year Altoona slipped to 6-4, but Taneyhill passed for a school-record 2,172 yards and became one of the nation's most sought-after schoolboy quarterbacks, pursued by Miami, Florida State, UCLA and Alabama, among others.
But his hair affected even his recruitment, he says. Penn State, just 45 minutes from Altoona, did not show much interest in him. Taneyhill thinks the reasons were his looks and general comportment, which did not seem compatible with coach Joe Paterno's famously understated teams.
Taneyhill chose South Carolina for one reason: a promise that he could compete for playing time as a freshman. Actually he expected more than that. Shortly after he signed his letter of intent, he went to Columbia to attend South Carolina's spring game. He took one look at the veteran quarterbacks on the field and told a reporter from The State, South Carolina's biggest newspaper, "I'm going to start here next year." The next morning the paper carried a story about the cocky incoming quarterback. That was Columbia's introduction to Taneyhill.
When he got to campus to begin summer school, Taneyhill was met with coolness and hostile stares from upperclassmen, especially Wright Mitchell, the returning fifth-year senior quarterback. Mitchell said of Taneyhill, "We don't exactly play Nintendo together."
Gradually, however, the Gamecocks warmed to Taneyhill, especially when he took the practice field. He was quickly made the backup to Mitchell. Redshirt freshman quarterback Blake Williamson, with whom Taneyhill roomed, discovered that the new guy wasn't a trash talker behind closed doors; rather, he was hardworking and uncomplicated. Taneyhill's only problem was that he had too much energy to ride the bench. "When he puts on that helmet," Woods says, "he's on stage."
He didn't have much of a role, however, during the first five games of the season. Most of the time Taneyhill watched Mitchell do an ineffective job. And in his first significant appearance, Taneyhill was humiliated. Woods put him into a slaughter at the hands of Arkansas, which was leading the Gamecocks 31-0. Taneyhill went zero for four, with two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. He didn't play for the next two games. "I can't be myself as a backup," Taneyhill told Woods. Each week when he called home he was more miserable, and he considered transferring at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, the other players were growing impatient with Woods. Their offense was averaging only 10 points a game. During a loss to Alabama, Woods again turned to Taneyhill. This time he completed 10 of 17 passes for 135 yards. The Gamecocks had found their new starting quarterback.
But the quarterback issue was just one problem on a team shot through with dissension. Nine days after the Alabama game some frustrated upperclassmen called a players-only meeting, and the team voted to ask for Woods's resignation. Woods acted swiftly. The next day he told the Gamecocks that he was the head coach and that anybody who didn't like it could turn in his scholarship. With that, Woods announced the quarterback change and began preparing for a game with 15th-ranked Mississippi State that looked to be another potential slaughter.
It was anything but. Taneyhill electrified all of South Carolina with his performance. On the second play from scrimmage he completed a 35-yard pass, and the Gamecock crowd remained on its feet for the rest of the game, a 21-6 victory. Taneyhill completed seven of 14 passes for 183 yards, including touchdown throws of 10 and 43 yards. He leaped up and down in the huddle and whirled a white towel on the sideline. After the game he ran around shaking hands with members of the crowd. "People around here really needed to win," Woods says now. "Steve somehow rallied the troops and made it fun again."
"I was just the switch," Taneyhill says. But he was the switch to a nuclear explosion. The next week Taneyhill predicted publicly that the Gamecocks would win all of their remaining games. They started with a 21-17 victory over Vanderbilt in which Taneyhill brought the Gamecocks back from a 14-point deficit. The game-breaker was a 55-yard scoring pass. Next South Carolina upset Tennessee 24-23 on two more scoring passes from Taneyhill. After a 14-13 win over Louisiana Tech and a 14-9 loss to heavily favored Florida, the Gamecocks ended the season with a 24-13 upset of Clemson in which Taneyhill was 19 of 29 for 296 yards, including scoring passes of 21 and 30 yards. Over the season he completed 86 of 162 passes for 1,272 yards and seven touchdowns. The Gamecocks averaged 18.8 points a game under his hand.
Taneyhill's success came partly from the power of surprise. Improvising in busted plays, he threw ropes over the middle for long gains. He whipped his teammates into a frenzy and wrecked Woods's composure. But gradually Woods took the chains off Taneyhill. "He's a gunslinger," Woods says. "But you trust him. He makes the play."
This season the man of surprises has yet another one for his teammates. He got a new earring. Now he has two. "They haven't seen it yet," Taneyhill sighs. "It'll probably be a big story."