Jadeveon Clowney's junior season was supposed to be a Heisman Trophy chase. Instead, it's devolved into a soap opera saga that turned ugly last weekend when Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier essentially called out his star defensive end.
Although both parties are doing their best to move on from the finger-pointing, it's fair to wonder whether Spurrier's airing of grievances will rub recruits the wrong way. The coach has spent a portion of the week backpedaling from his initial comments, which occurred during the postgame press conference Saturday following a 35-28 victory over Kentucky.
When asked about the absence of Clowney, who was listed by the team as "out with a bruised rib", Spurrier didn't attempt to protect his star player. Instead, he strongly indicated that he and the team were taken aback by Clowney's decision not to suit up.
"I will just say he told me he couldn't play," Spurrier stated, via Sports lllustrated. "If he wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants."
The word that really sticks out there is wants. Every football player should want to play, especially when a conference title is on the line.
Of course there are times when a player simply can't play do to injury. But Spurrier seemingly did everything in his power to create the perception that this wasn't the case of an unfortunate injury keeping a hungry player off the field.
"If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play," Spurrier added. "Simple as that."
From youth level competition, players are engrained with an old football adage: there's a difference between pain and injury. Players who truly love the sport are supposed to "man up" and overcome pain in pursuit of a win.
None of us have seen an MRI of Clowney's rib cage, which still leaves him questionable for Saturday's game against Arkansas. While no one can say with certainty that Clowney is cruising through this season with only NFL money on his mind, Spurrier added fuel to the fire and it created national backlash.
Now, recruits across the country are watching and listening as Clowney gets trashed as selfish. Earlier this week, ESPN SEC guru Paul Finebaum called Clowney the "biggest joke in college football" and described his attitude as "disgraceful".
The ill feelings toward South Carolina's polarizing playmaker may never have reached this level if Spurrier didn't stoke the flames. If your own coach isn't in your corner, why should anyone else be?
That's the thought that has to be crossing the minds of Gamecocks' prospects and top recruiting targets.
Will he hang me out to dry in front of a national audience?
Can I trust him if he doesn't even defend his best player?
Sure, you can certainly argue that Clowney had this coming. In the four games he's played this season, the 20-year-old has often looked lackadaisical while compiling 12 tackles and two sacks, falling far shy of expectations for a Heisman Trophy campaign.
Spurrier was likely trying to send a message to Clowney, who began the season pegged as a prohibitive favorite to be selected first overall in the 2014 NFL draft. Instead, his statements signaled an open invitation to ridicule a young student-athlete.
The Gamecocks' coach knows it too. Spurrier attempted to clarify his stance on Tuesday with comments to gogamecocks.com (h/t NFL.com).
Obviously, we all handled it poorly. It caused some confusion. ... Let me say this. If he never plays another snap here, we all should be thankful and appreciative that he came to South Carolina. We've won 26 games, two 11-2 years, the greatest seasons we've had in 120 years.
Remember, Clowney was considered the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class when he starred at South Pointe (Rock Hill, S.C.) High School. His first two years in Columbia were so phenomenal that Spurrier told the Dan Patrick Show in January that Clowney was capable of bypassing college altogether.
He could’ve come out of high school, probably, and gone straight to the NFL and played. He’s just one of those rare guys who has tremendous strength and quickness and explosiveness. And he likes playing. He’s a good guy, he’s really a good teammate also. ... He knew it was a three-year deal. But he’s ready. Oh, yeah, he’s ready for the NFL.
Surely, Spurrier also knew it was a three-year deal. Now it's year number three and things aren't going according to plan.
His postgame press conference after the win over Kentucky presented a perfect opportunity to circle the wagons and protect a young man who made South Carolina his choice when everyone else in America wanted him on their campus. Spurrier opted to implement a different strategy, casting doubt on Clowney's character and throwing him to the wolves that are always waiting to pounce in the national media spectrum.
When the next Jadeveon Clowney is considering South Carolina in his final mix of teams as national signing day approaches, doesn't this come up?
Spurrier took family matters beyond closed doors and threw his team's top player under the bus. It's a terrible precedent to set for high school prospects who are searching for stability and leadership at the next level.