It has been a long and tumultuous journey for South Carolina's Stephen Garcia. He was a highly heralded recruit out of Tampa, Florida; hotly pursued by Auburn, Florida, and many other top SEC and national teams; and when Steve Spurrier nabbed him, it was considered quite a coup. "This is the guy Spurrier has been looking for to run his offense," said some observers.
So, it must have been especially painful for him when those same things were said about true freshman Connor Shaw at the beginning of this season, despite the fact that Garcia had two years of eligibility left.
Spurrier, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback himself, is notoriously difficult on quarterbacks, and at times throughout Garcia's career at South Carolina, it seemed that he had been the roughest of all on Garcia. In many ways, Garcia has had a highly successful career already at South Carolina. He was a fourth-team SEC pick in his first full year as a starter last year, putting up one of the four best seasons by a QB in South Carolina history. With two more solid years, he would likely best every South Carolina passing mark in the record books.
However, Garcia has brought a great deal of criticism on himself with poor decisions both on and off the field. Early in his career, he had alcohol problems and serious issues with grades. His work ethic and devotion to film study were frequently questioned. On the field, he's had serious issues with turnovers his entire career.
The frustrations are those of a fan base and a coach who are desperate for the team to turn the corner. The problem with Garcia is that the potential is there to turn that corner, but in key moments, he hasn't stepped up and turned that potential into performance.
If Garcia was too slow to move around in the pocket, you might forgive a few of the sacks. If his arm wasn't strong enough, you might forgive some of the times he didn't hit receivers down the field. But he has none of those issues.
He simply seemed to be getting by on pure talent alone, with mediocre results. South Carolina fans are accepting of mediocrity when the players on the field aren't very good. This is a program that averaged over 80,000 fans per game during a 21-game losing streak. However, they won't really put up with not giving it your all for very long. Patience with Garcia was wearing thin from both the fan base and the 'Ol Ball Coach.
Patience was so thin, in fact, that there was talk during the spring that Connor Shaw might actually be the starting quarterback. Shaw did all the little things correctly, studied film intensely, and had a lot of talent.
At first it was just one of those rumblings you hear from disgruntled fans: "Let's throw in the freshman, because I'm tired of this bum Garcia." But the sentiment slowly gained steam, helped along by cryptic non-statements from Spurrier.
As the season began, Garcia was the starter, but Shaw played significant minutes. Spurrier was fond of saying, "I've got two quarterbacks; both are going to play." This system worked reasonably well with the first few opponents, with both quarterbacks playing decently when they were in.
Then came a night game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
To be fair, Garcia actually played very well most of the game. However, he did two things that Spurrier had repeatedly cautioned him about: holding the ball too long and running with his head down. This led to two concerns that got him pulled: turnovers and worry of a concussion. Garcia had taken multiple shots to the head and had turned the ball over multiple times.
In a critical moment of a critical game, Garcia found himself on the sideline watching Connor Shaw throw two interceptions.
That could have been it for Stephen Garcia. It shouldn't be forgotten that he was actually playing very well, other than the two turnovers, when he was pulled. The two turnovers were mostly a result of him fighting for every last yard. Spurrier was widely questioned for pulling Garcia.
Garcia could have thrown his hands up and thought, "Okay, I give up, I can't please this guy. Time to sit back and enjoy going to college on a full scholarship. Play that freshman kid you love so much, and I'll hold a play chart on the sidelines."
To his credit, Garcia did none of those things, which revealed a little-known secret—Stephen Garcia has been the unquestioned leader of this football team all year long.
The team respected Garcia's quiet transformation from party guy to hardworking leader. They respected that he bore the brunt of criticism that might otherwise get directed at teammates. They respected that he did so without ever complaining or even thinking about throwing another teammate under the bus. They respected that he fought hard for every yard, sometimes to his detriment, and never shied from contact.
Most of all, they respected the fact that he seemed to genuinely respect every one of his teammates. Garcia is as likely to openly criticize a teammate as Spurrier is to say he wouldn't mind losing to Georgia.
A little-known fact is that Garcia made the SEC academic honor roll in the fall of last year. This may seem insignificant, but it was actually the genesis of his turnaround in many ways. As a freshman, Garcia often gave the impression that he felt he didn't need to work hard in the classroom, the film room or the practice field. At the very least, he was beginning to take his studies, and thus his eligibility, seriously.
In fact, as best we can tell, this new-found willingness to put in the necessary work and study seemed to carry over into spring and fall preparations. Perhaps he was being pushed by Connor Shaw to work harder, or perhaps he was just maturing, but everybody agreed that in the spring practices Garcia was working harder.
However, in the end, working harder doesn't really matter unless you see results from it.
Fast forward to October 9th, 2010.
The Alabama Crimson Tide rolled into Columbia, SC, on a 19-game winning streak. They hadn't lost a regular season game since 2007. Their starting quarterback, Greg McElroy, famously hadn't lost since the eighth grade. The Tide featured what many considered to be perhaps the two best running backs in the country, and maybe the best all-around running game in college football history.
South Carolina had just come off a game where they surrendered an unseemly 334 yards rushing. They couldn't figure out who they wanted at quarterback with the game on the line.
However, one curiosity was the amount of confidence that Spurrier seemed to be putting in Garcia in the days leading up to the game. Many thought that Shaw would be the starter, and at the very least we'd hear more of the "I've got two quarterbacks; I'm going to play them both" line. However, Spurrier just said "Stephen is the starter, he's our guy." No waffling or equivocation.
ESPN's College Gameday set the stage for the SEC showdown. However, not much was really expected out of the Gamecocks. A few prognosticators put Alabama on "upset alert", but it was hard to know how seriously they really meant this.
Inside Williams-Brice stadium, the feeling in the air was a little different. Fans were optimistic. These fans had been waiting for an opportunity for a very long time, and an opportunity to do something special was there on that day.
Stephen Garcia took his first snap of that game already down, 0-3. Against a defense led by all-world talent and coached by the guru of collegiate defensive schemes, Nick Saban, Garcia directed South Carolina down the field on a seven-play, 63-yard drive that was capped by a nine-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Lattimore.
Then, on the next drive, Garcia did it again. He led the team down the field on a seven-play, 62-yard drive capped with a gorgeous pass to Alshon Jeffery. In the middle of the second quarter, Garcia led the Gamecocks on yet another scoring drive, again ending with a Stephen Garcia-to-Alshon Jeffery touchdown pass.
Now, we had seen great halves from Garcia before. Maybe never against an opponent of this caliber, but inconsistent was Garcia's middle name, and to be inconsistent you have to be good at times. The real questions were, How would Alabama adjust at the half and how would Garcia adjust to those adjustments?
Also on everybody's mind was how Garcia would react when something inevitably went wrong. Perhaps the scary thing about the first half was that nearly everything that could go right, did go right for Garcia. What would he do when the inevitable bad break did come?
You didn't have to wait long in the second half to get an answer.
South Carolina received the opening kick, which Chris Culliver muffed in the end zone but then tried to run out. This led to poor field position.
On the first snap, from the shotgun like most of South Carolina's plays from scrimmage, the ball sailed high and hard and Garcia couldn't reel it in. He ran back to get it, but instead of falling on the ball at the three-yard line, in a dangerous move he scooped it up and proceeded to toss it out of the back of the end zone for the safety.
The safest play would have been to fall on the ball at the three-yard line. Some think, however, that if he was going to scoop it up, he might as well have rolled out of the pocket and threw the ball out of bounds.
Regardless whether the decision was right or wrong, it was a stunning outcome. South Carolina had seemed firmly in control of the game up to this point, and now Alabama had all the momentum.
This was the obstacle that we knew Garcia would have to face and overcome. After taking the free kick and holding 'Bama to a field goal, South Carolina found that what once seemed like a comfortable lead was now a one-score game at 21-14.
Then, in a career-changing drive, Garcia turned the tide, both literally and figuratively.
Garcia had reason to panic; every Alabama fan, and perhaps half the South Carolina fans, firmly believed he would clam up and Alabama would come roaring back. They believed it because this was much like the situation Alabama had found themselves up against a couple weeks before, when Ryan Mallett and Arkansas had posed a challenge. Unlike the Heisman hopeful Mallett, who caved and threw a couple of critical interceptions, Stephen Garcia stood tall and did not show a hint of panic.
South Carolina again found themselves with poor field position, starting at their own 15-yard line. However, Garcia marched the team down the field in a 15-play, 85-yard drive that took 7:55 off the clock and gave a breather to a South Carolina defense that was beginning to get gassed. On this drive, Garcia hit three critical third-and-long pass attempts for first downs.
But perhaps more important than netting seven points, the drive showed a new Stephen Garcia; one that, when things are starting to go a little wrong for your team, the players could look to and have confidence that he could right the ship.
So later, when Alshon Jeffery bobbled a pass that was put on his numbers and gave up a critical interception, South Carolina stayed calm and Garcia let Jeffery know that he still had all the confidence in the world in him. And for the first time, all of his teammates, but especially his coach, had all the confidence in Stephen Garcia.
This would be demonstrated on the very next drive, when Garcia threw a deep ball to Jeffery down the sideline where only Jeffery could catch it, and despite having an Alabama defender holding one arm, Jeffery made a spectacular one-handed grab for a back-breaking 45-yard completion that ultimately sealed the game for South Carolina.
So, while this game and outcome may have shocked the world, it seemed to not surprise a lot of South Carolina players. At some unidentifiable point, Garcia had become their leader, and despite the long odds, they did not find themselves shocked when he led them where they wanted to go.
Now the only question that remains is whether the Gamecocks can play with success and achieve their ultimate goal: getting to and winning an SEC Championship Game. Unlike the past, however, there is a real sense of belief among the team and coaches—and even the Head Coach himself—that with Garcia, they can.