After an early season loss to Vanderbilt, the Spurrier haters came in with the typical “It’s not long before Spurrier hits the links permanently” rhetoric.
They point to the lack of offense, the inconsistency, and claim that “the game has passed him by.”
Not so, I say. In fact, much to the contrary.
Of course, all that nonsense abruptly stopped after the Gamecocks nearly (and probably should have) upended the number two Georgia Bulldogs on September 13th. All of a sudden, Spurrier’s fire was back. He somehow magically found it between the Vanderbilt loss and the Georgia game.
The truth, of course, is that Spurrier never lost his passion, and if you watch the man coach, it’s easy to see that he wants to win just as badly now as he did in the 90s.
As the Gamecocks are now at 2-2 and ready to face pushover UAB this Saturday, I thought it would be a good time to shed a little light on the history of the South Carolina football program, to put Spurrier’s successes and failures into perspective.
To put it lightly, things are drastically different at South Carolina than from other prominent SEC schools.
Spurrier and his staff are not just fighting for recruits, wins, and fan support. It goes well beyond that.
The Gamecock staff is fighting years of mediocrity and borderline embarrassment.
Since high school kids are the ones making or breaking college coaches, let’s examine a typical South Carolina high school student. Born in 1990, an 18-year-old growing up in South Carolina has been alive for four Gamecock coaches.
The three coaches before Spurrier posted the following numbers:
Sparky Woods, 1989–1993
Overall record: 24-28
Winning percentage: .464
Brad Scott, 1994–1998
Overall record: 23-32
Winning percentage: .420
Lou Holtz, 1999–2004
Overall record: 33-37
Winning percentage: .471
That also includes a pathetic two-year span from 1998-1999, when Carolina posted a 1-21 record, including a mind-boggling 18-game losing streak in SEC play.
Combined, those three coaches, from 1989-2004, led the Gamecocks to only three bowl games.
Not exactly inspiring stuff.
Go back further into the history of the program, and it doesn’t get any prettier.
Does this excuse all of the losses Spurrier has taken over the last few years? Certainly not, but to think any coach could come in and make an immediate turnaround is simply foolish. The Gamecocks job goes well beyond the simple “long term job.”
Again, the head coach at Carolina has literally over 100 years of losing working against him. In that time span, only one conference championship has been earned—an ACC title in 1969.
All that losing breeds a negative culture where losses are unfortunately accepted with a hunch of the shoulders and a sigh. To reverse that trend is a monumental task.
Spurrier and his staff are charged with changing a fan’s perspective, about making Saturday a chance to actually win a big game rather than eating good food, drinking beer, and acting the part of offensive coordinator from the bleachers.
Talk to the folks in Columbia. You will be amazed at how many adults have grown up in Columbia and live here nearly their whole lives. That equals 15, 20, 30, 40, or even more, years of watching the home team lose year after year, often in disappointing fashion, much like the most recent heartbreaking loss against Georgia.
Yet in only three years and four games, Spurrier has made giant strides to change that culture. Not with the flash he did at Florida—and certainly not with the same amount of success—but Gamecock fan support, which has always been strong, is now seeing South Carolina as a true contender rather than just a spoiler.
To date, Spurrier is 23-18 (with the aforementioned upcoming game against UAB) with two bowl appearances in three years—and more than likely, a third bowl appearance this season.
So despite the poor records before him and a lack of any winning tradition, Spurrier has given a serious jolt to the program, notching wins against Florida and Tennessee in his first season and defeating Clemson and Georgia in the following seasons.
In addition to winning SEC Coach of the year in 2005-2006, Spurrier became the first coach in USC history to take a South Carolina team to a bowl game in his first two seasons as head coach. Halfway through last season, South Carolina was sitting at number six in the country.
Meanwhile, outside of South Carolina, kids growing up in Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee have not settled for “big wins” and “bowl appearances.”
They have seen their teams win consistently—and win big. Today’s high school senior has been alive for a combined three national championships and numerous SEC championships from just those three teams.
Take a trip to the stadiums in Athens, Gainesville, or Knoxville, and you’ll see National Championship banners, SEC titles, multiple Heisman winners, a list of All-Americans, and all sorts of football history.
In Columbia, Williams-Brice Stadium hangs four nondescript banners: 1969 Atlantic Coast Conference Championship, 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, 1984 National Coach of the Year Joe Morrison, and 1986-87 All-American Sterling Sharpe.
Ironically, Urban Meyer can actually use Spurrier’s success to his advantage when recruiting. Meyer can point to the three Heisman winners his school has produced—one of which being Spurrier, and the two national titles in the last 12 years—one courtesy of Spurrier.
A recruit will leave Florida with shiny rings and litany of awards in his head. On the flipside, a recruit will leave South Carolina thinking, “Who is George Rogers, who is Joe Morrison, and Carolina used to be in the ACC?”
To be clear, this is not excusing some of Spurrier’s losses and coaching mistakes. In year four, the program has not taken the jump they looked to be taking when they rose to number six in the polls last year.
But that’s just it: The fact that Spurrier had the team on track, had them in the top six in the country, and had Columbia, SC thinking about an SEC title should speak volumes.
Instead, the focus became the five-game losing streak and subsequent 6-6 season—and rightfully so.
Up to that point, however, the Spurrier plan was right on track. The plan got derailed, and now it’s on to Plan B. Spurrier has never had a problem adjusting on the fly, and he’ll have plenty of that to do this season.
The real problem, however—and it’s no secret—is that Spurrier has yet to find the big-time quarterback South Carolina hasn’t had in years.
Perhaps Stephen Garcia is the answer. Gamecocks fans certainly think he is. We will find out this weekend, as Garcia will either start or play significant minutes against UAB.
The Blazers are terrible, as they even managed to make Jonathan Crompton look good. Expect Garcia’s athleticism and strong arm to provide several big plays for South Carolina and kick start an offense that can’t seem to find the endzone.
Garcia is definitely not the most cerebral of quarterbacks, but his play this weekend will dictate more playing time in SEC action.
And while opposing SEC fans are hoping Garcia is the next Ryan Perrilloux, it is this writer’s opinion that Garcia will keep his stuff together and help the Gamecocks make the jump to third in the SEC East, one spot ahead of Tennessee.
It will be a small step in the standings, but it should provide the always important confidence and momentum heading into the 2009-2010 season.
As for next season, who knows where the Gamecocks will finish.
I know this, I wouldn’t bet against the Head Ball Coach.