Two weeks ago, the Georgia-South Carolina game looked like one that would unquestionably decide the SEC East.
The landscape changed after Texas A&M trounced the Gamecocks 52-28 on opening night.
If South Carolina suffers its second SEC loss of the season, falls two losses behind Georgia and loses the tiebreaker to the Bulldogs, its SEC East title hopes will become virtually nonexistent. After all, an 0-2 start with trips to Auburn and Florida still on the schedule will make two home losses nearly impossible to overcome.
"It's pretty much a 'must' if we're going to have a shot to win the division," Spurrier said during his weekly Tuesday press conference.
But what about Spurrier's career?
"There was a time in 2008 when [former Gator quarterback] Tim Tebow hung 56 on him, and he just looked whipped," said Brady Ackerman, reporter and host for the Gator Radio Network, former Gator player (1987-1991) and graduate assistant (1994). "A lot of people called me and said that he's retiring after this year. I called up there and realized that there's no way. It's going to add more fuel to the fire."
That fire is burning white-hot.
The 69-year-old legend is signed at South Carolina through the 2018 season at approximately $4 million per season but has made it clear that he wants at least one more SEC title in his trophy case before hanging up the visor.
"We've won a lot of games, but we still have only won one division, haven't won an SEC," Spurrier said at SEC media days. "Those are goals that we have a shot at that could happen for the first time in school history."
It likely won't this year if the Gamecocks fall to the Bulldogs, but that doesn't make this a "make or break" game for Spurrier's South Carolina career.
A Different Philosophy
When he was hired by South Carolina, his first goal was to become the winningest coach in program history. He accomplished that in 2012, breaking Rex Enright's record of 64. A win on Saturday will give him 201 career wins as an SEC coach, which would tie him for second with Georgia's Vince Dooley in SEC history behind Paul "Bear" Bryant (292).
|South Carolina All-Time Wins as Head Coach|
|Rex Enright||1938-1942; 1946-1955||64|
|South Carolina Media Guide|
He's done it different ways.
At Florida, he combined a "fun 'n gun" style with a fertile recruiting ground to win six SEC titles and one national championship. At South Carolina, he's had to pay more attention to recruiting and adjust his style to a run-first approach to lead the Gamecocks to three straight 11-win seasons.
"He realizes that he has to do things differently in order to win," said Westwood One radio analyst Chris Doering, who played wide receiver for Spurrier at Florida (1991-95) and with the Washington Redskins (2002). "At South Carolina, he's running the football a lot more. There's a lot more defense and playing in low-scoring games."
Former quarterback Stephen Garcia was there during the transformation.
When he came to Columbia in 2007, he challenged the "Head Ball Coach" both on the field and off. Sure, there were off-the-field incidents, but Garcia was the first true dual-threat quarterback to play for Spurrier and was followed by another in Connor Shaw.
"I think I put some years back on him," Garcia, who's an analyst for SaturdayDownSouth.com, said jokingly. "But he didn't really have many mobile quarterbacks before us. I think Connor and I sort of switched it up a little bit with our ability to execute the zone read and our scrambling abilities."
It took time to develop the right philosophy to win at South Carolina, and it has paid off.
"He didn't try to force a square peg into a round hole as far as the offense was concerned," said former wide receiver Tim Frisby (2004-05). "He figured it would take four, five years to get the program where he needed it. He has been very patient in the team-building process."
That patience is a big reason the program is where it is today. Ten years ago, simply being in the discussion for the division title once every four or five years would earn a head coach a parade in the streets of Columbia. Spurrier has led the program to eight of its 19 bowl appearances, won the SEC East once (2010) and produced the first three 11-win seasons in program history (2011-2013).
The patience is paying off, which is surprising to some who knew him during his Florida days.
Desire To Win
All coaches have a burning desire to win, and Spurrier is no exception. In fact, that need to win is a big reason why the days of the "fun 'n gun" are gone and Spurrier has adopted a more traditional approach at South Carolina.
"He loves to throw the football, but he loves to win more," said Ackerman. "At the end of the day, I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I always thought Spurrier would go down as the greatest passing coach in the history of the game. He might, but he's won at South Carolina in different ways. That's a tribute to his coaching."
He has swallowed his pride a bit at South Carolina knowing that what worked at Florida might not work in Columbia.
"It's that desire to win that has overcome his need to throw the ball all over the yard like we used to," said Doering.
It was the burning desire to win that drove him back to college from the NFL, where he went 12-20 in two years with the Redskins from 2002-03.
"That was one of the hardest things about being in the NFL with him in Washington, was that he didn't realize that unlike college, you're going to lose," said Doering. "If you lose six games in a season, that's a pretty dang good year."
South Carolina was a different challenge for Spurrier. He built and sustained a dynasty at Florida, a program ready-made for success, tested his hand at the NFL and then came to South Carolina in 2005, a program with one double-digit-win season at the time—knowing this was a long-term process, not a quick fix.
"I saw Spurrier come into the program and immediately change the culture at South Carolina," said Frisby. "'Why not us?' was his mantra. Coach weeded out questionable players and imparted the work ethic needed to succeed. He instantly put our focus on the bigger picture. His focus was on keeping the best players in the state here and then branch out to neighboring Georgia, North Carolina and down into Florida."
One "rebuilding year" at a program that has not been a traditional power isn't going to derail Spurrier's personal goals that he set for himself when he took the job, but it might just delay them a little bit.
"I would be totally surprised if 'the HBC' left before winning an SEC championship at South Carolina," Frisby said. "He truly believes this can be accomplished. Coach is driven by challenges. He is driven by excellence. He believes the SEC championship at Carolina is his challenge, his destiny."
His destiny hasn't been realized yet, and there's still more gas in the tank.
"He wants to win in literally everything he does," Garcia said. "Whether it's writing, running, literally everything he's trying to win."
All Coaches Aren't Created Equal
It's no secret that coaching is a nomadic profession, but Spurrier is the exception. He spent more than a decade in Gainesville at Florida and is working on his 10th in Columbia as the Head Ball Coach at South Carolina, making him the first SEC coach to work 10 years or more at two different conference schools.
"Obviously you never know what your path in life is going to lead to," Spurrier said at SEC media days in July. "When I left Florida after 12 years, I thought I was going to coach NFL five or six years and retire to the beach and play golf a bunch and travel around, this, that and the other. But that was a bad plan."
It was a bad plan because Spurrier can have his cake and eat it too.
"He loves coaching football and he loves calling ball plays," said Doering. "As much as he loves playing golf and hanging out in Crescent Beach (Florida), I still think there's that competitive fire that burns in him that he needs that outlet for."
It isn't just Spurrier who enjoys the time away, it's his staff. He famously criticized Alabama's Nick Saban this offseason for his all-football approach to coaching.
“I told Nick Saban one time, I said, ‘Nick, you don’t have to stay there until midnight and your teams would be just as good and win just as many,’” Spurrier said, according to Josh Kendall of The State. “He said, ‘If I could do it the way you do it, I would, but I don’t feel comfortable unless I try to cover every base, every angle, be totally prepared.’"
Spurrier runs his program differently.
"The game game doesn't burn him out in the same way it does other coaches," said Wes Mitchell, who covers the program for GamecockCentral.com on the Rivals network. "Not only himself, but he allows his assistants to spend time with their families. He spends time with his family. He takes his vacations. It's not a 24/7 thing for him. If Steve Spurrier approached in the same way as some of these other coaches, he wouldn't be doing it to this day."
It's not just Spurrier, though. He knows a happy staff is a successful staff and aggressively works to ensure that his assistants have a similar quality of life.
"I've heard more and more say that it's a really good program to be in when you consider the way some other programs are run," Mitchell said. "Spurrier's belief is to work your tail off on a schedule and get done what you need to get done. But how much are you going to get done at 2:00 a.m. and then being tired the next day? Are you really going to be that much more productive?"
On the field, he has become more of a CEO at South Carolina, delegating responsibilities to his coaches and his players.
"Coach Spurrier puts a lot of trust in the coaches he hires to do their jobs," Frisby said. "He works as hard as any coach in America on the X's and O's of the game. The difference is he lives and breathes offense. It's easier for him than other offensive coordinators because he sees the field himself as a quarterback and knows exactly what play will be successful. Therefore the offense is less scripted and more reactive to defenses. The only thing a player has to do to be successful in the Spurrier offense is his job. The structure of the staff definitely lends to a decreased chance of 'burn out' because all the elements are synchronized."
Help on the Way
The window for Spurrier to win an SEC championship at South Carolina is closing, but it's not locked. In fact, help is on the way in the form of a stellar 2015 recruiting class.
As of Sept. 10, the Gamecocks rank fifth in the 247Sports team composite rankings in the upcoming class, and several of those players could fill personnel holes that have haunted the team over the first two games of the 2014 season.
Pass rush has been a problem so far, and 4-star defensive ends Marquavius Lewis (Hutchinson, Kansas), Shameik Blackshear (Bluffton, SC), Arden Key (Atlanta, Georgia) and Dexter Wideman (Camden, SC) are all committed for the upcoming class; and 4-star corner Mark Fields (Cornelius, NC) will join a roster that was injected with secondary talent in 2014.
"He's already pretty excited about where this recruiting class is ranked," Mitchell said. "He's generally not a guy who mentions recruiting too much at all, but he has mentioned the fact that this incoming class is highly ranked. Some of the positions on defense that they're struggling at right now, they have some reinforcements coming in."
It will still be challenging for the Head Ball Coach to accomplish his goals. After all, Tennessee is on the rebound, Florida seems to have found the right offensive scheme to fit its athletes and Georgia cloned running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall in the form of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, respectively.
South Carolina is putting itself in that discussion from recruiting, facilities and winning standpoints, which leaves the days of fighting for bowl games in the rearview mirror.
"He continues to field top-10 recruiting classes, and he understands the program is nowhere near its ceiling," Frisby said.
Destiny might not be realized and the window is closing a little bit, but the foundation is there for Spurrier to make at least one more run at accomplishing his primary goal at South Carolina.
"Winning an SEC championship at a place like South Carolina would be an exclamation point on a pretty good career all around," said Doering.
An exclamation point indeed. It'd also leave the program in a tremendous spot for Spurrier's successor.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report and co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.