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Steve Spurrier's Final Act Is Getting Ugly

Greg CouchNational ColumnistOctober 6, 2015

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier argues a call during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

Every legend deserves the right last act. Going out with a bang, or at least a soft landing. Just not a crash.

Is it too late for Steve Spurrier to avoid that crash?      

Spurrier controls his own job security, as South Carolina owes him for pretty much every positive thing about its football image. He will never be fired. Never. And people talk about job security as the goal. But for guys like Spurrier, it isn't one. In fact, that sometimes only makes it harder to figure out how or when to walk away.

You want to put it off as long as possible, but often, you're looking for the end, waiting for it, trying to outflank it, and then it pops up and hits you right in the nose.

Spurrier's coaching career is getting smacked in the face right now. It's too bad. I'd say this is the beginning of the end for his career, glorious as it was, but it's already mid-crash-landing now. And there's no way out safely.

He used to say that he'd never want to stay forever, the way Joe Paterno and his great rival, Bobby Bowden, did. But it's too late now: At 70 with a collapsing team, Spurrier is the oldest head coach in SEC history.

"He is a Hall of Fame coach," Tommy Bowden, longtime Clemson coach and son of Bobby Bowden, told Bleacher Report on Monday. "My father was a Hall of Fame coach who stayed a little too long. Joe Paterno was a Hall of Fame coach who stayed a little too long. Mack Brown stayed a little too long at Texas.

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"I would think [Spurrier] would look at those examples and make a wise decision."

DAVE MARTIN/Associated Press

Yes, but what decision is that? Leave now with a team that's undoing what you built, or wait to see if you can turn it around again by your 75th birthday?

The message sent by Paterno and Bowden was that you can be trapped while making that decision. They stayed into their 80s and wanted more. Bobby Bowden told me last year he wanted just one more season because he thought the team would be good. It was going to be his soft landing. 

"It's just respect that the Bowdens have for Spurrier," Tommy Bowden said. "He was winning so much at South Carolina and then he had a bad year, eight wins [actually seven]. They'd be doing cartwheels in Tennessee for eight wins. Coach Spurrier set the standard at South Carolina at 11 wins, and unfortunately, they're going to hold him to that standard."

The best thing for Spurrier to do now is to name his replacement and bring him in for a few years as Head Ball Coach in Waiting. That tells potential recruits there will be continuity no matter what. And maybe it buys Spurrier time to piece together one more decent year for his soft landing.

Steve Spurrier college coaching record
YearTeamW-L-TBowl
1987Duke5-6
1988Duke7-3-1
1989Duke8-4All-American-L
1990Florida9-2
1991Florida10-2Sugar-L
1992Florida9-4Gator-W
1993Florida11-2Sugar-W
1994Florida10-2-1Sugar-L
1995Florida12-1Fiesta-L
1996Florida12-1Sugar-W
1997Florida10-2Citrus-W
1998Florida10-2Orange-W
1999Florida9-4Citrus-L
2000Florida10-3Sugar-L
2001Florida10-2Orange-W
2005South Carolina7-5Independence-L
2006South Carolina8-5Liberty-W
2007South Carolina6-6
2008South Carolina7-6Outback-L
2009South Carolina7-6PapaJohns.com-L
2010South Carolina9-5Chick-fil-A-L
2011South Carolina11-2Capital One-W
2012South Carolina11-2Outback-W
2013South Carolina11-2Capital One-W
2014South Carolina7-6Independence-W
2015South Carolina2-3
sports-reference.com

The problem is, you can never get the last drop out of something. And even if you could, you'd always wonder if there's another drop in there somewhere. Spurrier had three 11-win seasons in a row at South Carolina from 2011 through 2013 and surely figured he'd go on to win an SEC title at some point and then walk off.

Instead, the Gamecocks went 7-6 last year when some media—wishfully thinking—had picked them to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. And this year, after being crushed by Georgia and then losing to usually lowly Kentucky, they'll be lucky to win five games.

So when should he leave? He needs an exit strategy.

Spurrier has lost the state's recruiting battle to Clemson's Dabo Swinney. Bowden said the state of South Carolina isn't in the best spot to easily get to top recruits (tell that to Utah). Spurrier, of all people, doesn't have a quarterback.

He's searching for answers, changing lineups, moving younger players in and out. The answers aren't there. The program needs to be rebuilt, and Spurrier, as young as any 70-year-old, is still, in fact, 70 years old.

Can't someone rebuild in his 70s?

"It can be done in your early 70s," Bowden said. "But not too many people are doing it. Bill Snyder [at Kansas State]. He's the only one."

It's not that he can't coach anymore. It's just that his old school, Florida, has passed him by again after last week's blowout win over Ole Miss. Ole Miss has passed him. Georgia is ahead of him, even though Mark Richt can't win the big game. Alabama is superior.

The SEC has reshaped itself without Spurrier.

"I breezed right through age 60, I breezed through 65 and I'm going to try my best to breeze right on through 70," Spurrier said at the SEC media days this summer. He pointed out that the Democratic and Republican front-runners for president are in their late 60s—Hillary Clinton (67) and Donald Trump (69). You can lead a country in your 70s but not an SEC football program?

Spurrier has always fought off age. He wears 70 well, and he should be an example to modern-day coaches that you can love football but don't have to spend every second thinking about it, obsessing over it and raising it to some level of social importance.

In the old days, Spurrier was all fun in the USFL. He was the cocky bigmouth, calling Bobby Bowden's Florida State "Free Shoes University." Florida was a national power. He failed with the Washington Redskins. This is his 11th year at South Carolina, one fewer than he spent at Florida.

Somehow, Spurrier has managed to stay colorful while transforming from cocky to statesman. He has pushed for athletes to be paid. Any player who assaults a woman is kicked off his team. He pushed to have the Confederate flag taken down.

But it got ugly last year. There was an embarrassing loss to Tennessee, and then Spurrier cut out on his press conference in under 60 seconds. He was entitled to one of those every few decades, but the media, who have grown used to having Spurrier quips to fill their stories, tore into him angrily.

Mostly, though, he looked worn out. He later said he just wanted two or three more years, and that was a huge mistake: How do you sell high school recruits, looking for a five-year college career, on the idea of playing for a guy who is leaving?

Everyone used it against Spurrier in recruiting. He tried to backtrack. He held a press conference this summer to throw a temper tantrum about some criticism he'd taken. It has gotten ugly. And even this weekend, he complained about officiating and, according to the State's Josh Kendall, took it to the SEC office.

"Nothing ever really happens too much to make referees accountable except maybe at the end of the year some of them are not rehired," Spurrier told the newspaper. "They are kind of told to retire if they have too many bad calls."

At least someone is telling them. No one will even do that much for Spurrier.

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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