- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

COLUMBIA, S.C. — They strolled in through iron gates, past the “Gamecocks Proving Ground” sign and massed behind yellow ropes. Others stayed outside, watching from the roofs of their pickup trucks parked behind the hedges that border the field.

It was a steamy evening, a good night for air conditioning and TV. Yet so many of them, hundreds, maybe a thousand, cleared their dinner plates and came out to stand around for two hours in the heat for nothing more than a preseason practice under the lights.

Football is big at the University of South Carolina and always has been, despite a lack of championships, top bowl games and all the other usual trappings of success. But never has football been bigger than it is now. Steve Spurrier is coaching again, and he’s coaching right here, dadgummit. Look there — the visor. It’s him, all right.

And so the air was laced with something more than humidity and flying insects. There was anticipation and hope, both of which reside in the hearts of those like Jimmy Evans, locally born and bred, a South Carolina graduate, 63 years old, a real estate broker. He remembers his daddy taking him to watch the Gamecocks. He remembers Frank McGuire coming to coach the basketball team in 1964. McGuire was a giant. But this, Mr. Evans said, is a bigger deal.

“You might compare Spurrier to Bear Bryant,” he said, invoking the name of the Alabama icon, the most hallowed, revered coach in Southeastern Conference football history, if not all of college football. “I don’t think anyone achieved what Spurrier achieved at the University of Florida. But don’t forget. He won the ACC title at Duke. That might be the biggest thing.”

Yes, they know all about Steve Spurrier here. They can recite his numbers at Florida and Duke and even the United States Football League, and they also know about his 12-20 flop as coach of the Washington Redskins in 2002 and 2003. But for that, Spurrier has received a pass, total absolution, as if it never happened.

“It wasn’t his game,” Mr. Evans said of the National Football League, reflecting a sentiment shared by many, including Spurrier.

Besides, if Spurrier had not failed so spectacularly in Washington, he wouldn’t be standing in the middle of the Gamecocks’ practice field on a sweltering August night. So it’s all good.

He was hired last December, a seven-year deal worth almost $10 million. It was a parting gift from retiring athletic director Mike McGee — and a stunner. “The moon and the sun and the stars lining up just right,” Mr. Evans called it.

Spurrier replaced Hall of Famer Lou Holtz, who called it quits after a long career.

Holtz helped lift South Carolina football from the dregs. But by the end, things had gotten messy. The program last month was cited for 10 NCAA infractions, five of which were considered “major.” There was a nasty brawl with Clemson at the end of last season, and several of his players had a penchant for stealing.

Enter the ol’ ball coach. Gamecock fans had gazed with envy at Spurrier’s accomplishments during his 12 years at Florida. They had heard Spurrier’s wise-guy cracks, knew all about the “Steve Superior” and “evil genius” stuff, witnessed firsthand the Florida Gators embarrassing the Gamecocks.

Then again, a lot of teams embarrassed the Gamecocks, so it wasn’t just Spurrier.

“I didn’t hate him,” Mr. Evans said. “I hated to play him.”

There is no hate among the faithful. Other than drawing the wrath of the state prep coaches’ association by revoking the scholarships of six players, Spurrier has been showered with love from the day he arrived. The tickets are practically sold out, sponsorship is at a record high, and the Gamecock Club, the big booster group, reports a $1.2 million increase in donations in the past fiscal year.

“The fans have been very supportive, appreciative,” Spurrier said after practice in his familiar twang, still, at 60, looking maddeningly youthful. “They’ve been gracious. They’ve made me feel like I’ve already won about seven SEC championships [here] when I haven’t won a game yet.”

During his downtime, Spurrier watched his son, Scotty, play high school football in Northern Virginia, saw a lot of games on TV and became “golfed out,” as he puts it. When Ron Zook was fired at Florida and Spurrier’s old job opened up, he was naturally rumored to be heading back. But South Carolina, he said, made more sense.

“This is exciting, this is challenging, and if I had to pick one job in the country, I’d guarantee this would be it,” he said. “Because they’ve not achieved much here in the past, everything is there to be done for the first time and everything is here to be successful.

“These practice fields are the best I’ve ever been around. They’ve got an indoor stadium. The stadium holds 80,000, and the fans buy all the tickets. I mean, everything is here, but for some reason, Carolina has struggled in the past.”

Speaking of the past, there is the matter of his last job — with the Redskins. He signed for five years and $25 million, the most ever for an NFL head coach, even though he had zero coaching experience in the league. It didn’t matter, his admirers said. He’ll coach ‘em up and win here, just as he won there.

After going 7-9 in 2002 and 5-11 the next year, Spurrier quit.

He said he learned “humility” and has since toned down the cocky comments. He admits he was knocked down a few pegs. Down, but not out.

“I have absolutely no excuses,” he said. “The situation was not right for me.”

Then Spurrier offered what sounded like an excuse.

“The thing about college, you have an athletic director and a president,” he said. “But the head coach runs the whole show. And if a player is out of line, he can get rid of him. He can bench him, he can do whatever he wants to. And that’s the way it has to operate.

“I didn’t have that setup. It was my fault. I think [predecessor] Marty Schottenheimer had that setup. I think [successor] Joe Gibbs has that setup. But I didn’t get it in writing. That’s OK. That’s not an excuse, but I prefer it this way.”

According to a newspaper article this week, Spurrier’s longtime director of football operations, Jamie Speronis, said Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s influence got in the way.

Spurrier “couldn’t control what was going on inside the building, let alone outside,” Mr. Speronis was quoted as saying.

But Spurrier had control. He hired his own coaches, some of whom noticeably lacked experience. He brought in several of his old Florida players, including quarterbacks Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews, neither of whom did much. He stubbornly adhered to his “fun ‘n’ gun” offense. His Redskins teams lacked discipline and organization.

But it doesn’t matter now, not here. Spurrier, richer for the experience in more ways than one, said he is back where he belongs, back in his comfort zone, far, far away from what he calls that “other league.”

Yet Spurrier has not severed all his Redskins ties. Mr. Speronis and assistant coaches Steve Spurrier Jr. and John Hunt were with him there. And when Spurrier was shown around the stadium for the first time, his guide was none other than former Redskins safety Brad Edwards, now an associate athletic director at South Carolina.

“He’s as positive and approachable as any coach I’ve ever been around,” said Mr. Edwards, who started for the 1992 Super Bowl champions. “I went out to practice once, and somebody next to me said, ‘Gosh, isn’t he happy to be here?’ When I took him around the stadium, I kept wanting to tell him, ‘You can’t play the game tonight.’ ‘Giddy’ might not be the right word, but he wasn’t far from it.”

When the presumably sore subject of the Redskins came up, “he really only had positive things to say,” Mr. Edwards said. “He loved the people. He said it was a good experience. I think it made him appreciate what he had in Florida and what he has here.”

What Spurrier has here this year is a young team picked to finish fourth in the five-team SEC East. But better times are ahead.

“I look forward to building something great,” said freshman tight end Jonathan Hannah, a prized recruit who changed his commitment from Virginia Tech after Spurrier was hired.

He has a whole lot of company there.

“I can go to my grave,” said Jimmy Evans, “knowing that everything has been done to make this a winning program.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide