As Year 10 of the Steve Spurrier era at the University of South Carolina begins, I still can’t believe he came to Columbia. I’m grateful for it, I just can’t believe it.
Why the Head Ball Coach picked us when he could have had the Florida job back if he wanted it after his brief but ill-fated jump to the NFL (and don’t kid yourself, Gator fans would have run the school’s athletics director into the swamp — the real one, not the football stadium — if he had failed to rehire Spurrier) remains a mystery.
Or, if not the Florida job, why not another traditional football power school for his return to the college ranks? Alabama, Auburn, Miami, LSU — all were jobs Spurrier could have had at that time or soon thereafter. And that’s just naming schools in the Southeast. Is there any doubt West Coast powers like USC (you don’t think Spurrier was confused, do you?), Stanford and Oregon would have taken him at the first opportunity, not to mention a then-fading power searching for a return to glory like Notre Dame?
But Spurrier came here. Moreover, he did so in the immediate aftermath of the painful demise and departure of one of the few coaches of his generation who was equally famous and equally successful, but who ultimately had not been able to overcome the chicken curse. Or Derek Watson’s repeated arrests. Or whatever.
While the great Lou Holtz took the dismal Gamecocks from 0-11 in his first season to 8-4 in his second and 9-3 in his third, the seeming foundation of an SEC power then collapsed beneath him, culminating in that last ugly defeat at Clemson, accompanied by the even uglier on-field brawl, followed by Holtz’s retirement from coaching. And that, incredibly, was followed weeks later by the announcement that Steve Spurrier was headed to Columbia.
The idea that Spurrier would willingly step into that mess when he could have had his pick of power schools, better facilities, greater financial support, easier recruiting etc. still defies logic. But for whatever reason — to prove he could win anywhere (though he’d already done that at Duke); to prove he could pick up the pieces of a disaster (though he’d already done that at Florida); to prove he was the evil genius of college football (though he’d already earned that title by opening up offenses and openly antagonizing other coaches)? — Spurrier decided to take on the Gamecocks, both their present situation and past history be damned.
It wasn’t easy — and indeed, it might have been harder than he thought it would be — but a decade later, Spurrier is back at the top in college football. Or very close to it. More remarkably, the University of South Carolina is now seen as being at the top of college football. Or very close to it.
The results of all this are both fun and foolish. The boost USC and Columbia get from Spurrier’s winning ways has a palpable effect on the community and its economy, bringing both big attention and big bucks to town. At the same time, the money spent on college football here and elsewhere is almost perverse, with the NCAA and its major schools now little more than the minor leagues of the NFL — provided free to those billionaire team owners.
Indeed, the amount of money involved in college football is why it has become so scandal-plagued. Which brings me to what I like most about Spurrier. In his 25 years as a college head coach, when have you heard his name invoked in a scandal? Never. Not only has he been a winner, he’s been a clean winner. He’s so good he doesn’t have to cheat.
The same lack of scandal was true during his playing days at Florida, as well — though admittedly there were reports he was brazenly sleeping with one of the cheerleaders during his Heisman trophy winning senior season. Which he was — because they were married. And they still are, 48 years later.
Which brings me to that new 80-foot-tall banner of Spurrier now adorning Williams-Brice Stadium. Folks, I’ve been to Cuba and seen the giant images of Che Guevara that adorn sites in Havana and elsewhere, and they pale in comparison.
Of course, Che never won the SEC.
Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.
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