Several days before the start of the college football season, the Orlando Sentinel conducted a ranking of the Southeastern Conference coaches.
Florida’s Urban Meyer, Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville and Alabama’s Nick Saban occupied the top three spots, while South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier was sixth. When Spurrier learned of the listing, he quickly phoned its author.
Spurrier’s message: “Your rankings were absolutely right.”
Once invincible in the SEC as he racked up title after title at Florida, the 63-year-old is on the verge of becoming invisible. Spurrier’s Gamecocks have lost six of their last seven games and are given just a scant chance Saturday to defeat No. 2 Georgia.
He took the South Carolina job after the 2004 season with hopes of leading the Gamecocks to their first league title, but a loss Saturday would all but take them out of contention again. The Gamecocks opened SEC play last Thursday with a 24-17 loss at Vanderbilt, their second consecutive loss to the Commodores.
“If your team doesn’t play well, then you’re not a very good coach, and I’m not a very good coach right now,” Spurrier said. “That’s just the way life is. When I had a bunch of guys running around and scoring a bunch of points, I was a real good coach.”
Spurrier compiled a 122-27-1 record at Florida from 1990 through 2001, directing the Gators to six league titles, nine straight January bowl games and the 1996 national championship. After a two-year stint with the Washington Redskins in 2002-03 and then taking a year off from football, Spurrier returned to the SEC by succeeding Lou Holtz in Columbia.
His debut season with the Gamecocks in 2005 yielded an upset win at Tennessee, an upset of Florida, a trip to the Independence Bowl and SEC Coach of the Year honors. He went 7-5 that season and improved to 8-5 in 2006, but last year’s team dropped its final five games after a 6-1 start and a No. 6 national ranking.
South Carolina has lost four straight games to SEC East foes and may not be favored to win a divisional game the rest of the season.
“It’s all about getting your program in the right direction,” Tuberville said. “He’s only been there a few years, and it takes more than two or three years to get a program on the right track and get your type of players in. Steve is a heck of a football coach. We’d all like to win as many championships as he’s won in this league. He set a precedent, and it’s going to be hard, even for him, to come close to it.
“He’s a good football coach who knows what he wants to do, and he’s a guy I’ve looked up to as far as how he runs his program.”
Spurrier’s run at Florida included an 11-1 record against rival Georgia, whose lone victory during that stretch came in 1997 when Jim Donnan was in the second of his five seasons coaching the Bulldogs. Donnan said Spurrier knew what he was getting into when he took over the Gamecocks, because he viewed it as a challenge.
South Carolina has a history of mediocrity, as evidenced by its 522-524-44 all-time record.
“He didn’t inherit a very good situation there as far as the talent level,” Donnan said. “They haven’t had an offensive or defensive lineman drafted since he’s been there, and to compete the way he has and to beat everybody in his division at least once the way he has means that you have to say he’s already done some good things there. Holtz never beat Florida, and he never beat Tennessee.
“Coach Spurrier took over a team that was in turmoil, and, in his defense, he’s had to do a lot to get his team in position to win the games they did.”
The sudden downturn is primarily the result of inconsistent quarterback play, which often grates at Spurrier. The Gamecocks have thrown 11 touchdown passes but have been intercepted 14 times since their skid began last October with a 21-6 home loss to Vandy.
Blake Mitchell finished his turbulent career last season by splitting the 12 starts with Chris Smelley, and Smelley’s sophomore season has begun by splitting starts with junior Tommy Beecher. Spurrier will start Smelley over Beecher on Saturday, and playing time is also possible for redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia.
“If you talk to Florida fans about Steve Spurrier’s history as a coach, he’s not one to go back and stress fundamentals in a game like this,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. “He’s one to search for something to pull out of his hat. Florida fans probably recall the ’97 Florida State game, when he rotated quarterbacks, as the greatest game he ever coached.
“I suspect he may try to do something like that in this game to pull this game out.”
Should South Carolina fall to Georgia, Spurrier would own the first 1-7 stretch of his college career. His 2008 Gamecocks would be 1-2 with a schedule that concludes with six games against teams that won eight or more games a year ago.
Some Gamecocks fans on Internet message boards believe their “Head Ball Coach” is now a “Has Been Coach,” but Spurrier’s peers don’t buy into that.
“Coach Spurrier has always had a real consistent trigger man, and I just think they’re still looking for that right now,” Georgia’s Mark Richt said. “I can promise you we’re concerned about Coach Spurrier’s offense. We always have been.
“We have the ultimate respect for him.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...