If you’re a fan of any given college football team, this is the time of year when people start asking you questions about how your team’s going to do this season. If you’re a fan of South Carolina, you’ve been answering the same questions for two or three years now:
1) Is anyone going to step up at quarterback?
2) Is the offensive line worth anything?
3) Is this the year Steve Spurrier finally hangs it up?
OK, maybe that last question is mostly the curiosity of rival SEC fans who would very much like to see Spurrier depart Columbia before he has the chance to turn South Carolina into a powerhouse. But take that as a compliment, Gamecock fans: We’ve been harboring secret anxieties about your program’s potential for years now. You’re in a state that is, if not fantastically talent-rich by itself, situated in one of the most talent-rich regions in the country; your fans enthusiastically support the team both with their rear ends (Williams-Brice Stadium was packed out even during the depths of Carolina’s 0-11 season in 1999) and their dollars; and your facilities leave little to be desired, even compared against the rest of the SEC. When Spurrier came out of retirement to take the reins from Lou Holtz in 2004, it seemed like only a matter of time before he turned SC into a contender.
But the reality, after four seasons at least, has been rather more pedestrian. Spurrier is 28-22 with the Gamecocks, light-years beyond the 20-game losing streak with which SC closed out the 1990s but not all that much better, percentage-wise, than South Carolina’s overall record since World War II. The Gamecocks have never finished last in the SEC East under Spurrier, but only once have they finished better than third. And every time they take a big step forward, it’s negated by a big step back: In Spurrier’s first year, the Gamecocks beat Florida for the first time since the Great Depression, but ended up in the Independence Bowl and lost to Missouri. In 2007, the ’Cocks were 6-1 and ranked No. 6 in the country but managed to yack one up to Vanderbilt at home; they didn’t win another game the rest of the way and were shut out of bowl season.
This all has to be perplexing for a guy as cocky as Spurrier, who’s never had to wait all that long for success as a head coach. In his first head-coaching job, with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL, he had the Bandits in the playoffs his second year. At Duke, too, he only needed two seasons to turn things around; the Blue Devils went 7-3-1 his second year and followed that up with their first ACC title since 1962. And he would’ve won an SEC title in his first year at Florida if NCAA probation hadn’t barred the Gators from such recognition. Tellingly, in the one head-coaching job where he wasn’t successful — the Washington Redskins — Spurrier bailed out after two fairly joyless seasons.
So what does this portend for Spurrier’s medium-to-long-term prospects in Columbia? “Cocknfire,” who manages both the Gamecock blog Garnet and Black Attack and the SEC blog Team Speed Kills, says that while Spurrier has denied underestimating the challenge of rebuilding the South Carolina program, “it would be more than fair to say that he’s frustrated with the inability to build an offense.” (Only once in Spurrier’s four years have the Gamecocks finished in the top half of Division I-A in total offense.) And though hopes are high that golden-boy QB recruit Stephen Garcia will improve this situation, the pressure to succeed is getting higher as well. “My sense is that [Spurrier] needs to see some real improvement this year or next. Not just to keep him from retiring, either,” Cocknfire says. “The fans are growing restless in Columbia.”
Fans of South Carolina, of all programs, tapping their feet at the Evil Genius? Beggars trying to be choosers? Actually, their impatience isn’t all that presumptuous: Throw out Lou Holtz’s 0-11 rookie year in Columbia and his 0.559 winning percentage is almost identical to Spurrier’s, and Holtz took the ’Cocks to two New Year’s bowls and ran away with both, whereas Spurrier’s lone January outing with the Gamecocks was a three-touchdown thrashing. So if Gamecock fans were expecting Spurrier to effect noticeable improvement in the program’s fortunes post-Holtz, then in a big-picture sense they’re somewhat justified in scratching their heads at this point. (Of course, as Cocknfire points out, it would be almost inconceivable for the South Carolina administration to fire Spurrier; the more likely result of a fan uprising would be Spurrier himself saying “I don’t need all this” and retiring to the lush fairways of Augusta National.)
If Spurrier’s future hinges on Stephen Garcia, then in this reporter’s moderately educated opinion, he’s no risk to retire anytime in the next year, even if Garcia continues to struggle. For all the hype around Garcia, it’s important to remember that 2009 is the first off-season in which he hasn’t been suspended from practice for a substantial amount of time, and he played in only eight games last season (only three of them starts). So he’s still very much an unfinished product; too unfinished, certainly, for Spurrier to base any major life decisions on one potentially less-than-wonderful season.
If the Garcia era comes and goes and the Gamecocks still haven’t shown up in the SEC championship game, well, then you might see Spurrier start edging toward the exits. But y’all know what a stubborn guy the Ol’ Ball Coach is, not to mention vindictive. He’s gonna put the conference through at least a few more years of anxiety and acid reflux before he finally lets them breathe easy.