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Back where he belongs

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Yahoo! Sports celebrates the return of America's true passion with "Football Nation," a weeklong series featuring this year's most intriguing figures from the preps to the pros. National columnist Dan Wetzel kicks things off with a profile of Steve Spurrier.

COLUMBIA, S.C. – The evening is almost impossibly humid, with the August air thick and heavy enough to see under the practice field's bright lights. The afternoon was so hot that new head coach Steve Spurrier ordered his South Carolina Gamecocks' practice moved to night for safety reasons.

So now, out behind the hulking Williams-Brice Stadium, just off downtown, is where the Ol' Ball Coach – the Mouth of the South, the one-time king of the SEC, Coach Superior himself – is back at work, fiddling with a microphone that will allow his caustic, bombastic wit to boom into the Southern night.

"I want to see if anybody from Carolina can make a pass," he bellows sarcastically for all to hear, for all to cast their scorn on the Gamecocks' two quarterbacks – Blake Mitchell and Antonio Heffner – neither of whom looked capable of making said pass in the day's last drill.

"I just want to see," he says, like it shouldn't be a big request.

And so there he is, wearing khaki pants, a maroon golf shirt and his trademark visor. Only now he has his own giant karaoke machine. He's just as big of a wonderful, demanding wiseacre as he ever was.

There he is – back where he belongs.


"It feels wonderful," he says after practice, the clock well past 10 p.m. but the 60-year-old looking as fresh as ever. "It feels wonderful to be in charge of the team – to coach a team in the South, to coach in the SEC."

From his playing days in Johnson City, Tenn., and the University of Florida, where he won the 1966 Heisman Trophy, to his coaching stints at Duke (where he led the Blue Devils to an ACC co-championship) and eventually back in Gainesville (where he made the Gators national champs), hot, humid training-camp nights are what Spurrier has always been about.

Nobody in recent college history has been much better at putting together ball clubs, inventing new schemes, spinning scoreboards and making quarterbacks of average talent "make a pass" than Steve Spurrier.

And nobody has been better at doing it with a colorful personality and biting quotes that know no sacred cows. Nobody has been less afraid to gloat and rip and build up and tear down and be just perfectly entertaining to fans across America.

That's why Spurrier was so great for college football. And why his return to the college game after two disappointingly humbling seasons with the Washington Redskins is the biggest offseason hire in the game, even though Charlie Weis (Notre Dame) is taking over a more historic program and Dave Wannstedt (Pitt) was a better NFL coach.

But neither delivers the excitement like Spurrier, whose new team opens with Central Florida on national television Thursday.

To say the fan base has been energized here in the state capital would be an understatement.

Consider T.J. Williams, who has a toy chicken taped to his hat, a "Got Spurrier?" T-shirt on his back and a look of joy on his face that couldn't be topped if they had just reclassified barbecue sandwiches as health food. The 45-year-old roofer is taking in this open practice, too.

And Spurrier getting on the quarterbacks, not to mention the linebackers, the secondary, the running backs, the assistant coaches – heck, even the field-goal holder ("It's got to be right there," Spurrier shouted, pointing at an exact blade of grass before pulling off his visor and rubbing his brow) – has him frothing with excitement.

"Gonna win now," Williams said. "You can take that to your bank, son."

But will he? Can Steve Spurrier do what Lou Holtz couldn't (33-37 in six seasons), even if Holtz was busting up the rule book, and turn this good but never great program into a champion? Can he lift the Gamecocks past SEC East powerhouses Florida, Georgia and Tennessee? Can he make this USC matter with blue-chip recruits?

"Spurrier isn't going to be scared to run the offense the way Lou Holtz was," said Louis Chaney of Swansea, S.C., another Gamecock fan. "He'll run a great offense. I don't know about this year but in three years we'll be great."

Great at South Carolina? A school that has won only one conference crown ever (the ACC in 1969)?

"Look, if it was easy, it wouldn't be worth doin'," said Spurrier, who took over a similarly underperforming program at Florida, too.

"A lot of similarities," he said. "Hope the results are near the same. Hope recruits will look at South Carolina the way I looked at South Carolina. Come here and you can do a lot of things for the first time."

And then Spurrier considered this new place and all these diehard fans who annually pack the 80,000-seat Williams-Brice for a seemingly perennial 6-5 program and, well, in classic fashion he ripped his own program.

"Most loyal fans in the country," he said. "Haven't got much on their investment, though."


And that is really the fun of Spurrier. The guy will take a shot at anyone, including himself. He's already thrown barbs at new UF coach Urban Meyer ("He's had an excellent four-year head-coaching career") and old UT nemesis Phil Fulmer ("If you want to read about some full-blown fights, read about the Tennessee players").

None yet has matched his greatest hits, such as his 1991 deadpan on news that a fire in the Auburn football dorm destroyed some books: "The real tragedy was that half of them hadn't been colored yet."

But give him time.

Just listen to the man after practice, where he doesn't want to talk about SEC championships or even anyone else in the SEC because he still hasn't seen anyone from South Carolina complete a pass often enough.

"If we can complete a pass here occasionally – that is my problem right now," he said.

No person in America has a worse poker face than Spurrier. And just in case you don't get the hint, he can always throw a visor. Or just start talking, where compliments can even break bad.

"What do you like about your defense?" Spurrier is asked.

"We have a fast defense," he said. "Sometimes we don't have much size up front."

He pauses and grimaces. Right now, there is no sugar-coating that he isn't too pleased with all of his players. This is the start of the building process. These are the tough days.

"You know, son, 98 percent of our players have wonderful attitudes. Ah, 95 percent I guess. So we've got some work to do. These guys are big enough and strong enough to be able to play. We can't seem to get our message across to some of these guys."

He looks at you for a second like you like you might have a suggestion.

"Or maybe," he shrugs, "they are doing the best they can."

Steve Spurrier on a sweltering Southern summer night.

Football as it should be.

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