One of the great things about Steve Spurrier is, of course, his mouth, which, when articulating his mind's considerable confidence can get him in trouble.
Actually, it would get him into a lot more trouble if he (at least at the college level) didn't tend to back it up. Consider 1995 when Spurrier, then the coach of Florida, was asked if he thought the Gators could beat Georgia for a seventh consecutive year.
"Is Ray Goff still coaching there," Spurrier said, of a man he also once called "Ray Goof." Was that wise? It didn't matter, UF went to Athens and won 52-17. Goff was fired soon after.
So this is Spurrier. He says things other coaches wouldn't dare – either out of courtesy, common sense or because they can't crack a good joke. (When a campus fire at Auburn once destroyed some football players' books he said, "The real tragedy is that half of them hadn't been colored in yet.")
This hasn't changed since getting his comeuppance at the Washington Redskins or with his move in 2005 to South Carolina, a perennial 6-5 program that has never won the SEC.
Spurrier, 62, is still talking though, bold and cold. And last April, on one of those perfect spring nights in the South, post practice and in the shadows of Williams-Brice Stadium, Spurrier talked like few coaches would ever dare.
"Time to win," he said. "It's time to win now. We should compete for the SEC. It's time."
There would be no more talk about rebuilding, no excuses about dealing with probation left behind by the cheating of the Lou Holtz regime and no blathering about the brutally tough SEC.
Instead he raised expectations. He increased the urgency. He made proclamations that even the most excitable Gamecock fanatic might have thought twice about. Ready or not, South Carolina was coming. It was time, Spurrier decided, to get serious.
"Maybe we can," he shrugged. "Maybe we can't. But that's what we're here for."
He was saying about the same thing Tuesday, as he prepared for the biggest test of the season.
South Carolina, 3-0 and ranked No. 12, visits mighty, second-ranked Louisiana State on Saturday. A victory would change everything as suddenly the Gamecocks really are in the hunt, suddenly the schedule almost looks (at least by SEC standards) kind of favorable and suddenly Spurrier, once again, doesn't look so crazy for saying crazy things.
The proof of Spurrier's coaching skill – if he needed any more proof – is the team he is winning with. This isn't your vintage Spurrier club, no high-flying offense, no waves of future NFL weapons to rotate out onto the field.
South Carolina is winning with defense, a ball control running attack and a great field goal kicker. It's downright boring. "I don't think we're going to set any records throwing the ball this year," he joked. He used to like to try to score 70 on people. A couple weeks ago his team beat nationally-ranked Georgia 16-12.
"It will be pretty hard for us to go down there and outscore them," Spurrier said of LSU. "We're looking for a ballgame somewhat like the Georgia game. Hopefully it will be a field goal game. That's the kind of game we would like to have happen."
Spurrier, 18-10 overall in Columbia, is probably never going to be able to amass the kind of talent he once had at Florida. Recruiting has been good, he's attracting some excellent players, but there is a reason South Carolina, despite great facilities and fervent fans, has never been great.
His new home state has a population of just four million (Florida has over 16 million). And while Louisiana isn't much bigger (especially post-Katrina), there isn't another strong in-state program there, like Clemson, that will always get its share of recruits.
"Basically, Tulane is the only school they compete with in-state for players and Louisiana has excellent high school football programs," Spurrier said wistfully. "They have it rolling right now. They have a big-time football program at LSU."
It is a reality that made people question why Spurrier took the job in Columbia in the first place. In his 12 seasons at Florida, he won the league six times and took home the national title in 1996. Before that, he even won at Duke, if you can believe it.
His college resume was beyond reproach, he could have sat back and waited for an LSU or Alabama or wherever to open. Heck, more than one school would have fired their guy to hire Spurrier.
But Florida wasn't a powerhouse when he went there, either. Spurrier may have won the 1966 Heisman as a Gator, but when he took over in 1990, it was so far behind then mega powers Florida State and Miami that the job appeared hopeless. Spurrier changed that. So he likes challenges.
"Look, if it was easy, it wouldn't be worth doin'," he said. "I tell recruits, you can come here and do things for the first time."
There will be nothing easy Saturday in Baton Rouge. LSU is eyeing the title. Just two weeks ago it laid a historic 48-7 whipping on then No. 9 Virginia Tech. And 92,000-seat Tiger Stadium will be deafening, although Spurrier joked that will keep his quarterbacks from making ill-advised audibles – "We're better in the loud ballparks."
Spurrier's teams are generally better in big games. A year ago, in his first trip back to Gainesville, the Gamecocks had the eventual national champions beat before a late rally and a final second blocked kick saved Florida's season.
So they shouldn't be scared and shouldn't be surprised and, even as the odds seem a little long, shouldn't be taken lightly.
Their coach, for one, will be confident because he is always confident. By any reasonable standard, this is a program that should still have a ways to go, that still shouldn't be capable of beating No. 2 on the road. Any other coach would be reminding everyone of that, downplaying the team's chances, worrying about perception.
Spurrier's standard, though, isn't reasonable. Not now, not ever. Just ask him.
- Steve Spurrier
- South Carolina