COLUMBIA, S.C. – Steve Spurrier was jogging off the Williams-Brice Stadium field, 67 years old now but still with a bit of the spring of a once-Heisman winner.
This was, arguably, the greatest night in South Carolina football history, the sixth-ranked Gamecocks leaving No. 5 Georgia beaten and bloodied, 35-7. Beaten and bloodied so much in fact, the place was half empty at the end, tens of thousands off to celebrate their great fortune early.
This here was a shocker, even for the diehard Gamecock fans. Not that they won, although the list of great victories is painfully short here. No, it was how they won, a total 60-minute woodshed beating like Spurrier used to hand out back at Florida.
So the fans were screaming for their coach, screaming for their savior. All of his football life in the south, as a player and coach, he looked around here at the huge sell-out crowds even when the team was lousy, looked at all the talent in the area who seemed to wind up somewhere else, and wondered, why not?
Why not nights such as this for South Carolina?
As Spurrier approached the tunnel in the southwest corner he slowed his jog and ra,ther than just soak in the glory, he began clapping back at the fans, pointing up at them, offering that cocksure smile of his and nodding toward them.
“Most loyal fans in the country,” he said back in 2005, after a preseason practice, when he’d just arrived here. “Haven’t got much on their investment, though.”
Well, they were getting it Saturday. College GameDay in the morning. Cocktails in Cockabooses all afternoon. Top five Bulldogs vanquished by evening. Something resembling a riot at the bars of Five Points the rest of the night.
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South Carolina is 6-0 now and probably headed to No. 3 in the rankings. It owns 10 consecutive wins, the longest streak in school history. It goes to Baton Rouge next week for another big one, more national spotlight for what’s shaping up as a dream season. At Florida comes after that. A trip to Clemson to end the regular season. Maybe Alabama in Atlanta in December. Big, bigger, biggest.
It’s all on the table now because dang if the Ol’ Ball Coach isn’t in the middle of delivering the miracle perhaps only he thought possible: the Gamecocks are national title contenders.
“Obviously this was a special one,” Spurrier said. “It was really neat.”
This job has been a bizarre death trap for decades, all potential, no results. Williams-Brice Stadium has signs commemorating two “titles”, 1969 in the ACC and 2010 in the SEC East. That’s it. There’s another banner honoring the school’s all-time winningest coach, a guy named Rex Enright, who secured 64 victories. No mention is made of his 69 losses. (Spurrier, now 61-35, will pass that soon enough.)
The school had a losing record before Spurrier showed up. Lou Holtz was the original coaching legend that came here with visions of grandeur. He left with a 33-37 record and NCAA probation.
There was really nothing here but a big stadium, lots of fans and tons of talent.
Spurrier had won with less than that – he won at Duke after all – so he came and sold the idea of making history where very little had ever been made (apologies to Heisman winner George Rogers). Back when he was hired, he thought it would take a few years. It took longer though. Spurrier went just 44-33 over first six seasons in Columbia, averaging 5.5 losses per year.
He’s 17-2 since and with a defense so devastating, it took a Georgia club that hung 40 or more the last four games and shut them out until the final two minutes. He’s doing it with an offense that ran 51 times and threw just 10, a long way removed from his old Fun-n-Gun Gator days.
“We started recruiting better, that’s what we started doing,” Spurrier said. “The facilities here started to be [upgraded]. Our boosters, the people who have given some big money, they should feel very proud. And that’s what they envisioned we had a chance to be, wins like this. They’re getting a return on their money and we’ve got a happy bunch of Gamecocks right now.”
It’s the players he said. But it’s the coach that lures them and Spurrier has always been a master at getting kids to want to play for him.
“You have to do something to recruit them,” he said. “You have to win some and be competitive and get the best players in your state. If the best players in your state are leaving, it’s hard to go to Atlanta and Jacksonville and those places and say, ‘hey, we’ve got it going.’ [They say], ‘well, how come your instate guys aren’t coming?’ That’s probably been a problem in the past around here.”
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In other words, running back Marcus Lattimore of Duncan and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney of Rock Hill and cornerback Victor Hampton of Darlington and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles of Hodges and on and on the roster goes.
In years past, Spurrier noted, guys like that tended to become Bulldogs. Now, he said with pride, there are only two South Carolinians on the entire Georgia team.
“[We beat] a school three years in a row that used to own [us],” Spurrier said. “They can’t say they own us anymore, that’s for sure.”
Spurrier dropped a handful of little barbs at the Bulldogs of course, which is the surest tell that he was good and satisfied and knows he has himself a real ballclub, one capable of making these Saturdays matter for more than just the party over on the Fairgrounds.
He’s been that way of late, alluding to his efforts to get a local columnist moved off the job and even trolling up in weight class when he declared that maybe the University South Carolina, not the University of Southern California should be known as USC. Considering the Gamecocks superior spot in the national polls and all, he said.
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This, of course, would be to ignore the Trojans’ 11 claimed national titles, seven Heisman trophies, 31 bowl victories and, well, just about everything that’s occurred over the last century or so.
Then again, that was the point, Steve Spurrier so patently absurd in his tweaking that all you can do is laugh. A couple years back he declared a game with North Carolina should be for the term “Carolina.” South won.
Now he’s on to baiting the real big-time programs.
“If we can play like this, we may have a chance for a real big year,” he said. “Maybe. But who knows if we can keep playing like this?”
They aren’t conditioned to think big here, let alone “real big." And the schedule is brutal. But then again when Spurrier gets it cranked up, he can really get it cranked up. And for once on a Saturday night, these long loyal fans could see their old coach's vision come into focus.
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