A modest opening for Gamecocks coach ... for now
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- And so, at the end of an afternoon unlike any other in the long and cliché-ridden oral history of Southeastern Conference media days, Dixie reunited with the Head Ball Coach.
"I appreciate all of you hanging around," Steve Spurrier said to a ballroom jammed with reporters. "I figured you'd all be gone."
Right. And Spurrier will run the wishbone this year at South Carolina.
Even after the leadoff segment with World's Hottest Coach Urban Meyer, after the Phillip Fulmer Alabama Manifesto and after Ed Orgeron's blunt-force-enthusiasm debut. This was the climactic scene. Nobody was going anywhere without hearing from Ol' Stevie Boy.
"It's good to be back," he said. "I've missed you guys."
No need to doubt the sincerity of those sentences. After flopping as an NFL coach, it was gloriously good for Steve Spurrier to be back in the conference he ruled in the 1990s. And he did indeed miss us guys in the media -- and, by extension, the millions of Southerners who coronated him, cussed him and obsessed over his every compulsive tug of the trademark visor.
After watching a herd of television cameramen record for posterity Spurrier's walk through the Wynfrey Hotel second-floor lobby, South Carolina linebacker Lance Laury said, "I thought he was the president walking through here." Hail to the 'Dog.
Fulmer said Wednesday that his first reaction upon hearing that his old Florida nemesis was returning to the league was, "Oh, crap." Everyone else's reaction was, "Oh, boy!" (With the exception of some Gators fans who label Spurrier traitorous for going to a Eastern Division rival. Spurrier himself sidestepped questions about playing his alma mater.)
It's a better league with Spurrier. It's a more dramatic league with Spurrier now competing against the school he led to the 1996 national championship and seven SEC titles. And it's a more enjoyable league with Spurrier's fresh mouth and flamboyant offense to spice things up.
But in the one true upset of the day, Darth Visor packed it in and played defense rhetorically. The serial smart-ass who gave us "Free Shoes University" and "You can't spell Citrus without UT" says he's cut out the digs at rivals when talking to booster clubs, and that has carried over to talking with the press. Spurrier even took a stab at humility at times Wednesday.
"Sometimes, the head coach may be as good as his team is," he said. "We've learned that recently."
Humble Steve apparently is making a good-faith effort to go along and get along with the schools he once delighted in needling.
"Until we start beating somebody, nobody's gonna worry too much about South Carolina," Spurrier said.
Of course, nobody worried too much about Florida when Spurrier arrived there as Head Ball Coach in 1990. When he left 12 years later, he was second only to Bear Bryant in historical impact on the SEC.
Comparisons between this year and 1990 were plentiful from Spurrier. That year, he took over a program under NCAA investigation and led it to stunning success, finishing with the best record in the league (on probation, Florida couldn't officially be named league champs). A historically second-rate program then went on to a decade of dominance.
South Carolina is also under investigation, also has a long history of football futility -- and now also has Steve Spurrier to save the day. He'd clearly love to author another shock-the-South season, but it will be much tougher the second time around.
Spurrier isn't entering a league that's behind the times strategically. Pat Dye doesn't coach here anymore, and neither does the run-first, run-second, throw-only-if-absolutely-necessary mindset.
"Everyone thought you couldn't be a passing team at all and win the championship," Spurrier said. "We proved that you can throw the ball."
Nor is he inheriting a team that's flush with talent. Florida of 1990 had a ton of good players. South Carolina of 2005 has just nine returning starters, a major question at quarterback and the residue of a program that developed a lousy attitude in the last days under Lou Holtz.
There was a spate of discipline problems shortly after Spurrier arrived, and the coach said he's been displeased with the commitment to "voluntary" summer workouts. Combine that with South Carolina's perennial inability to get past Tennessee, Florida and Georgia, and there are real reasons to suspect that this will not be an instant program transformation.
"Our goal is to have more wins than losses and go to a bowl game," said tight end Andy Boyd, hardly providing bulletin-board material for the rest of the league.
The guy who talked loudest Wednesday was Fulmer, whose appearance actually was the story of the day locally.
One way to know this was when the Tennessee coach headed up the hotel escalator just as several TV cameramen were heading down. They tried to stampede back up the down escalator, and one cameraman went down in the panic. Another way to know is to look at the body of summer work from outstanding Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky: 18 of his 30 columns since June have related, in some form or fashion, to the Alabama-Tennessee feud and the recruiting scandal that spawned it.
A year ago, Fulmer caused a furor -- and incurred a $10,000 fine from commissioner Mike Slive -- by refusing to come to media days. Most everyone thought Fulmer was ducking a possible subpoena by grandstanding lawyer Tommy Gallion, who was representing former Alabama coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams in their civil suit against the NCAA and others -- and who publicly tarred Fulmer as a no-account weasel for informing the NCAA about Crimson Tide recruiting violations.
(As everyone knows, Alabama subsequently was body-slammed by the NCAA and booster Logan Young was found guilty by a federal grand jury of paying Albert Means to come to 'Bama to school. The Tide is still trying to dig its way out of that hole.)
Fulmer has since said he stayed home last July because of a jurisdiction issue regarding another lawsuit -- one that names him as a defendant -- but the no-show cemented Fulmer's weasel status to embittered Tide fans. This was his first public appearance back in Alabama, and it happened to come after the Cottrell/Williams Trial of the Century had dominated headlines all summer.
So Phillip came prepared. Reading a mini-speech that had the feel of a ghostwriter somewhere in the process, Fulmer talked about a trial that included "theatrics that were worthy of Oscars, legal battles that went on and on, and even some threats of harm to some of the people involved and their families, including mine. I do not take that lightly and I am not well over that yet as far as being angry."
Fulmer didn't go into specifics of the threats, but said he received them on his cell phone shortly after an Alabama paper rather ham-handedly failed to redact the coach's phone number and home address from documents on its Web site pertaining to the Cottrell/Williams suit. Fulmer got his point across about the threats, and about where he stands on The Issue That Won't Go Away.
"I have and will defend my program, my coaches and their families and their livelihoods, our loyal fans, and especially defend my player's rights to have a level field to compete on," Fulmer said. "As we stand here today the court cases are almost done. Some people may choose to wallow in the stench of cheating for publicity purposes; the only ratings that I am looking for is in the SEC East and a chance to be a part of an SEC Championship game."
The Vols are considered the favorites in the Eastern Division to do exactly that. But one of the teams they'll have to beat to get to the Atlanta championship game is South Carolina, coached by the leading curiosity of 2005, Steve Spurrier.
"Everyone wants to see what happens with our team that first year," Gamecocks tight end Boyd said. "How's it going to turn out?"
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.