Ol' Ballcoach ready to stir up SEC once again
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The University of South Carolina charter plane is scheduled to leave here Wednesday at 1 p.m. and land in Birmingham less than two hours later. That's when The HBC and his small Gamecock entourage will make their way to the Wynfrey Hotel, site of the annual pigskinpalooza known as SEC Football Media Days or, as some are calling it: Return of the Visor.
Some things just don't seem right: Hooters waitresses wearing cardigans ... french fries dipped in yogurt ... Steve Spurrier in the NFL. This -- The Head Ballcoach returning to the league and college game he once ruled -- seems right. That's because Spurrier and Saturdays in the SEC go together like Ohio State and investigations.
Nearly 700 media credentials have been issued for the three-day football fest, which is more than were issued for the SEC championship game and only about 100 fewer credentials than were issued for last January's national championship in the Orange Bowl. Those were actual games. This is a dozen coaches wearing suits, droning on about their two-deep depth charts.
But Spurrier will liven things up. He always does.
"I don't have any profound words of wisdom or predictions for the [media]," said Spurrier, as he sat in a restaurant booth Monday evening, just hours removed from attending the funeral of a University of Florida friend. "They may be a little disappointed. I'm going to say we're going to have a competitive team. What our record is, who knows?"
I've listened to Spurrier before at these SEC preseason gigs. I'll take the over on profound, on predictions, on moments when Spurrier won't be able to press his own mute button. That's why there won't be an empty seat in the hotel auditorium when Spurrier arrives for his late-afternoon session. That's why 20 sports talks shows have reserved space on Radio Row, the long hallway just a few steps from the Wynfrey's registration desk.
When Spurrier ended his self-imposed one-year stay on Elba and replaced a Lou Holtz regime that had atrophied and resorted to NCAA rules cutting, it was as if the SEC suddenly chugged a case of Red Bull. Now there are so many storylines this week that you need a valet parker for them all.
Not only do you have Spurrier's return after a confusing, dysfunctional two-year tenure with the Redskins, but you have Urban Meyer replacing Ron Zook at The HBC's old dynasty -- Florida. You have Les Miles replacing Nick Saban at LSU, Ed Orgeron replacing David Cutcliffe at Ole Miss, and Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer almost replacing Auburn as the person/rival Alabama fans would most like to see hideously scarred by a lava flow (Fulmer, among others, ratted on 'Bama to the NCAA, and the testimony became public).
But make no mistake: Spurrier is the SEC Media Days headliner. He's the reason why South Carolina's leading newspaper, The State, runs a daily "Countdown to the Spurrier Era."
Until Monday evening, the last time I saw Spurrier was in April, the week of the Masters. Back then he still didn't completely know his way around Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium, but he knew more than $3 million worth of donations had streamed in since he took the job.
He gave me a tour of the new football facility attached to one end of the concrete stadium. He showed me the football-only weight room, the sprint track, the state-of-the-art film rooms. But there was an awkward silence when he stopped at the sparse trophy case, which featured hardware from a 2001 Outback Bowl victory.
"Outback Bowl, that's about it," said Spurrier, who won a national championship, seven SEC titles, and 122 games during his 12-year stay at Florida. "Yep, Outback Bowl."
His third-floor office, which overlooks the field, had been aired out to rid the place of Holtz's pipe smoke. On a shelf in back of his desk was his original Florida helmet (a MacGregor model) from his days as a Gator star, as well as helmets from all of his playing/coaching stops (San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Bucs, Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL, Duke), except the Redskins. Spurrier would rather sing "Rocky Top" than acknowledge his employment experience with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.
He pulled out a blue-and-white seersucker outfit and said he was going to wear it on the sidelines one day. He clicked on a battery-operated mascot doll called, "Little Cocky," and happily watched as it strutted and played the school fight song. He pointed toward the empty stadium and said he was going to have the place painted, that he wanted to make South Carolina "a cool school ... get a buzz going about it."
The buzz will reach critical mass the moment he steps foot into the Wynfrey and becomes close, personal friends with the army of waiting minicams. And just wait until the Gamecocks' Sept. 1 season opener against Central Florida, or the Sept. 10 game at Georgia, or the Oct. 29 visit to Tennessee (he loves to push Fulmer's buttons), or the Nov. 12 game against Meyer and the Gators.
Spurrier turned 60 in April (as part of his birthday present, staffers arranged a call with one of his longtime favorites, John Wooden), but looks 50. He follows the advice of Satchel Paige, who once said something to the effect: How old would you act if you didn't know how old you were?
Once again, free of the 12-20 Redskins experiment, Spurrier doesn't know how old he is.
"I feel rejuvenated," he said at dinner's end. "I feel a lot like my first year at Florida in 1990."
That was the year the Gators finished 9-2 and ranked 13th in the polls. Do that this year at Carolina and the Outback Bowl hardware is going to have to find a new home.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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