Commentary

South Carolina challenge keeps Spurrier motivated

Updated: April 4, 2008, 2:55 PM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Steve Spurrier has never been accused of being the most humble guy in the world.

And for good reason.

The Head Ball Coach changed the way they play football in the Southeastern Conference with his Fun 'N Gun offense at Florida. He won six SEC championships along the way, one national championship and is the only coach in SEC history to lead a team to six straight seasons of 10 or more wins.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesSteve Spurrier owns six SEC titles, but is searching for his first at South Carolina.
If there were such a thing as a Mount Rushmore of SEC coaches, Spurrier's mug (complete with that familiar smirk and cock of the head) would have been chiseled in stone a long time ago.

So with Spurrier pushing 63 and his golf game as sharp as ever, except for the fact that he doesn't chip and putt as well as he used to, what in the name of the Chicken Curse is he doing at South Carolina in the twilight of what's certain to be a Hall of Fame coaching career?

"Trying to do something that's never been done before here is what motivates me," said Spurrier, who's 21-16 (11-13 in the SEC) during his first three seasons in Columbia. "If South Carolina had already won a whole bunch of championships, it wouldn't be the challenge that it is now.

"But we've got a chance here. I really believe that. I believed it when I came, and I still believe it. We've got to coach better, and we've got to play better. And for us to win an SEC championship some year here, we've got to have the right bounces."

In a league full of coaching heavyweights, Spurrier can still hold his own.

He jokes, in vintage fashion, that the biggest difference in the league now and when he was collecting SEC championship rings at Florida in the 1990s is that Georgia and LSU are all of a sudden national contenders.

"I told people that when I was at Florida, we beat both of them 11 out of 12. So times have changed," Spurrier quipped.

So much so that he's now the ninth-highest paid head coach in the SEC at $1.75 million annually. For perspective, when he left Florida following the 2001 season, he was the highest-paid coach in all of college football at $2.1 million per year.

"Hey, ninth is right where I deserve to be," shrugged Spurrier, whose Gamecocks went from a 6-1 start and a No. 6 ranking in the first BCS standings to five straight losses to end last season and no bowl game.

"I tell everybody: For our school and what we've done, that's where I should be. I should fit right in there around ninth, and that's all right."

What's not all right with Spurrier is the way South Carolina has lost some of those games. The Gamecocks have beaten Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all on his watch. They were close to beating them all twice had they, in Spurrier's words, made the clutch plays.

Of course, in the realm of South Carolina football, the word "close" might as well be a dirty word. The Gamecocks have been eternally close, just not close enough. Even Spurrier has made light of their barren trophy case, which features a couple of Outback Bowl championship trophies from the Lou Holtz era, an ACC championship trophy from 1969 and that's about it.

"If we're ever going to win big around here, we've got to win those kind of games," Spurrier said. "Historically, South Carolina hasn't. We've won some close ones since I've been here, but we've lost our share of close ones, too."

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Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesFrustating close losses are a big reason the Gamecocks are 11-13 in the SEC under Steve Spurrier.

There were rumblings following last season's collapse that Spurrier's frustration level was reaching a point where he might just hit the golf course full time.

Not so, he says.

His deepest and best recruiting class was the 2007 class, and those players will all be second-year players this season. He's got a pair of new coordinators, Ellis Johnson on defense and Ray Rychleski on special teams. A defense that was decimated by injuries in 2007 returns 10 starters, including the SEC's best middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley, who's back after blowing out his right knee.

"In a lot of ways, Coach Spurrier is still trying to change the mind-set around here," said Brinkley, who hopes to get down to 258 pounds this season after playing at 268 a year ago. "I think we've sort of settled for being an average team too much. This year, it's not going to be like that."

Whereas Spurrier predicted a year ago that the Gamecocks were ready to contend for the title, he's taking a bigger-picture approach now.

"We think in the next three or four years that we need to make our move if we're going to make one around here," Spurrier said. "Our fans are wonderful. They have paid their dues and deserve a winner. We're going to try and give them one. If we don't get it going the next three or four years, then maybe at that point you pay somebody else to see if they can get it going."

Either way, Spurrier said age 66 is about as long as he wants to go in coaching, although he feels like he's probably in better shape and works out more now than when he was 42.

And there's also just so much golf you can play, right?

"Well, I could play a lot. I don't think I could play every day," said Spurrier, his clubs sitting about a four-foot putt from his desk in his Williams-Brice Stadium office.

He does anticipate having a little more time this season, although he wants to use it to be more involved with all facets of his football team. For the first time in his career, he plans to delegate a little more of the play-calling duties to his son, Steve Jr., who is also the receivers coach.

The younger Spurrier is calling all of the plays in scrimmages this spring and is entering his 11th season with his father, so they're obviously on the same wavelength offensively. But for Spurrier to give up any of the play-calling duties is a bit of a stunner unto itself.

Those who know him best insist they'll have to see it to believe it, but Spurrier says he's serious.

"It's time to do it, and I need to be more involved in other areas," Spurrier said. "But I'll be delegating to where I know what's going on. I'm just trying to sort of train Steve Jr. up to do it. I still have the coordinator title, and I'm still overlooking the offense. But he's been with me a bunch, so he knows the offense and how we try to do things."

Spurrier said it just hit him last season that trying to coordinate the entire offense himself, with the scripting and wrist bands that go with it these days, and also managing an entire football team was simply too much.

"I was there in a meeting writing down the third-and-shorts, third-and-10 plays, the goal-line plays, and my coaches were all sitting there and looking at me," Spurrier recounted. "I started thinking, 'Now wait a minute. I'm the head coach and I've got all these guys here anxious.'"

Spurrier then looked at his coaches and said, "I'm doing all this, aren't I?"

They nodded in unison and a couple of them said, "Well, that's the way you do it, isn't it?"

Not anymore.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesSteve Spurrier still thinks the Gamecocks can sprint to the top of the SEC.

"I'm just trying to be a better head coach, trying to make better calls on the sideline, trying to be in better touch with everybody on the team," Spurrier explained. "I'm still going to hang on the offensive field. I'm not going to be a head coach that stands in the middle and watches everybody. No, I'm still going to be involved."

The surest way to tell how much the Gamecocks are gaining on their Eastern Conference brethren is to watch the NFL draft the next couple of years, Spurrier said. He points out that South Carolina has yet to have an offensive or defensive lineman drafted since he arrived in 2005.

That's got to change if the Gamecocks are going to break the Florida, Georgia and Tennessee stranglehold in the East. They're the only three schools from the division to play in the SEC championship game since the league expanded in 1992.

The Gamecocks also have to find a way to be more consistent on both sides of the ball. They were eighth in the SEC in total offense and ninth in total defense last season. The run defense was an abomination, ranking 110th nationally.

"We won the Heisman for Tim Tebow," junior strong safety Emanuel Cook lamented. "He had a record game against us. We almost won it for Darren McFadden. It still feels terrible. There's nothing we can say about it. The only thing we can do is push ourselves harder and make sure we never have to go through anything like that again."

Spurrier sure doesn't want to. Let's face it: He's not wired to lose four or five games a year, nor is he wired to languish in the bottom half of the conference.

"We've averaged seven wins a year, which is not terrible around here," he said. "But, gosh, hopefully we can do a lot better than that when you play 12 games. It can be done at South Carolina.

"Hopefully I can be the head coach when it happens."

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.

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