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Stewart Mandel inside.c.football

Return of the Ol' Ball Coach

Spurrier could help talented Gamecocks ... but for how long?

Posted: Thursday November 18, 2004 1:32AM; Updated: Thursday November 18, 2004 12:19PM
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  Steve Spurrier
Steve Spurrier is reportedly headed back to the college game after an unsuccessful stint in the NFL.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

What once seemed like a far-fetched rumor now appears to be reality.

Any day now -- probably following his team's regular-season finale Saturday against Clemson -- South Carolina coach Lou Holtz is expected to announce his retirement. Steve Spurrier, a former adversary of the Gamecocks, is reportedly waiting in the wings.

According to The Tennessean, the former Florida coach has agreed in principle to replace Holtz next season, assuming the 67-year-old steps down. Other recent reports indicated a South Carolina representative had contacted Spurrier to gauge his interest, and Graham Spurrier, the coach's brother, told the The State in Columbia, S.C., "there's no doubt he'll definitely have serious talks with South Carolina if coach Holtz resigns.

Holtz hasn't exactly gone out of his way to quash the rumors about his retirement, either. Last week, he said "it would be great" if Spurrier were to succeed him. He then said on his weekly radio show, "You look at this football team for next year, regardless of who coaches it, this thing is going to go up. Whether it be me, whether it be Steve Spurrier, whether it be somebody else."

In many ways, Spurrier and South Carolina are a match made in heaven. It would allow the Ol' Ball Coach to return to the SEC, a conference he once dominated, at a low-pressure job in a warm-weather climate. Augusta National, where Holtz is a member, would be a short jaunt down I-20 for the avid golfer (and chairman Hootie Johnson is a South Carolinian). And while the Gamecocks are hardly a powerhouse, they're not in need of major rebuilding, either, something Spurrier would dread.

Spurrier has already indicated he'd prefer a college job over the NFL following his failed stint with the Redskins (12-20 in two seasons). "I thought I wanted to coach in the NFL, but that didn't work out too well," Spurrier recently told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "And when I looked back on my coaching career, the most fun I had was in college ball." Of the other schools he's been most commonly linked to, he's already taken himself out of the running at his alma mater, Florida; North Carolina likely won't have an opening if the Tar Heels beat Duke on Saturday to become bowl-eligible; and places like Texas and Penn State were pipe dreams to begin with.

But while South Carolina will likely roll out the red carpet for The Visor, one can't help but wonder whether it's really a good idea. With Spurrier, 59, the Gamecocks would be getting much the same thing they did with Holtz: A past-his-prime legend who may or may not be capable of exerting the energy necessary to produce a championship program. Just as it's been with Holtz, there would be questions nearly every year as to Spurrier's long-term commitment.

South Carolina is a proud program with a strong fan base, but never in its history has it had a sustained run of success. Part of that can be attributed to never truly having a coach to call its own. The last man to stay more than six years was Paul Dietzel from 1966-74 -- and he went 42-53-1.

Is South Carolina really OK with becoming a de facto retirement home for Hall of Fame coaches? If Spurrier were to deliver a championship, the answer would be an emphatic yes. After all, Holtz accomplished exactly what he was hired to do six years ago, taking a program that had hit rock bottom (21 straight losses from 1998-99) to consecutive New Year's Day bowl games in 2000 and '01, just the third and fourth in school history. Things have plateaued since then, though, and while the Gamecocks have become more competitive in the SEC under Holtz, they've failed to break into the upper echelon, going 2-16 against divisional powers Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

Spurrier will be expected to take what Holtz built and bring it to the next level. The offensive mastermind would have plenty of young talent at his disposal, including sophomore QB Syvelle Newton, sophomore running back Demetris Summers and junior receiver Troy Williamson, whose 20.2 yards-per-catch average is among the highest in the country. Assuming he's still "got it," it's not inconceivable Spurrier could have South Carolina competing for a division title within a couple years.

The flip side? Almost as quickly, you'll be hearing the same rumors about his future as you are Holtz this week.

Welcome to college, Bill

There have been plenty of times this season when first-year Nebraska coach Bill Callahan, attempting to bring West Coast football to the heartland, has seemed like a fish out of water. Never was that more obvious than in his comments following last weekend's game at Oklahoma's Owen Field, where the raucous atmosphere provoked him to yell, "F---ing hillbillies!" as he left the field afterward.

What got Callahan so unnerved? Everything from the Oklahoma RUF/NEKS, a group of students that stands near the end zone and fires off shotguns during pregame festivities, to the fans throwing oranges (in honor of the Sooners' anticipated Orange Bowl invite) in the waning moments. Police are investigating a pregame incident in which Cornhuskers tackle Darren DeLone allegedly attacked RUF/NEK member Adam Merritt, who was sent to a hospital with cuts and missing teeth.

"I don't think any team should be subjected to the type of treatment we were subjected to in that particular contest," Callahan said on Monday's Big 12 teleconference. "I probably could have used a better choice of words, but I get distressed when people are shooting off guns and throwing fruit at our players."

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Apparently, no one told the ex-NFL coach that they've been shooting off guns at Oklahoma games since at least 1958. It's called pageantry. And the throwing of oranges? They used to do that at Callahan's school, too, back when the Huskers were regularly contending for such things. Callahan, laughing, said, "I've never seen it before." Oklahoma has declined official comment pending the police investigation, but one administrator said he'd never heard such a complaint from other opponents.

That's OK. Callahan will have bigger things to worry about than projectile fruit if the Huskers don't beat Colorado in their Nov. 26 season finale. A loss would end Nebraska's NCAA-record 35-year bowl streak, a tremendous source of pride to Husker fans, many of whom are already dismayed by Callahan's dismantling of the team's traditional identity.

Ironically, one of Callhan's comments about the Oklahoma incident was, "I just think someone's going to get hurt, and that's what I told [Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione]. But who am I to mess with tradition?"

Everybody loves Navy

With as many as six bowl games facing the possibility of having no available team from its partner conference, Navy, 7-2 and a complete free agent, has become a popular name among bowl reps. "Everyone's courting Navy," said Las Vegas Bowl executive director Tina Kunzer-Murphy, whose game will be without a Pac-10 team if both USC and Cal reach the BCS. "I called and I was on hold for 20 minutes, probably behind everyone else looking for a team."

The bowl lineup will start falling into place after this weekend's games, but at the very least the Emerald and Silicon Valley bowls will be looking to replace Pac-10 teams (the Silicon Valley reached an agreement this week to take a MAC team), the Fort Worth Bowl may be short a Big 12 team, the Houston Bowl an SEC team and the Hawaii Bowl a WAC team (especially if Boise State replaces Utah in the Liberty). The available pool is expected to include at least one extra team from the ACC, Big East and Big Ten (if both Northwestern and Michigan State win out) as well as the MAC.

Navy, however, made itself particularly attractive last year when it sold 25,000 tickets to the Houston Bowl, bringing more than half the Brigade (its student body). "Last year, we had a really wonderful experience in Houston, and we made a statement in regards to the ability of Navy to deliver," said athletic director Chet Gladchuck. "As a result, we've gotten out the word that we can do it again this year."

What makes Navy's situation so unique is that one of the things that's normally be a hindrance -- its independent status -- is helping it most. Theoretically, all 56 bowl spots are locked up by the conferences. On the positive side, though, Navy isn't bound to particular bowls, nor does it have to wait and see how a conference race plays out before accepting a bid, which could come as soon as Monday.

Worth noting

USC's thin receiving corps got a couple additions this week. For one, Steve Smith, who broke his leg in the Oct. 9 Cal game, has returned to practice (non-contact drills so far) and could be available for the Notre Dame game next Saturday. And if that doesn't work out, the Trojans could always suit up Snoop Dog, who caught passes from Matt Leinart during Tuesday's practice. ... In the event the Big 12 North champion finishes 6-5, the conference has applied for a waiver from the NCAA that would allow the team to retain its bowl eligibility even if it loses to Oklahoma in the title game to fall to 6-6. There is no guarantee the waiver will be granted, but the NCAA did allow Sun Belt champion North Texas to play in the 2001 New Orleans Bowl at 5-6. "We're optimistic, because of the precedent," said Big 12 spokesman Bob Burda. ... Minnesota, having played its final regular-season game last Saturday, is in the awkward position of having to wait three weeks to find out which, if any, bowl game it will play. The Big Ten has seven bowl berths, but the Gophers, having lost five of their last six and with a poor travel reputation, would probably be the odd men out if both Northwestern (5-5) and Michigan State (5-5) win out. That might not be known, though, until as late as Dec. 4, when the Spartans visit Hawaii.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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