Head Ball Coach has high hopes for South Carolina
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Steve Spurrier points to a box on the back wall of his office, the one that hangs about 10 feet from where his 1966 Heisman Trophy sits. "That's from my first hole-in-one at Augusta National," the South Carolina coach says, grinning. "It was just the par-3 course, though."
After a visitor notes that the yardage chart on the enshrined scorecard from this past spring marks the distance of hole No. 7 distance at 115, Spurrier's famous photographic memory -- for golf shots and ball plays, at least -- engages. "One-fifteen? It played longer than that," he says. "Hit an 8-iron uphill against a little breeze. Played it for about 130."
Later, Spurrier invites a second examination. "You see that ball?" he asks. In the spot where the average ball might bear an Ernst and Young logo are three words: HEAD BALL COACH. Spurrier has called himself the Head Ball Coach for years, and when his Florida teams dominated the SEC in the '90s, that was the preferred nomenclature among his fans. Those who didn't like him, and they usually lived near Athens, Ga., or Knoxville, Tenn., called Spurrier the evil genius, shiny pants, Darth Visor or any number of unprintable epithets.
Lately, though, when some talking head refers to Spurrier, it is as "the Ol' Ball Coach." Spurrier believes that moniker first surfaced when he coached during his disastrous two-year tenure with the Washington Redskins. It probably took off after some sportswriter mixed up the real nickname, but by the end of the 2003 season, the goof seemed prescient. As the Redskins slogged to the finish, Spurrier appeared to have aged 10 years in two seasons. The NFL had sucked the life out of him.
Returning to the college game at South Carolina in 2005 rejuvenated Spurrier, but the new nickname still stuck. Now, as Spurrier starts his fourth season in Columbia trying to snap a five-game losing streak in Thursday night's opener against N.C. State, it seems fair to ask how much longer he plans to attempt the Herculean task of making the Gamecocks relevant. The question seems especially appropriate after Spurrier made the unthinkable decision this offseason to cede some of his playcalling duties to son Steve Jr., the Gamecocks' receivers coach.
From afar, it's an easy question to ask. Up close, as Spurrier munches on a salad and talks about all the work he has left to do at South Carolina, the question never even passes the lips. To paraphrase Scott Bakula from Necessary Roughness, the Head Ball Coach is not that Ol'.
At 63, he's in better shape than most 30-year-olds. The fire that helped him win six SEC titles and a national title at Florida still dances in his eyes. And if your team has the ball and your life depends on the result of the next down, he's still the guy you want drawing up the play.
Spurrier talks as if he intends to coach South Carolina into the next decade, but will the flame stay lit if the Gamecocks don't improve dramatically from last year's 6-6 season? The rest of the SEC has improved, and at South Carolina, Spurrier may never beat out Auburn, Florida, Georgia or LSU for players. Spurrier hates losing more than vegans hate Brazilian steakhouses, but a gift for drawing plays and an unquenchable desire for victory can take a team only so far in today's SEC.
Spurrier would check out only on his own terms. South Carolina isn't Florida, which Spurrier left in 2002 after 10-win seasons became fodder for offseason grumbling. Fans in Columbia won't take up torches and pitchforks if the Gamecocks stumble to a five-loss season. And if Spurrier somehow leads South Carolina to the SEC east title, they'll build a statue of him. South Carolina fans often get compared to Chicago Cubs backers, but at least Cubs fans have 1908. The Gamecocks are more like the Rays before they shed the Devil, but the American League East-SEC East analogy only works if the Cardinals (Tennessee) moved into the division alongside the Yankees (Georgia) and the Red Sox (Florida).
Of course, the Rays finally did build a contender from the ground up. Spurrier hopes he's done the same thing. "We look like an SEC team now," he says. "We've got guys who are 6-5, 6-6. We've got some depth on our team."
Spurrier loves the word depth. After he took over at Florida in 1990, a local columnist asked for an assessment of the Gators' depth. "What position does that guy 'Depth' play?" Spurrier replied. At South Carolina in 2007, depth wore a jersey and jeans and stood on the sideline next to star linebacker Jasper Brinkley and his bum knee. By the time the Gamecocks reached the teeth of their schedule -- they closed last season with Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and archrival Clemson -- their injury-riddled defense had imploded. In consecutive weeks, South Carolina allowed Heisman Trophy runner-up Darren McFadden to gain an SEC-record 323 yards and allowed Heisman winner Tim Tebow to rush for five touchdowns and throw for two more.