Ego in check, Spurrier and South Carolina evolving with the times
Steve Spurrier has retired his trademark Fun 'n' Gun to mirror elite SEC teams
The offensive mastermind has not allowed past success to prevent adjustments
If tailback Marcus Lattimore returns healthy, the Gamecocks will be dangerous
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Fun 'n' Gun returned from the dead for a few hours on a sunny Saturday last week. Ribs were smoked, The Star-Spangled Banner was crowed and Steve Spurrier's quarterbacks pitched it around for a combined 511 yards and six touchdowns. Then the offense that once revolutionized college football crawled back into its burial plot between the Wishbone and the Wing-T.
This aerial display took place according to Spurrier's design. The customers went home sunburned and happy, and they'll have four months of memories of go routes to sate their football cravings. But when the Gamecocks take the field at Vanderbilt Stadium on Aug. 30 to open the 2012 season, they'll look nothing like the bunch that filled the air with footballs at Williams-Brice Stadium this spring. They'll rely mostly on their defense and their backs with occasional, timely contributions from the passing game. In other words, South Carolina will play like an elite SEC team.
Which it might very well be.
Certainly, South Carolina will have to take a step forward to join the ranks of Alabama and LSU, but the Gamecocks have the tools. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2011, has had an offseason in the weight room and actually knows most of the calls. (With teammates helping him line up and telling him where to go last season, Clowney still had eight sacks.) If tailback Marcus Lattimore returns healthy from the torn ACL he suffered last season, South Carolina will have one of the league's best backs. And for the first time since he arrived in Columbia, Spurrier will start the season with a quarterback he truly enjoys coaching. Junior Connor Shaw, a dual-threat signal-caller who finished second on the team in rushing last season, will lead an offense that aims to steadily grind out yardage.
Everything will have to go right, but the Gamecocks seem confident they can equal or surpass last season's total of 11 wins. "To win 11 games was neat," Spurrier said last month. "We always set our goals to win eight, then nine, then 10. We didn't even have 11 on the books. That was unheard of."
Now, a repeat is almost expected. A place known for its mustard-based barbecue sauce and lowered expectations is dreaming big. And those dreams don't seem all that far-fetched.
How did it come to this? How did Spurrier wind up so content and so confident running an offense that looks more like something Urban Meyer or Rich Rodriguez would have designed? Because Spurrier didn't let his ego get in the way of winning.
The ego is the first -- and easiest -- thing to attack when criticizing Spurrier. That's probably fair. Spurrier has never denied his bravado. In a 1995 profile of Spurrier, Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price told the story of the newspaper writer who referred to Spurrier as an "offensive genius" while Spurrier coached at Duke in the late '80s. Spurrier called the writer, who asked what term Spurrier would prefer. "I don't know," Spurrier said, recounting the conversation for Price. "How 'bout...'mastermind'?" The term fit. The man won the ACC at Duke. Duke! At Florida, Spurrier helped turn the SEC from a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-boring league into a free-wheeling passing league. He would be within his rights to think that offense would eventually thrive again.
A coach with ego run amok would cling to his system regardless of the results. Spurrier has not. He has changed with the times. His offense embraces zone read concepts that line coach Shawn Elliott developed at Appalachian State. Spurrier worries about time of possession now, because he wants his defense fresh. This isn't a temporary fix until he finds the correct quarterback. This is Steve Spurrier's offense. Has age mellowed Spurrier? Maybe a little. More likely, Spurrier adapted because his hatred of losing will always, always, always supersede everything else.
Still, Spurrier can take a measure of pride in the fact that he helped create the monster that ultimately forced him to euthanize the Fun 'n' Gun.
Tommy Tuberville took over at Auburn in 1999. In those first two seasons, Auburn played Florida three times, twice in the regular season and once in the SEC Championship Game. Spurrier beat Tuberville three times by a combined score of 98-27. Tuberville was in the early stages of bringing the principles he had learned at Miami to an SEC power. At Ole Miss, Tuberville couldn't get the players to do what he wanted. At Auburn, he could. So Tuberville used the old Hurricanes philosophy of turning safeties into linebackers, linebackers into defensive ends and defensive ends into defensive tackles. Tuberville believed speed could overcome scheme, and in 2001, against one of Spurrier's best Florida teams, Tuberville's team broke through and stopped the Fun 'n' Gun.
Nick Saban took over at LSU in 2000. The two times Saban's LSU team faced Spurrier's Florida team were ugly. The Tigers lost 41-9 in 2000. In 2001, the year Saban won the first of his three SEC titles, Spurrier beat him 44-15. Though Spurrier would leave the league after that season to coach the Washington Redskins, coaches who had aped his concepts to boost their own offenses remained. For Saban to dominate the SEC, he would need a defense capable of stopping the Fun 'n' Gun or an offense like it. In the fertile recruiting grounds of Louisiana, Saban found the laboratory to create just such a defense.
What did Tuberville and Saban have in common? When they first took over at Auburn and LSU, respectively, the most direct path to success went through Spurrier. They had to find the silver bullet that would slay his offense. Saban and LSU won the BCS title in 2003. Tuberville and Auburn went undefeated in 2004. By then, everyone wanted to copy their formulas for building defenses. Suddenly, the SEC was a defense-first league again.
It was into this environment that Spurrier returned in 2005 at South Carolina. He gave the Fun 'n' Gun -- now called the Cock 'n' Fire -- a fair shot. The Gamecocks were moderately successful, but Spurrier was sick of losing to the same teams time and again. He finally accepted that football in the SEC had changed, and he changed with it.
Let's go back to that cemetery at Our Lady of Cherished Offenses. Rub the dirt off that headstone. What does it say?
Here lies the Fun 'n' Gun.
Sept. 8, 1990-Sept. 11, 2010
What happened that September day in 2010? The Gamecocks played Georgia, and Spurrier couldn't bear to watch South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia any longer. "Every time he went back," Spurrier said, "he either got sacked or something."
So Spurrier, who had installed many of those zone read concepts in spring 2010 ahead of the enrollment of star back Lattimore, made a decision after a fourth-quarter possession that featured Garcia taking a 14-yard loss on a sack. "I'm not throwing another pass," he said, "unless we have to." South Carolina's ran 11 plays on its final possession of the day. The Gamecocks moved 57 yards and ate 7:07 off the clock. Spencer Lanning's 24-yard field goal sealed a 17-6 win, and the drive dealt the Fun 'n' Gun a fatal blow.
Spurrier tried to occasionally resurrect his creation in 2010 and 2011, but the combination of excellent defenses and the poor mix of Spurrier and Garcia made that impossible. After a 2011 loss at home to Auburn that ultimately cost the Gamecocks the SEC East title, Spurrier benched Garcia in favor of Shaw. Shaw, a coach's son from suburban Atlanta, doesn't fit the mold of a Danny Wuerffel or a Rex Grossman, but he does what Spurrier asks. In his first start, against Kentucky, Shaw threw 39 times. In his second start, the game at Mississippi State in which Lattimore hurt his knee, Shaw threw 28 times. He never threw more than 25 times in another game.
In South Carolina's final three games, Shaw attempted only 55 passes. The Gamecocks ran 130 times. But Spurrier was quick to point out that Shaw completed 41 of those attempts. Most important, South Carolina won three times. "It's just what we had to do," Spurrier said. "Playcalling is pretty easy. You call what you think is going to work." The first win, against The Citadel, was a gimme. But the wins against Clemson and Nebraska meant a lot. Spurrier is especially proud of his team's final scoring drive of the season. Getting a taste of life without star receiver Alshon Jeffery, who was thrown out of the Capital One Bowl for fighting, the Gamecocks mounted a 13-play, fourth-quarter march that consumed 6:25 and ended with a three-yard touchdown run by Kenny Miles. How many times during the possession did the one of the greatest passing minds of his generation call for a throw?
Rest in peace, Fun 'n' Gun.
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