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Meet Mr. Humble
KARL TARO GREENFELD
August 22, 2005
Chastened by his failure in the NFL, STEVE SPURRIER is trying to turn South Carolina into an SEC power as a kinder, gentler ball coach--for now, at least
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August 22, 2005

Meet Mr. Humble

Chastened by his failure in the NFL, STEVE SPURRIER is trying to turn South Carolina into an SEC power as a kinder, gentler ball coach--for now, at least

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And that made something out of nothing.

"Hardees is open!" Steve Spurrier, wearing a Gamecocks polo shirt, tan slacks and Reeboks, snips the ribbon and steps forward into the bright sunlight. He smiles for a moment, as if expecting a phalanx of photographers and then manages to keep his grin for the lone shooter--from this magazine--who has made the 20-minute drive from Columbia, S.C., to Blythewood.

There was some confusion in the restaurant when Spurrier showed up--the diners hadn't been expecting a side order of celebrity with their Thickburger. The manager explained that this Hardees has actually been open for three weeks, but this was the first time the coach could make it for a ribbon cutting, his point being that if you need a ribbon cut in South Carolina these days, there's no one you'd rather have operating those sheers than the immensely popular new coach of the Gamecocks. A van from Fox 102 classic rock is on hand for the occasion, and back inside a half-dozen kids line up with menus and caps for the ball coach to sign.

Spurrier's Redskins purgatory can only be described as a fall from grace, from the gusts of admiration and devotion that blow toward a successful coach in the SEC. In towns like Gainesville, Knoxville, Auburn and Athens, the football coach occupies a Pharaonic perch, commanding the fealty of the tens of thousands who roast meat in parking lots on Saturday mornings, fill stadiums and purchase mascot-emblazoned cooler cups, cushions, beer bongs and belly rings. In that sense the ribbon cuttings, the media golf tournaments and the dozen flights to Gamecock clubs across the Palmetto State in the school's King Air jet represent a restoration, a return from exile for a member of the SEC aristocracy.

"They treat me like I already won seven SECs up here," says Spurrier as he drives a tan Chrysler 300 down I-277, back to Columbia. "Every 5,000 miles the dealer gives me a new car."

It's just after noon, and the temperature is already crowding 100. The lush green hickory, beech and holly trees along the side of the road seem to sag in the heat. Spurrier, after the ribbon cutting, has a film of sweat along his upper lip, which he wipes away with a sleeve. He's wearing black wraparound shades, and with his swept-back brown hair and high cheekbones he looks a little like Pat Boone. He's talking about the last few years at Florida, how hard it became, year after year, to make the rounds of the booster clubs. "Twenty to 22 Gator Clubs every year. That's about 250 in 12 years," he says. "They had heard everything I had to say. It just got to where everyone wants a picture and for you to sign autographs all day, and if you don't sign this one they'll get mad at you, and if you don't sign their big poster--it just got to be a real hassle."

But what's to stop South Carolina from becoming a similar hassle? "I think I've got more tolerance than before," Spurrier says. "When you're not successful with your last venture, you learn some humility. And looking back, I understand why it happened, and I got no one to blame but myself."

That's quite a statement from Steve Superior, the man who used to raise the ire of his SEC rivals by running up the score to impress the writers and coaches who'd be voting in the polls the next day. He had been defined by his sideline smugness--the folded arms, the cocked head, the smirk that could make an opposing coach toss out his game plan and a referee think twice about throwing a penalty flag. In 1994 he heckled Florida State's players after they were involved in a notorious Foot Locker buying spree, calling FSU "Free Shoes University" and wondering why there were so many new cars in the team parking lot. He criticized Auburn's Terry Bowden for his soft schedule, needled Tennessee's Johnny Majors about a loss to Alabama and so infuriated Georgia's Ray Goff that Goff talked about wanting 30 minutes in an alley alone with Spurrier. (He got fired instead.)

"For him to admit that he is humbled, that surprised me," says Jerri. "To know a kinder, gentler Spurrier? But I saw it. He spent so much time with Scotty, and you see it with the rest of the family, with the kids. He's just more gentle."

Spurrier insists that his newfound humility will allow him to be more patient. It's a virtue he believes he'll need if he's to raise South Carolina's football program to the level boosters are expecting. Before Spurrier took over at Florida in 1990, the Gators had never won an SEC title. Yet that first year he led them to the best record in the SEC (though NCAA sanctions prevented them from claiming the title). Like Florida before Spurrier, South Carolina has similarly underachieved for much of its history. Since the glory days of the early '80s, when George Rogers won the Heisman ('80) and Joe Morrison coached the Gamecocks to a 10-2 record ('84), the high point may have been when Cocky won the national collegiate mascot championship in '86 and '94.

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