It is not politically correct to discuss the length of a man's hair, but Steve Taneyhill's cannot pass without comment. It is a plate-glass window waiting for a brick. About 14 inches long and dirty blond, it hangs from the back of his football helmet like a mud flap. On a rock guitarist or a tennis player it would be unremarkable. At an old Southern school, the University of South Carolina, it has elevated Taneyhill from starting quarterback to cultural icon.
But here's the thing. Take away Taneyhill's hair and he's Cal Ripken Jr.: square-ola. No rebel, Taneyhill is another one of those country-bred sports heroes from Pennsylvania's quarterback nursery. "I only do one thing," he says. "Sports." And in each sport he has tried, the one thing he has done is win. Lately Taneyhill has won for—and won over—South Carolina.
Last season Taneyhill was a prized but controversial freshman recruit with a lush mane, a bold mouth and, to complete the ensemble, a faux diamond stud in his left ear. He told coach Sparky Woods, "Start me and we win." His cheek proved to be warranted. After the Gamecocks lost their first five games, Woods, desperate and facing a team insurrection, started Taneyhill. The team won five of its last six games to finish 5-6. Now the Gamecocks are talking about a bowl season in '93.
Walk into any sporting-goods store in Columbia these days and you can find a billed Gamecock cap with a yellow ponytail hanging from the back. But Taneyhill chafes at being so much in fashion. He doesn't like conformity. "If everybody grew out their hair," says Woods, "he'd probably cut his."
Taneyhill also dislikes superficial labels. "I don't see myself the way others do, as wild," he says. "When people get to know me, they don't see the hair." What he really hates is being recognized from the back. The last time somebody approached him from behind and said, "Hey, you're Steve Taneyhill," he shook his head, said, "No, I'm not" and kept walking.
Taneyhill is still amazed by how fast his hair became celebrated in Columbia, especially because it was criticized at first. "Some people just didn't like it," he says. "I guess I showed them it doesn't matter what you look like." But South Carolinians were skeptical of more than just his hair. Taneyhill seemed the stereotype of the Yankee loudmouth. He was a cultural alien, a 6'5" blue-chipper with blunt speech and a
swagger he had brought from Altoona, an old railroad town in western Pennsylvania, the region that produced Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath and George Blanda.
One of his first nights in Columbia, Taneyhill and a couple of friends went into a local tavern. A couple of other men, beers in hand, started giggling at Taneyhill's hair. "Why don't you get a haircut?" they taunted. Taneyhill got into a less-than-philosophical discussion with them. Soon they were scuffling.
Taneyhill says he didn't throw a punch, but the incident got him called into Woods's office. "If your hair turns into a problem, I'll ask you to cut it," Woods warned Taneyhill. It never came to that; Taneyhill avoided other confrontations, though he continued to be teased and occasionally insulted. Veteran Gamecocks threatened to treat him to a trimming party. The idea still makes him pale. While his hair may not be a window onto his soul, it's still a key to his self-esteem. "I just wouldn't be the same person if I cut my hair," he says.
The last person who tried to force Taneyhill to cut his hair was his father. Art Taneyhill is a girls' basketball coach as well as a neat dresser. He guided two Altoona High teams to national championships, both of them starring his daughter, Debbie, a high school Converse All-America in 1988 who went on to be a standout at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where she is now an assistant coach. The Taneyhill family had a reputation for discipline and quiet good manners—until Steve became a three-sport star whose obstreperousness grew with his talent.
One afternoon Art noticed that his 16-year-old son was letting his hair curl around his ears and neck. He sent Steve to a local barber, Paul Caracciolo. When Steve came back, Art met him in the front hall of their house.