Spurrier starts over at South Carolina

About 15 years ago, there was this guy winning some football games as coach at a small school in North Carolina, and doing so against programs bigger and substantially more established than his.

Three states and nearly 600 miles away sat a university - the coach's alma mater - about five times as large and in a state fertile for football, and the program was one big mess.

The Football Coach From The Basketball School soon took over The Big School In A Football State, where he won the Heisman Trophy and was home to his greatest success, up to that point. Could the alum do anything with the alma mater?

Steve Spurrier returned home to Florida and became a legend and future Hall of Fame coach. He was despised and respected at the same time for the same reasons: his knowledge and confidence, in his coaching and in his players, led to him more than once mocking — or so it was interpreted — the opposition that failed to keep up.

That's why nearly 40,000 showed up for the spring game of a program that has aspired to even consistent mediocrity, owning only one conference championship and only two bowl wins in more than 110 years of play. South Carolina can overlook Spurrier's zings, for the Gamecocks have never been good enough to be a target.

Spurrier was the man who pulled Florida from middlin' to hanging around the top of the national college football hill. He suddenly resigned at Florida only to spend two forgettable years — forgettable for him, gratifying for the college rivals he wasn't kicking around and talking about — in the NFL.

And now he's back, leading a program with money, support, facilities equal to many but a remarkably forgettable history.

"We're going to try to give them something to be proud of and hopefully real soon they will be proud of their football team at the University of South Carolina," Spurrier said Wednesday at the Southeastern Conference media days in Hoover, Ala. "Well see what we can do as we go through the season."

It sounded familiar to those with memories able to reach back to about 15 years ago.

Let's go back to 1989, a few years after Spurrier happily went to Duke after considering jobs at LSU, California, and Mississippi State following a year off because of assorted legal issues plaguing the United States Football League.

Daytime on Dec. 31, Florida announced Spurrier as the new head coach. That night, Dick Clark and millions watched the ball drop as 1989 became 1990. Any non-veteran UF fan in 2005 would be stunned to know that Florida's program under Galen Hall was considered a candidate for the NCAA "death penalty".

Anybody who had any remote clue that Bill Arnsparger's hiring of Spurrier would lead to several "Happy New Year" boastings was lying. Note, too, that reports indicate that Arnsparger wasn't enamored with Spurrier and apparently leaned elsewhere. It was no done deal.

Offered Hubert Mizell of the St. Pete Times back on Dec. 30, 1989: "UF deserves a football coach that students, faculty, boosters, and even we among the tropical unbiased can feel good about."

Spurrier was a 44-year-old who had gone 20-13-1 at Duke and 35-19 with Tampa Bay in the USFL. The previous six months for the Gators? Coach Galen Hall quit that October after an admission of breaking NCAA rules. Less than 10 days later, quarterback Kyle Morris was gone after he confessed to gambling on other teams' games.

It was on Christmas Day 1989 that reports seriously began placing Spurrier in Gainesville. There were two other jobs mentioned prominently: Phoenix Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons. Phoenix picked Joe Bugel, Atlanta got Jerry Glanville. Duke folks weren't too happy, because lost in all the speculation was the Blue Devils' first bowl game in 29 years, which they lost 49-21 to Texas Tech in the All-American in Birmingham.

Which is where Spurrier was last week discussing his new job as head coach at South Carolina, which continued to suffer from bad athletic department management back in 1989 when the Gamecocks, under first-year coach Sparky Woods, went 6-4-1. The wheels soon fell off, there was a player revolte, and Spurrier is USC's third coach since then.

"South Carolina is a school with all the resources to be successful," Spurrier said. "Everything is there as far as facility, stadium, fans, the alumni give generously to the school. Everything is there for us to do it."

Oddly, maybe moreso for Spurrier in 2005 than in 1989.

It was muddy, the week of Duke's bowl game and Florida's bowl that year. Florida named Spurrier, Duke picked Devils assistant Barry Wilson. And a junior running back named Emmitt Smith was thinking about leaving early for the NFL grumbled a bit.

Offered Smith after UF's 34-7 loss to Washington in the Freedom Bowl during which he carried seven times for 17 yards, according to the St. Pete Times: "Surely our alumni will give him more patience. You don't become 11-0, contending for the SEC and national championship in just one year."

Of course, Smith was quoted by the Associated Press before the game grumbling that "The coaching staff is the best I ever have been associated with here at Florida. It's a shame the alumni are not satisfied with what they have and choose to do things."

Florida during Smith's three seasons: 6-6, 7-5, 7-5

Florida's the next three seasons: 9-2, 10-2, 9-4.

Spurrier, up his return: "My commitment is to try to make Florida football the best in this state. Right now, we are No. 3. There is no doubt about it.

Initial reports indicated — sit down — a five-year contract worth about $400,000 a year. Included were stipulations regarding any NCAA sanctions.

Spurrier's first staff: Jim Bates, defensive coordinator and secondary; Jim Collins, linebackers; Bob Sanders, defensive ends; Carl Franks, running backs; Rich McGeorge, offensive line; Jerry Anderson, defensive tackles; Tim Marcum, linebackers; Dwayne Dixon, receivers; John Reaves, tight ends.

To say, as Mizell pondered, that 15 years ago Florida got a coach it could feel good about ranks as one of the major sports understatements of the late 20th century. His list of accomplishments includes scores of sentences beginning with "the only coach" or "one of fill-in-the-number coaches to" and other assorted impressive milestones.

Indeed, Spurrier has plenty to do to add to his legacy, having stepped into a situation that's only digressed since his hiring. South Carolina is still waiting for the NCAA to hand out punishments for violations uncovered during an investigation of more than three years, and more than a dozen Gamecocks who had eligibility left when Spurrier took over are history.

Spurrier again showed one side of him often overlooked: disciplinarian.

"We are not going to have guys that steal on the team. Sometimes you need some guys to maybe go by the wayside to tell the other guys, 'If you are going to play football at South Carolina and be a student-athlete, (you've) got to do things the right way."

Spurrier noted one major similarity about his new job in 1990 and his new job in 2005: "Both schools were under investigation."

And many think that if he can't turn South Carolina into at least a respected player in the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference, nobody can.

Spurrier, not surprisingly, is unworried about the legendary Chicken Curse, allegedly born in 1900 when Governor Ben Tillman got mad that the school wouldn't change its mission toward agriculture and the military was ignored. Since then? Nothing but misfortune and mismanagement and bad luck, more than 100 years without a bowl win, and a football record that was around .500 after the first century of football.

Apparently, not many Carolina fans are worried about it, either. Spurrier's coached only a spring game, yet an online survey by The State newspaper has him — as of Saturday afternoon — as the third-best coach in USC history behind Joe Morrison and Brad Scott.

Spurrier has downplayed his impact, despite all evidence to the contrary that it's been stunning.

"Until we start beating everybody," he said, "nobody is going to worry too much about South Carolina."

He thinks the Gamecocks just need that one huge, shocking win to raise the confidence level.

"Then all those curses and black clouds and jinxes," he said, "will be knocked away that day, or night."

Perhaps it dawned on him in mid-thought that the Georgia-USC game is a night game on Sept. 10, for his feelings toward Georgia are of legend.

It's worth noting, for as Geoff Calkins noted in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in December, 1995:

"He is more substance than style. He runs a clean program, puts fans in the seats and wins more than any coach in the Southeastern Conference."

Which is why the dreams in South Carolina are more alive than ever.

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