When Steve Spurrier accepted the head coaching job at South Carolina in November of 2004, he knew that it would take a building process unlike anything he had accomplished before to raise the Gamecock football program from perennial middle-weight in the toughest conference in college football to SEC Championship contender. Spurrier knew that he would not experience overnight success like he did at Duke and Florida where his innovative and groundbreaking offense took the college football world by storm in the late 80's and early 90's. However, while many "analysts" and "experts" said that Spurrier would tarnish his coaching reputation by going to a place he could not win at, Spurrier viewed the South Carolina job as an opportunity to further cement his name in the holy grails of college football by taking the USC program to heights never seen before.
Spurrier's first three years in Columbia have seen mixed results. The 2005 Gamecocks started the year slow with three conference losses to SEC powers Georgia, Alabama and Auburn. However, thanks in large part to the emergence of redshirt freshman phenom Sidney Rice at wide receiver and a stingy bend-but-don't-break defense, the Gamecocks strung together five consecutive SEC victories - a first for the USC football program - including Carolina's first ever road victory at Tennessee and the first win over the Florida Gators since 1939. The season ended on a sour note with a 13-9 defeat to arch-rival Clemson and a demoralizing come-from-ahead loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. However, in a year where most analysts predicted the Gamecocks to win at most four games, many viewed Spurrier's 7-5 debut season with the Gamecocks as one of his most impressive coaching jobs ever.
Despite losing ten of eleven defensive starters, including early departures Ko Simpson and Jon Joseph to the NFL draft, and fielding a makeshift and youth-filled offensive line for much of the 2006 season, the Gamecocks were able to show progress in Spurrier's second year. After going toe-to-toe with SEC heavyweights Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida - losing all four games by 7 points or less - the Gamecocks got over the hump with a thrilling come-from-behind road victory over Clemson and a shootout win over Houston in the Liberty Bowl to finish 8-5. The South Carolina coaches rode the momentum from the 2006 season into recruiting and signed a consensus top ten class that many have called the top signing class in the history of the program.
Near the end of the 2006 season, Spurrier looked at his young depth chart, led by All-American receiver Sidney Rice and All-SEC linebacker Jasper Brinkley, and boldly proclaimed that the Gamecocks would raise their goals to compete for the SEC Championship in 2007. Despite the unexpected loss of Rice to the NFL draft after his redshirt sophomore season, Spurrier remained firm in his declaration and kept the goals high for the much anticipated 2007 campaign.
Spurrier appeared almost prophetic after the Gamecocks captured a landmark road victory at Georgia in week two, beat a much improved Mississippi State team in week five and dethroned a top ten Kentucky team in week six on their way to a 6-1 start and a no. 6 national ranking in the AP poll. However, a combination of devastating injuries, including the losses of defensive leader Jasper Brinkley to a torn LCL, run stuffing defensive lineman Nathan Pepper to a torn ACL and lockdown corner Captain Munnerlyn to a cracked bone in his foot, plagued the Gamecocks down the stretch of the '07 season as USC lost its final five games of the year to finish 6-6 and be left out of the bowl picture.
Outside media outlets will look at South Carolina's late season struggles and proclaim that "Steve Spurrier has lost his touch" and "the game has passed him by." However, when taking a closer look, it's evident that South Carolina is still a young team that is building the necessary depth to be able to absorb the amount of injuries they sustained in 2007 and still be able to compete in the toughest conference in college football. It's evident that the Gamecocks must continue to upgrade their overall talent level to consistently compete with the "big boys" of the SEC. And it's evident that when opportunity knocks, the young Gamecock squad must learn to answer by making the clutch play and delivering the knockout blow.
It's also evident that despite the need for continued improvement, the Gamecocks aren't that far away from realizing Spurrier's vision when he first arrived at USC. The Gamecocks return 17 starters, including five All-SEC performers, two Freshman All-Americans, and four more Freshman All-SEC players from the 2007 squad that started 6-1, climbed to no. 6 in the national rankings and still controlled their own SEC fate in late October. The case could be made that Spurrier has assembled the most talent ever seen before in the garnet and black, and Carolina has upgraded its coaching staff as well this offseason with the hires of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and special teams coach Ray Rychleski. The schedule, which was rated as one of the five most difficult slates in the country in the '07 season, also sets up much better in 2008 with the majority of tough conference games scheduled to be played in the friendly confines of Williams-Brice Stadium.
Roy Philpott of CUTigers.com, who inspired this rebuttal with his most recent commentary article, insists on comparing the South Carolina and Clemson football programs at this juncture in time. But one key factor he's leaving out is that Tommy Bowden is in his 9th year as head coach at Clemson, while Spurrier just finished up year number three at South Carolina. If Spurrier is still delivering the kind of underachieving, choke-jobs that Bowden is in the 9th year of his tenure at USC, then I'd be willing to bet the Head Ball Coach would personally deliver the pen and paper for Philpott to write down the sentiments behind his most recent piece. Until then, Philpott's going out on a limb that Lee Corso himself said earlier this year he was having doubts about because of the success Spurrier has already brought to USC both on the field and in the recruiting process.
A few other notable coaches that it took past year three to win an SEC Championship include the great Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama, Tennessee's Philip Fulmer and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville.
Philpott noted in his commentary that South Carolina has landed nationally ranked recruiting classes two of the last three years, including this past February's 7th ranked signing class. However, he hinted that the Gamecocks would not sniff the top 25 in the 2008 class. For those that follow USC recruiting, they know the Gamecocks have a history of closing strong under Spurrier and are currently either the team to beat or are among the favorites for elite prospects like T.J. Lawrence, Lerentee McCray, Kenneth Page, Brandon Smith, Kevin Reddick, Tommy Streeter and several others. Current commitments like T.J. Johnson, Jarriel King, Kenny Miles and Elliot Williams are also likely to be elevated in Scout.com's star rankings soon. While the 2008 class will not have quite the star quality that the 2007 class featured, it will still likely land in the top 25 of most major recruiting services and will accomplish the goal of helping the Gamecocks upgrade their overall talent level and develop better depth.
Clearly the 2007 football season did not end like Spurrier or anyone else in Gamecock Nation had hoped, but for those outside of Columbia that are itching for the Head Ball Coach to hang up his visor and head off into the sunset without Finishing The Job at South Carolina, that's wishful thinking. Those that know Spurrier know not to bet against him: Spurrier has made it clear that he intends on 1) winning an SEC Championship at USC and 2) retiring as the winningest coach in Carolina football history. Goal no. 1 is still a work in progress that will not be out of reach as he continues to build the program up, while goal no. 2 is still several years off as Spurrier's 21 wins are a distant challenge to Rex Enright's 64 victories.
It's growing more and more apparent that Clemson fans and media aren't comfortable with the thought of Spurrier staying at South Carolina for the long haul while the Tigers are stuck with Bowden after grudgingly locking him down for the foreseeable future.
You better get used to it, Roy. Spurrier's not going anywhere, and more likely than not he'll finish the job.
Note: Clemson coaches and fans popularized the acronym FTJ (Finish the job) late in the 2007 season before blowing a late game lead in their ACC finale against Boston College and missing their shot at a division title.
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