Why Spurrier Has Succeeded Where Others Failed
Steve Spurrier has South Carolina football in the mix of national championship contenders. The Gamecocks have handed the reins of the program to a lot of head coaches, but until Spurrier’s arrival in Columbia, the team continually fell short of contending. So how has Spurrier finally gotten South Carolina over the hump?
The answer to that question is evidenced by Spurrier’s attitude toward the spring game.
"Spring practice is important for the younger guys. I guess one reason I don't get all fired up for spring practice is I only went through one of them in my three years of them at Florida. I got hurt the other two — nothing serious," Spurrier told ESPN.
That quote and the fact that the Gamecocks' spring game features bonus kicks and other trick plays to drive up the score speaks to the fact that Spurrier doesn’t try to build up an event like a spring game into anything more than what it is: an exhibition. That grounded approach and laissez-faire attitude toward the often overhyped elements of college football allows Spurrier to accurately assess the state of his football team and coordinate a game plan that best fits the roster.
The result is that this is the most successful era in the Gamecocks’ history. The closest thing to this level of national relevance was the 1984 season when Coach Joe Morrison led the Gamecocks to a 10-2 record. That was the first time South Carolina recorded 10 wins in a season. That team ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation.
South Carolina didn’t record another double-digit win total until Spurrier did it in 2011. Between the Morrison era and Spurrier’s reign, the Gamecocks hired Sparky Woods, Brad Scott and Lou Holtz. None of those coaches, not even the Hall of Famer Holtz, who won the 1988 national championship at Notre Dame, managed to accomplish what Spurrier has.
Woods and Scott both toiled in mediocrity. Occasionally South Carolina made bowl appearances under their direction, but the Gamecocks were never serious contenders. When Lou Holtz came out of a brief retirement, fans of South Carolina thought they’d found a football savior.
For all the Halle-“Lou”-jah hype, the famed coached never reached the heights that Spurrier has. After going 0-11 in his first season, Holtz resurrected a truly adrift football program. In years two and three, Holtz won eight and nine games respectively and capped both seasons with wins in the Outback Bowl.
However, Holtz’s Gamecocks came crashing back to earth. In the following two seasons Holtz’s teams went 5-7. Then, in his final year in Columbia, Holtz mustered a 6-5 mark, but failed to make it to a bowl.
For all that Holtz did for the Gamecocks, he never won 10 games and he fell short of bringing the program sustained success.
When Spurrier took over, he went 7-5 with a team primarily comprised of players Holtz recruited. But as Spurrier brought in his own recruiting classes, the successive teams got better and better.
Even as the SEC has grown into the unparalleled power that it is today, Spurrier has only failed to reach a bowl game once and has never recorded a losing record. The key to this consistent success is that Steve Spurrier sees South Carolina for what it is.
Holtz tried to turn the Gamecocks into one of the storied programs of college football. He even removed the names on the back of the jerseys at one point. That’s who Holtz is. He’s a ‘win one for the Gipper’ style coach who famously wrote a fight song for the New York Jets. That single season in the NFL proved that Holtz was nothing if not a sentimental traditionalist. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it doesn’t take well in the NFL or at a college without a rich football tradition.
Even though Spurrier came to South Carolina with a well-established reputation for running a high-octane offense, he’s adapted to the players at his disposal. Rather than frantically trying to recruit speedsters from Florida, Spurrier has built a Gamecock team that relies on defense and power running.
While Holtz tried to turn South Carolina into something it wasn’t, Spurrier sought to build upon the strengths the Gamecocks can access.
That willingness to adapt to a shallower recruiting pool, a program without a ton of tradition and a roster that trends toward size and strength over speed has allowed Spurrier to face the obstacles confronting the Gamecocks and address them honestly.
Too often coaches, athletic directors and fans convince themselves that the program is flawless or just as good as storied teams like Notre Dame. Spurrier’s frankness as it concerns South Carolina’s strengths and weaknesses have resulted in Gamecocks teams that reliably find success in even the tough SEC.
It’s not just that Spurrier’s blunt honesty is good for soundbites, it’s also a perfect fit for a program like South Carolina.