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The Last Temptation of the Ol’ Ball Coach

Entering Steve Spurrier’s 10th season at South Carolina, the Gamecocks look better than ever. But in this quick-fix era, will they finally be good enough to win it all?

For a good long while, it’s been fashionable to talk about SEC football in terms of passion and tradition and occasionally even religion. (It’s been pretty profitable, too.) Whether those paeans stem from nostalgia or devotion, they reflect that people care, and people care because it’s fun. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that SEC football is more fun when Steve Spurrier is winning.

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It was more fun when he was a player,1 and even more fun when he resurfaced at Florida a quarter-century later as the league’s most irrepressible playcaller. Hell, his offense had “fun” right in the title.2 The Ol’ Ball Coach certainly got his kicks in the ’90s, a decade full of not only perennial SEC championships for his alma mater, but also of “Free Shoes University” and “You can’t spell ‘Citrus’ without ‘U-T,’” and the one about the coloring books being destroyed in a fire at Auburn — the vintage Spurrier bons mots that get the Internet equivalent of the Bartlett’s treatment whenever he says something remotely interesting. Which, of course, he so often does. Like a wrestler playing up the part of a smirking, visor-flinging heel, Spurrier has no peers when it comes to giving rival fans reasons to hate him — or to pretend to, at least, because deep down the people who claim to hate the OBC have always been the ones who love him the most.

That distinction never used to be lost on reporters, for whom Spurrier quips in those days were always accompanied by the sound of a cash register. And oh, how they’ve missed those barbs in the meantime. The Spurrier who returned to college football in 2005 retained the same twang, but the puckish smirk that had accompanied it at Florida was gone, the casualty of a 12-20 record in two years with the Washington Redskins and a 2004 season spent on the golf course. When Spurrier’s old job opened that fall, his former boss, UF athletic director Jeremy Foley, pointedly declined to kill the fatted calf in anticipation of the prodigal son’s return.3 South Carolina, the school that dug Spurrier out of the mothballs instead, had never posed enough of a threat as a division rival to earn the OBC’s mockery, having posted an 0-10 record against Spurrier’s Gators, with those losses coming by an average margin of 25 points per game.

“Some people ask, ‘How did you end up [at South Carolina]?’” Spurrier said in July during his turn at the SEC’s annual cattle call for assembled media. “I said, ‘I was available and they were the only ones who offered me a job at the end of 2004.’” In his first five seasons, South Carolina lost at least five games each year, never finished in the top 25, and posted a losing record (18-22) in conference play. In those years, the closest the former master of verbal swordplay came to his famous wit was when he was skewering his own team. His only running feud was with the persistent speculation over his pending retirement.

Gradually, though, that narrative has evolved, and the vintage OBC has begun to reemerge. In 2010, the Gamecocks rode Herculean freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore to their first division crown following a stunning upset over top-ranked Alabama. In 2011, they set a school record with 11 wins, then matched that in 2012 and 2013; their final ranking in those AP polls climbed from no. 9 to no. 8 to no. 4, establishing a new program high each time. Among FBS teams, their overall record in that span (33-6) ranked behind only Alabama’s, Oregon’s, and Florida State’s. A 31-17 victory over Clemson last November gave them five in a row over their instate rival, South Carolina’s longest winning streak in the history of the series. For the second consecutive year, the Gamecocks are widely projected to finish in the top 10 nationally, and for the first time, they open the season as trendy favorites to win the SEC East, with a showcase game against Texas A&M this Thursday night kicking off the season. While Spurrier remains as doggedly committed to the links as ever, he’s never greeted as an over-the-hill retread when he steps to the mic, but rather as an irascible elder statesman who’s outlasted the skeptics and haters and earned the right to riff at his leisure.4

That’s right, the Ball Coach is back! And only slightly diminished, if at all. This summer, Spurrier has taken halfhearted swings at Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, much to the media’s delight. And even when the zingers land with less force than the classics, they still serve as signs of his confidence and vitality after 10 years on the job in Columbia: Although many coaches, including Saban and Bear Bryant, have made multiple stops in the conference, Spurrier will be the first to last a full decade at two SEC schools.

It all folds so neatly within the trajectory of Spurrier’s career, and the packaging of his persona for public consumption, that it’s tempting to drop in the little “G” that signifies the end of Grantland features and break out the Coors. But it’s not the end. The circle may be almost full, but it’s not yet closed. For Spurrier, the question of “What’s next?” is as compelling at age 69 as ever, because it forces us to move beyond what he’s accomplished at South Carolina — and how that’s shaped his reputation as both a winner and a wit — to focus on what he hasn’t yet managed: Unlike Saban, Spurrier’s second tour hasn’t resulted in a conference championship, much less a national one, and unlike Swinney, Spurrier hasn’t taken South Carolina to a top-tier bowl. The heights of the past three seasons didn’t include a return to the SEC championship game or a nod from the BCS. Since 2009, the Gamecocks have posted a losing record (9-11) in SEC road games. Under Spurrier, they’ve never made it past the first weekend of November with fewer than two losses overall, consistently relegating them to the back burner as the national conversation reaches a boil.

For an outfit that’s spent so much of the last four years on the fringes of first class, South Carolina has yet to achieve a true breakthrough. Based on the early polls, the 2014 edition will hit the ground with every expectation that this is the year. It’ll also run headlong into a minefield of a schedule that includes A&M on opening night and collisions with Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Missouri before the end of September.5 Whatever else he is or has been, Spurrier is a soon-to-be septuagenarian whose current players are too young to remember the heyday of the Fun ’n‘ Gun, if they’re aware of it at all. In an era of warp-speed ascents and equally dramatic falls, Spurrier is at long last within reach of a peak he’s yet to surmount at South Carolina. If it’s still possible to see a patient, decadelong rebuilding project all the way through, only he can prove it.

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Most professions venerate their elder statesmen, and for a while, aging idols dominated college football. Not just rhetorically, or culturally, but quite literally: The average national championship–winning head coach in the 1990s was 56 years old and more than a decade into his tenure. In 1991, Don James won his first championship at age 59, after 17 up-and-down seasons at Washington. In 1993, Bobby Bowden claimed his first crown at 64 after 17 years of bridesmaid duty at Florida State. In 1994, Joe Paterno oversaw an undefeated campaign at age 68, in his 29th season at Penn State. Tom Osborne, the consummate also-ran, vanquished two decades’ worth of frustration at Nebraska with three championships in four years from 1994 to 1997. Spurrier’s only national title at Florida came seven years into his tenure there, in 1996, when he was 51. Through the entire decade, only two coaches, Miami’s Dennis Erickson (age 44 in 1991) and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer (48 in 1998), won rings before their 50th birthday. Only Erickson and Alabama’s Gene Stallings won rings within five years of their arrival as head coach.

That’s how it’s supposed to work: You build, and build, and build, and come up a little short, and build some more, until eventually, through hard work and perseverance, your moment arrives. At least that’s how it was supposed to work. With the arrival of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, the timetable for turning an also-ran into a winner accelerated to previously unfathomable speeds, and suddenly the winner’s circle was no place for old men.

Actually, though, the story is less about age than tenure: Most of the coaches who’ve won national championships since the turn of the century are still in the 50-and-over set, but a startling number reached the peak in just the second year at their respective schools. Bob Stoops took over at Oklahoma in 1999 and was hoisting the crystal ball by the end of the 2000 campaign. Jim Tressel arrived at Ohio State in 2001 and won the championship in 2002. Urban Meyer landed at Florida in 2005 and brought back a championship in 2006. Gene Chizik was met with derision before his first season at Auburn, in 2009, and in 2010 brought the Tigers’ 53-year championship drought to an end.

Elsewhere, if Year 2 didn’t yield a championship, it served as a catalyst for one in Year 3. Saban was hired at LSU in 2000; in 2001, he led the Tigers to their first SEC championship in more than a decade, and in 2003 to their first national championship in more than four decades. Pete Carroll was USC’s fourth or fifth choice to take over a foundering ship in 2001; in 2002, the Trojans finished in the top five, and they went on to win back-to-back national titles in 2003 (AP) and 2004 (BCS).6 Les Miles followed Saban at LSU in 2005; in 2006, he took the Tigers back to the BCS, and claimed his own championship in the 2007 season. Saban, fresh from an abbreviated stint in the NFL, touched down in Alabama in 2007; in 2008, he led the Tide to a 12-0 regular season, and he earned his statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium with a championship in 2009. Saban’s old assistant Jimbo Fisher was slightly behind the curve at Florida State, needing three years to return the Seminoles to a BCS game and four to claim a national title.

Since 2000, only one coach has claimed his first national title for a school that had employed him for more than four years: Mack Brown, who was in his eighth season at Texas when the Longhorns upset Carroll’s Trojans for the BCS crown in 2005. And aside from Miles and Larry Coker, none of the coaches who won a ring in that span inherited a team that finished in the Top 25 the year before his arrival.

The trend is hardly limited to the guys with rings. At Oregon, the Ducks won the Pac-10 in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach and played for the BCS title in his second. At Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish landed in the championship game in Year 3 under Brian Kelly. At Stanford, Jim Harbaugh took over the worst program in the Pac-10 in 2007 and had the Cardinal in the Orange Bowl in 2010. Harbaugh’s successor in Palo Alto, David Shaw, has one-upped his old boss by claiming back-to-back conference championships in his first two seasons. Altogether, of the 59 coaches who have led a team to any BCS game for the first time,7 a solid majority have been on the job for three years or less:

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Sources: BCS, Grantland research

On the other hand, here’s the complete list of coaches in the BCS era who made their debut in one of the roped-off, big-money games after at least six years on the job: Mike Bellotti (Oregon), Mack Brown (Texas), Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Walt Harris (Pittsburgh), June Jones (Hawaii), Gary Patterson (TCU), George O’Leary (Central Florida), and Randy Edsall (UConn). That’s it. Of that group, only Brown and Patterson — both of whom were routinely delivering 10- and 11-win seasons before their long-awaited BCS breakthroughs — have made the cut a second time.

Coaches who win big in the 21st century win fast, ahead of virtually every external timetable. And that’s more true in the SEC than anywhere else: In that league, no coach who’s made it to a BCS bowl has needed more than three years to do so. Spurrier breaking through after a 10-year rebuild would be unprecedented.

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Four years ago, it seemed South Carolina’s window might have been slammed shut. On January 2, 2010, Spurrier found himself apologizing to fans for his team’s performance in a deflating 20-7 loss to Connecticut in the PapaJohns.com Bowl,8 South Carolina’s fifth defeat in its final seven games of the 2009 season. Spurrier had felt the need to apologize the previous January, too, following a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl, Carolina’s third consecutive defeat to close 2008.9 The 2007 season had ended on a five-game skid, with no bowl bid forthcoming in the wake of a 6-1 start. Over those three campaigns, the Gamecocks were 20-18 overall, and just 10-14 in conference games. Against the perennial heavies in the East in that span, Georgia and Florida, they were 1-5, and they dropped two of three against the division’s resident sick man, Tennessee.

“I’m embarrassed. Blame me. I don’t know what else to do,” Spurrier said after the flop against UConn, which left his offense ranked 11th out of 12 SEC teams in scoring for the 2009 season, and last in rushing for the fourth time in five years. “All I can do is apologize.”

This was not fun. The dejection that accompanied another 7-6 record ran much deeper than a single, disappointing loss, and stood in stark contrast to the overnight overhauls fans had recently witnessed at Florida and Alabama. Frustration was mounting; patience, not so much. At that point, the gap between South Carolina and the top half of the conference was every bit as wide as it had been when Spurrier arrived in 2005, and any sense of momentum had ground to a halt.

The malaise was also palpable when taking the temperature of local recruits, which was decidedly lukewarm. In 2008, a banner year for up-and-coming talent in South Carolina, Spurrier managed to sign only one of the state’s top 10 prospects and whiffed on eight in-state players who eventually made their way onto NFL rosters.10 In 2007, Spurrier missed out on the state’s top prospect, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who went on to help anchor Florida’s chart-topping defenses in 2008 and 2009 before joining the Cincinnati Bengals as a second-rounder. Out of 13 South Carolina prospects rated by Rivals.com as four- or five-star players in 2005 and 2006, only one opted for the Gamecocks.

By the same token, cutting down to the roots of the turnaround that began in 2010 started with the abrupt reversal of Spurrier’s in-state recruiting fortunes. After whiffing on so many of South Carolina’s best players in his first four years, the Gamecocks finally struck gold in 2009 with two of the state’s top five prospects, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and receiver Alshon Jeffery, both of whom went on to become first-team All-SEC picks as sophomores and high NFL draft picks. A year later, Lattimore arrived in Columbia as arguably the most hyped running back prospect in the nation and immediately emerged as the most productive back in the SEC. In 2011, Spurrier reached the zenith of that trajectory, securing the signature of the no. 1 overall recruit in the nation, Jadeveon Clowney, proof that South Carolina had arrived as a national player by locking up the talent in its own backyard.

In all, South Carolina has landed 21 of the 52 in-state prospects who have earned four or five stars since 2009, more than Clemson’s 16, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. In 2014, homegrown starters will include the quarterback (Dylan Thompson), two of the top three wide receivers (Nick Jones and Shaq Roland), three regulars on the defensive line (Phillip Dukes and half-brothers Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr.), and two future pros on the offensive line (A.J. Cann and Brandon Shell).

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Look more closely, though, and you can home in on another, more direct catalyst for the surge: a deliberate, long-term overhaul to bring both lines up to SEC standards. No aspect of the roster Spurrier inherited in 2005 was further behind the curve, and none has progressed as much in the subsequent decade.

On defense, the upgrade was largely a matter of personnel: Since 2010, at least one South Carolina defensive lineman has been selected in five consecutive drafts, more than were chosen over the previous 20 years combined. (The list of D-line alumni on a current NFL roster includes Clowney, Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram, Travian Robertson, Cliff Matthews, and Clifton Geathers, all of whom were recruited and signed by Spurrier from 2006 to 2011; in the same category, only John Abraham predates the OBC.) Offensively, the case is less compelling on a man-by-man basis,11 but is readily apparent in the numbers:

spurrier-sc-rushing-chart

Sources: cfbstats.com, Football Outsiders

(S&P+ is an advanced metric developed by Football Outsiders’ Bill Connelly; read more about it here and here. For our purposes, note that an S&P+ rating of 100.0 is average, like an IQ score, and that South Carolina ranked 46th nationally in Offensive Rushing S&P+ in 2013. Adjusted Line Yards is a metric for determining how much of a team’s production on the ground is attributable to the blocking of the front line, as opposed to the share generated by the backs themselves beyond the line of scrimmage; for an in-depth explanation, click here.)

Most obviously, the leap forward in both quantity and quality in 2010 coincided with the arrival of Lattimore in the backfield, but also with the arrival of offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, the common link over the past four seasons. After a minor regression in 2012 — a predictable side effect of the ugly knee injury that sidelined Lattimore for the final four games — Carolina was as strong as ever on the ground in 2013, thanks to the emergence of sophomore tailback Mike Davis, who’s arguably better than Lattimore, and Elliott’s best group to date up front.

The extra cushion in the running game has paid dividends across the board: While no one ever mistook departed quarterback Connor Shaw for a transcendent talent, he still managed to rank among the top-10 passers nationally in pass efficiency in both 2012 and 2013, largely by taking advantage of defenses’ increasing concern over stopping the run; accordingly, the Gamecocks averaged more points in those seasons than they have in any other since joining the SEC in 1992. Not coincidentally, Shaw delivered those superlative numbers last year while attempting fewer passes per game, and fewer passes on third downs specifically, than any other full-time SEC starter except Auburn’s Nick Marshall.

A decade ago, the basic premise of that prior paragraph would have barely made sense, and only then as a kind of dystopian prank. Is this what South Carolina hired the architect of the most prolific, pass-happy offense in SEC history to do? To embrace “balance”? To evolve a middle-of-the-road offensive identity that’s often overshadowed by the defense? To emphasize patience with a quarterback whose primary virtue is his capacity for avoiding mistakes? To concede, in other words, to the ongoing Sabanization of the conference that spent an entire decade trying and failing to contain Spurrier’s off-the-cuff swagger? Where’s the fun in that?

The answer, of course, is in the win column, and in the very real prospect of claiming South Carolina’s first conference championship in 45 years.12 A decade ago, it would have seemed equally absurd to imagine the Gamecocks opening in the top 10 for the third consecutive August. With the possible exception of Davis, the 2014 edition is not a star-studded group, having lost its starting quarterback, leading receiver, and face-of-the-program pass-rusher to the NFL. Nor is it without its share of glaring question marks, namely the new quarterback, three new starters on the defensive line, and a cache of alarmingly green cornerbacks.

That this group happens to be facing some of the highest expectations in South Carolina history anyway is a testament to the durability of Spurrier’s renovation. It’s also a test. In that sense, at least, this team is built very much in its coach’s image: With the penthouse in sight, another winter of admiring polls and Outback Bowls will be no substitute for the tangible stakes of a conference championship and a playoff berth. For the OBC, too, the game is fun only when he’s winning. 

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, College Football, College Football Preview, Steve Spurrier, South Carolina Gamecocks, SEC, Florida Gators, Texas A&M Aggies, Ol' Ball Coach, Mike Davis, Coaches, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton

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Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton

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