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Spurrier excited about SEC revival with Gamecocks

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  • Spurrier excited about SEC revival with Gamecocks

    Aug. 28, 2005
    By Dennis Dodd
    CBS Senior Writer
    Tell Dennis your opinion!

    COLUMBIA, S.C. -- You really can't believe he's 60. On a random offseason weekday, Steve Spurrier is bounding around his office like a kid in Toys R Us.

    South Carolina fans hope Steve Spurrier can do for them what he did for Florida. (Getty Images)
    "Have you seen Cocky?" Spurrier says, flipping on the switch of a two-foot replica of the South Carolina mascot that begins dancing across a ledge.

    "I was lucky on the hair genes," he remarks after a reference to his perfectly coifed hair helmet that looks like it has been preserved since he won the Heisman in 1966 -- as a dashing senior.

    You simply can't believe he's 60. A doctor checked Spurrier's heart last year during his year off from football. It looked better than in 2003, his last year with the Washington Redskins. What was he doing different? Relaxing. Well, that and a new interest in the StairMaster.

    "It gets you huffin' and puffin'," says the smiling man who used to eat quarterbacks for lunch, even when they followed instructions.

    Lunch was served again in the spring. Spurrier, you see, reads everything. Not many people know that about him. Newspapers, TV, Internet. He likes to keep track of the condition of the program.

    After a scrimmage, quarterbacks Blake Mitchell and Antonio Heffner were asked how they thought they did. "Pretty good," they were basically quoted as saying.

    "You call that, 'pretty good?'" he shot back next time the three came together.

    Spurrier sat down his quarterbacks and showed them a film of Florida's 54-17 victory at South Carolina in 2001. Rex Grossman threw for 302 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Gators scored the last 44 points of the game.

    "It was a game we never punted," Spurrier said. "Now that's pretty good, not hitting one out of three. You guys have to understand what playing well means."

    This is the Spur Dog in full. At an age when a lot of men are counting the days to retirement, Spurrier is counting the days toward the opener in his new job.

    "Sometimes as a young coach in your 30s, you're trying to act like you're 45," Spurrier said. "When you get to be above 60 or so, you want to act like you're 45. Health-wise I feel like I can do more than I did at 45. Hopefully my mind is still as good as it was then.

    "I think it is."

    Consider that a warning shot. The college football world is on the edge of its cleats, waiting for The Tao of Steve to return to the game. That opener against Central Florida is now three days away. National television is moving in. Fittingly, the alt-country band Big and Rich will be playing at the state fairgrounds across from the stadium.


    If Big Kenny and John Rich don't play a certain song from their last CD, someone needs to get punched.

    "I'm having the time of my life, no worries on my mind.
    Everything's just fine, today is even better than yesterday.
    Everything is going my way, I'm living in the big time.

    Big Time at South Carolina has spawned both wild-eyed optimism and a souvenir industry that might show up as a line item in the state budget.

    Fans are gobbling up T-shirts that show a palmetto (state tree) wearing a visor. There is the obligatory "Got Spurrier?" plus "Cocked, Locked and Loaded." Florida's old Fun N Gun offense has been re-baptized "Cock N Fire."

    Oh, sure, Spurrier could have stayed in Gainesville, built on his legend. But why do that? The man has always been about thinking one step ahead of the opposition. Talking to Spurrier, it almost seems as if he became tired of Florida long before it was was tired of him.

    "The only thing I could have done better there is go 14-0," he said. "It was just the idea of same job for 12 years. I figured I'd done about 250 Gator Clubs. They probably got tired of hearing my same old stuff every year, and I probably got tired of signing autographs, pictures and posters."

    That's both a rationalization for leaving Florida and, later, taking the Redskins job. A 12-20 two-year stay in Washington de-evolved into a bad, bad decision. Spurrier lost control of the team and eventually the faith of Napoleonic owner Dan Snyder.

    "I learned a lot of humility," Spurrier said. "Sometimes when you're winning all the time, human nature makes you think you're a little better coach than the other guys."

    OK, so that's it for the humility segment. Strike the set. The deflector shields are back up. After half a tick of reflection, he practically dismisses it all with a wave of his hand. This is where he wants to be.

    One small thing. The Gamecocks aren't very good this year. They're picked fourth in the SEC East, perhaps the toughest conference in college football. No doubt Tennessee's Phil Fulmer and Georgia's Mark Richt have a little payback waiting for their old tormentor.

    Florida's Urban Meyer is once-removed from taking over for Spurrier, but there's always room for a rather strange rivalry there, too.

    "He's had a tremendous record the last four years," Spurrier said, subtly stressing Meyer's relatively brief head coaching career. "Obviously the competition is a little stiffer there."

    Jab, jab. Right cross. Another verbal TKO from the comfort of his office. The Spur Dog is not only back, he's growling.

    And believing. The coach believes Carolina can do something this year. Sure, the top two rushers from last year have been kicked off or suspended. He has flat-out run off some old Lou Holtz-recruited players who didn't measure up.

    But that's part of the drill. Fifteen years ago, Spurrier did about the same thing at Florida, then a moribund, mediocre, rundown program

    "The similarities," he said, "are amazing."

    When Spurrier arrived at Florida in 1990, the program was on probation. South Carolina just received a three-year probation from the NCAA last week for violations committed under Holtz's watch.

    Florida in 1990 and South Carolina in 2005 are largely the same program -- great fan support with a spotty championship resume.

    In 1990, Florida's only previous SEC title in 1984 was vacated as the result of NCAA penalties. South Carolina last won a conference title in 1969, when it was in the ACC. Spurrier cracked 'em up at SEC media days when he trotted out some Chinese rationalization for the planets lining up again.

    "We went 6-0 in ACC that year, and it was year of the rooster," he said. "(This) is the year of the rooster, so don't bet too much against the Gamecocks even though we're big underdogs. We've got the rooster on our side. That's about the only thing we have going for us."

    Still, the reality is that in 109 years of football, South Carolina has won only three bowl games, two of those by the just-departed Holtz.


    "That's what is so exciting about this job, everything is here to be done for the first time," Spurrier said, "Division, SEC, major bowl, they've never finished in the top 10. It's not going to be easy, but everything is here."

    It's almost unnatural that Williams-Brice Stadium keeps selling out win or lose. But mostly lose. Even in the lean times, that blind loyalty fueled a program that ultimately lured Holtz and now Spurrier. A new $10 million football facility was completed in January.

    "Oh man," linebacker Lance Laury said when asked what it would be like if the Gamecocks started winning big. "It would be crazy down here. They'd have to build a bigger stadium."

    In 1990, Florida fifth-string quarterback Shane Matthews was languishing on the bench. So far down the depth chart was Matthews that Spurrier had actually forgotten to put him in a scrimmage.

    You know the rest. A couple of injuries, and Matthews landed his chance, killed in the spring game and eventually led the Gators to a 9-2 record and an SEC title (again, not officially recognized because of another NCAA probation).

    Mitchell could be this year's Matthews. The quiet, gangly redshirt sophomore won the starting job but can't really have any idea what he's in for.

    Mitchell stayed home in LaGrange, Ga., for spring break to study his playbook. That's one small step. Spurrier has been known to alternate quarterbacks on a snap-by-snap basis. Will it happen to Mitchell the first time he overthrows a receiver?

    "You can never get comfortable," Mitchell said, "He keeps pushing, keeps pushing."

    It should be, well, interesting, all this pushing. Mitchell has thrown nine career passes.

    You really can't believe the man is 60 because of 40-year-old walk-on receiver Tim Frisby. The former Army Ranger turned down book and movie deals to return to school largely because of his new coach. Frisby was something of a national curiosity last year when the father of six walked on after a career in the Army.

    When Spurrier was announced, Frisby made the immediate connection. Here's a middle-aged, scout-team broadcast major in the right place at the right time as one of the game's all-time offensive innovators takes over.

    In typical Spur Dog fashion, the coach all but guaranteed Frisby will catch his first career pass.

    "I plan on catching many," Frisby said.

    Cult of personality is a strange thing without substance to back it up. Spurrier is that stage now. The hair, energy -- even Cocky -- are in place for another extreme makeover. Some of the same rules still apply.

    "On the defensive side of the ball," Laury said of practice, "actually, I've never seen him over there."

    The difference being that this time Spurrier won't sneak up on the SEC. The Fun N Gun has been copied, dissected, spread around the country. The man who brought the modern forward pass to the SEC literally could have his offense turned against him -- Dr. Frankenstein attacked by his own creation.

    Not that this registers much with some Gamecocks whose sense of history goes back to 1990. To them, Spurrier's start at Florida might as well be Rutgers-Princeton in 1869. It all began there.

    "A lot of these guys were too young to remember," Frisby said. "That could be a plus and a minus. It's a plus because everything is new to them, maybe a minus because they don't know how intense he is."

    Even at 60, going on 45.