RonMorris

Morris: ‘State championship’ seems more important now to Spurrier

rmorris@ thestate.comJanuary 2, 2014 

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier gets a Gatorade bath from South Carolina Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7) after their win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl game, Wednesday, January 1, 2014.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

— WITH THREE consecutive 11-win seasons and five consecutive victories against Clemson in the record books, the bar of excellence has been raised to an all-time high for South Carolina football.

Now, the only way for that bar to be elevated further is for USC to consistently compete for — and occasionally win — SEC championships. With that will come elite-level status nationally.

Steve Spurrier has taken eight seasons to make USC into a winning program. That seems like a long time until one considers the history of a program that has wallowed in mediocrity for most of its existence.

Spurrier has talked often about the opportunity to accomplish many “firsts” at USC, and he has gone about checking them off one by one.

There was the first time winning five consecutive SEC games (2005), a win at Florida (2010), beating a No. 1-ranked team (Alabama, 2010), an SEC East Division championship (2010), going unbeaten in the SEC East (2011), 11 wins in a season (2011), final top-10 national ranking (2011), school-record home winning streak (18, current), and, of course the program-record five consecutive wins against Clemson.

Beyond the “firsts,” Spurrier’s greatest accomplishment might be effectively killing a decades-old belief among players, coaches and fans that the world is against the Gamecocks and whatever can possibly go wrong will go wrong.

Thanks to Spurrier, followers believe USC will win, no matter the circumstance. It used to be that USC was destined to be on the receiving end of all the bad breaks on a football field. Now, USC seems more often than not to be blessed with good fortune.

The season that just concluded with a Capital One Bowl victory against Wisconsin on New Year’s Day was proof to USC that good luck does exist. Even Spurrier admitted as much.

“We lost one of them in Knoxville,” Spurrier said of a mid-season loss at Tennessee. “But, other than that, this has been a wonderful season with maybe the team we have and the way it could have gone the other way.

“But it went our way so often this year. So we have a lot to be thankful for. We have been a blessed team this year.”

USC survived late-game meltdowns to defeat Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky. The Gamecocks needed a 17-point, fourth-quarter rally and two overtimes to turn back Missouri and got a second-half shutout by the defense to topple Florida. Any or all of those games could have ended in the loss column.

Perhaps that is the sign of a winning program, one that consistently comes out ahead in games it could have lost. For the season, USC played complete games only against Arkansas, Coastal Carolina, Clemson and Wisconsin.

Following the victory against Clemson, USC quarterback Connor Shaw, who never played in a loss to the Tigers, said something that would have spun Spurrier’s head nine years earlier when the coach arrived in Columbia.

“I’d rather be in our scenario, where we beat them, rather than they beat us and we go to a BCS game,” Shaw said upon hearing that Clemson would play in the BCS Orange Bowl despite the loss to USC.

In other words, beating Clemson presumably had become more important to USC than playing in BCS bowls.

You might recall that when Spurrier was hired he brought with him from Florida a mentality that put the desire to win conference championships above all else. He removed “Beat Clemson” signs from the USC locker room. Just like at Florida, he said, beating your instate rival was not that important if you could win conference championships.

By his fifth season at USC, Spurrier had the best of both worlds. His Gamecocks defeated Clemson for a second consecutive season in 2010, but, more importantly, they had won the SEC East.

Unfortunately, a second division title in four years slipped from USC’s grasp in 2013 with the loss at Tennessee. With a favorable schedule — no games against Auburn, Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M in the West and Georgia, Florida and Tennessee down in the East — USC might never again see such a golden opportunity to win the SEC East.

It might help explain why Spurrier appears to have changed his tune about championships over the past nine years. While he once diminished the importance of the rivalry with Clemson, he now boasts of winning the “state championship.”

Spurrier once said Gatorade baths of coaches should be reserved for championships, not practiced after wins against rivals or following bowl victories. In recent years, he has relented and accepted both. He also broke from the tradition of awarding player rings only after championships to distributing them following 11-win seasons.

Then came Spurrier’s off-the-cuff comment during the trophy presentation Wednesday on the Florida Citrus Bowl field.

“These two Capital One Bowl wins in a row are pretty nice,” Spurrier shouted to the remaining USC following in the crowd, “but that state championship ain’t bad, either.”

It was a sure sign that Spurrier had relented to the USC fan base’s obsession with Clemson, and that maybe conference championships are no longer the be-all, end-all in judging the success of a football program.

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