For Gamecocks, winning is key selling point with today’s recruits

dmclemore@thestate.comFebruary 4, 2014 

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier reacts after getting 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

Terrence Campbell remembers his recruitment like it was yesterday: The campus visits, meeting the players and building a relationship with coach Steve Spurrier and his recruiter, then-defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix.

The South Carolina offensive lineman from 2006 to 2011 also recalls the coaches’ overarching message to prospects during Spurrier’s early years as the Gamecocks’ coach.

“They sold that we were going to change the program, change the culture,” said Campbell, from Austell, Ga. “He (Spurrier) was excited about what he had going on and the changes he thought he could make with the program.”

South Carolina will sign off on Spurrier’s 10th class Wednesday. After an SEC title game appearance, three-straight 11-win seasons and a program-best No. 4 finish in the final polls, the selling points on the recruiting trail have changed.

The common message to prospects has evolved to one of sustaining and adding to the Gamecocks’ recent success.

“That’s pretty impressive, and we’re still pressing hard for that SEC championship,” said recruiting coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr. “That’s our biggest message – to have never done that. That’s one of our bigger goals, and that’s what we want to emphasize and you can be the first to do that here.”

Coaches in the early years carried the message of “Help us create a winner at South Carolina,” Spurrier Jr. recalled. More than anything, they were selling the future of the program.

“We had a lot to sell in facilities that were going to be built,” Spurrier Jr. said. “We had a lot to sell in the SEC. And we had lot to sell in our head coach. Our head coach has a track record of winning, and winning championships and doing it the right way. We brought something to the table of what the future of the program could be, and we went as hard as we could.”

Updated facilities

The facilities were – and continue to be – improved. USC updated its weight room and locker room. The Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center was constructed. The farmers market was made over and rebranded a tailgate and entertainment area.

A $6.5 million video board was added at Williams-Brice Stadium. New outdoor practice fields and a new indoor facility are on the way.

Those upgrades are huge, said Gerry Hamilton, national recruiting analyst for ESPN.com.

“It’s an arms race nowadays,” Hamilton said. “When a kid comes on campus, if he’s visiting your chief competition in that region of the country, every school has really nice facilities. If you’re going to battle Florida State and Georgia for prospects, your facilities have to be on par or better to beat those schools.”

Timing also factored into South Carolina’s rise, Hamilton said. North Carolina didn’t recover after Mack Brown departed for Texas. Then Spurrier was hired at USC. Meanwhile, programs such as Florida State and Tennessee, which recruited the Carolinas and Georgia well, took a step back.

“That worm turned in that region and South Carolina kept the best guys at home for the most part,” Hamilton said. “They just didn’t keep good players instate. They kept great players instate, guys that get you from nine wins to 11 wins. In the 1990s, Jadeveon Clowney and Marcus Lattimore, they go to Florida State in the heyday of Florida State. It all comes together and you can kind of see how it happened for South Carolina and how they maximized their opportunities.”

Campbell was part of Spurrier’s second class in 2006, a season that ended with an 8-5 record and a Liberty Bowl win over Houston. Campbell’s career culminated with an SEC championship game appearance in 2010 and the first of three consecutive 11-2 seasons in 2011.

“That was the amazing part about it,” he said. “Being blessed with six years gave me the opportunity to see it through. I saw it from the time Spurrier got there to the time I left. Once you get a taste of that, it trickles down. As long as players around that have their fire, I don’t see it changing at all.”

Building on success

Today’s targets continue to be sold on playing in the SEC and competing for a conference championship. The number of Gamecocks in the pros also is a strong message, Spurrier Jr. said.

More than 30 former USC players are in the NFL, including 13 drafted the past two seasons. That includes first-round draft picks Stephon Gilmore and Melvin Ingram, and the impending pro debut of Jadeveon Clowney. Three Gamecocks were on the Super Bowl champion Seahawks.

“The last three of four years, it’s amazing what the NFL numbers are,” Spurrier Jr. said. “Clowney, everything that he’s meant for us, coming to South Carolina and potentially a top 1, 2, 3, 4 pick in the NFL draft. Kids want to see that. Kids want to know they can come to school, get a degree, play in the best conference in America and play in the NFL. We have a pretty strong track record of doing that.”

While winning makes the program an easier sell, Spurrier Jr. said, the recruiting battles for top players become more intense.

“Now we’re recruiting the best and now we’re competing with the best,” he said. “One of the cons to recruiting the best players in our state, Georgia and Florida, is that all the other best schools in the country are recruiting them too. That’s how it should be. If we’re expected to play with these teams on the field and compete with them, which we have, we have to be able to recruit the best players in the country. We’ve done a good job of that the last couple of years.”

Hamilton agrees. He points to USC’s staying power recently with five-star Maryland offensive lineman Damian Prince, who considered the Gamecocks until a few weeks ago and will choose Wednesday between Florida and Maryland.

“That says a lot for what South Carolina has done, the product on the field and how far they’ve come in the perception of top recruits outside of the Carolinas and Georgia,” Hamilton said. “Those three years in a row winning 11 games and the top 10 finishes and everything that goes with it, with Jadeveon Clowney and Marcus Lattimore. The perception has changed so much about the South Carolina program and where they’re headed. Damian Prince is that guy you look at and realize, South Carolina hasn’t taken one or two steps, they’ve taken about five steps the last three years.”

Campbell, who spent time in the Arena League last year and is still working toward his NFL dream, recalls the culture change he saw on and off the field at USC. Participation in summer workouts, for example, went from being a hassle to being expected and accepted. Winning became a mindset, he said, with each senior class wanted to outdo the last.

“We’re in a process, except for now we’re winning,” he said. “It was a lot easier to sell the program when you’re winning and you’re seeing these things happen. We want to keep this up. We still want to win a championship. That’s been the main message throughout.”

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