HOOVER, Ala. — My, oh my, how perspective has changed for Steve Spurrier over his college coaching career.
When he arrived 10 years ago, Spurrier fully expected South Carolina and its fan base to have the same expectations of its football program as Florida and its fan base did when he coached there.
“I truly believe that winning the SEC is an achievable goal at the University of South Carolina,” Spurrier said when introduced as USC’s coach. “We’re going to try to do it every year.”
The implication was that he could lead USC to SEC championships much the same way he did in capturing six titles in 12 seasons at Florida. Then reality set in. The job was much more difficult at USC than Florida. Now, nine seasons without an SEC championship has changed the way Spurrier views USC’s expectations.
“What I’ve learned at South Carolina, our fans realize there’s more to life than winning the SEC championship. They really do,” Spurrier said during SEC Media Days. “We’re in a state with Clemson. Clemson used to pretty much own South Carolina in football, no question about it. We have a state championship trophy.
“If you ask our fans at South Carolina, I can assure you a majority would say, ‘We would rather beat Clemson than win the SEC.’ That is how big it is to them, that one game. Personally, I’d rather win the SEC. I don’t mind saying that. Personally, that’s the bigger trophy. But if we’re not quite good enough, if it doesn’t work out, we’re not going to hang our hat and say, ‘We’re not going to win the SEC.’ But there’s other things out there.”
Those “other things” include notching 10 or more wins in a season, winning a bowl game and claiming a final top-10 ranking. USC has won 11 games in three consecutive seasons, culminating each with a bowl victory and a top-10 ranking. Those are significant accomplishments for a program that previously had a single 10-win season, four bowl wins and no top-10 final rankings.
When Spurrier took over at Florida for the 1990 season, he inherited a program with a much more prosperous history. Florida long held a winning tradition that included winning major bowl games and top-10 national finishes. Yet, Florida had not previously won an SEC championship.
So it made sense for Spurrier and his Florida fan base to long, first and foremost, for an SEC championship or two. NCAA probation stripped Florida of a league crown during Spurrier’s first season there, but when he won titles in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 2000, that became the standard for the program.
Winning an SEC championship took care of all other goals for his Florida teams and proved to be the route toward capturing the national championship in 1996. So bent was Spurrier on winning SEC championships, he went so far as to yank starting quarterback Shane Matthews at halftime of Florida’s 1992 loss against Florida State. Preserving Matthews health for the upcoming SEC championship game was more important than beating his rival.
Contrast that to USC’s 2012 game at Florida that determined the SEC Eastern Division championship. Star running back Marcus Lattimore carried the ball three times in the first half of that game, one in which USC trailed 21-6. Spurrier sat Lattimore for the second half, saying the risk of further injury was greater than the reward.
USC had won its only Eastern Division title two years earlier, and the 2012 season was the first of three consecutive in which the Gamecocks finished with a 6-2 league record. Each of the past three seasons USC has fallen one game short of a division title, despite defeating the ultimate division winner each of those seasons.
This might be the season that USC gets over the hump and again wins the SEC East and takes another shot at claiming that elusive conference championship. The SEC Media certainly thinks so. The Gamecocks were picked at SEC Media Days to capture the Eastern Division title, and 32 participants selected USC to win the conference championship game.
Of course, preseason predictions mean nothing. To make it more meaningful for USC and its fan base, perhaps there should have been a separate voting category to determine if the Gamecocks would win 10 or more games, defeat Clemson and win a bowl game.