HE ONCE WAS the Ol' Ball Coach. Then he was the Head Ball Coach. Now, meet the New Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. Over the past two weeks, Spurrier has transformed from a coach who routinely called out his players and staff to one who now recognizes the value of positive reinforcement.
"I needed to do that," Spurrier conceded this week.
Gone, at least for the time being, are snide remarks about lack of progress by quarterback Stephen Garcia. Gone, at least for the time being, is the public flogging of South Carolina's offensive line.
Of late, Spurrier has praised Garcia for developing into a pretty decent quarterback, and he defended the offensive line for not playing as badly as everyone believes.
His positive spin on the program by accentuating its accomplishments over the past five seasons makes you wonder if Spurrier happened upon a magic glass of happy juice. At meetings with the media, he has started to sound a lot more like Lou Holtz, who managed to put a positive spin on the 0-11 season of 1999.
So what in the name of Norman Vincent Peale has gotten into Spurrier?
Spurrier says he came to the realization that the future of his program rests in the talented freshman and sophomore classes, and that future is very bright. Also, where USC fans might question his accomplishments these days, Spurrier would prefer to believe his program has been pretty darned successful by USC standards.
Beyond that, Spurrier might also have finally recognized that a change in his attitude might filter into the ranks. Maybe if the New Ball Coach intones a positive approach, the team might find a way to break out of a defeatist outlook that has infiltrated the program for, oh, about a century.
Whatever the reason, Spurrier seemed to listen last week when several of those closest to him talked up the program, told him it was significant that USC has qualified for a bowl game in each of his five seasons and suggested that the program is closer to turning the corner than most fans believe.
Jerri Spurrier says the week leading up to USC's loss at Arkansas on Saturday was charged with emotion. She found it difficult to pinpoint one event that caused her husband to offer a different take on this football team than he had through most of the season.
She said there was much talk among the coaches all week about remaining positive with the players even after a loss.
"I think they're together a lot," Jerri said of the staff. "Nobody talked to Steve or at Steve, but nobody's afraid to talk, either. I think it's a staff thing. They are caring for their players."
At Spurrier's weekly news conference a week ago Tuesday, he became defensive at the line of questioning. He clearly wanted to defend his team and his program. He did not believe the loss at Tennessee signaled USC was off on another late-season swoon.
That afternoon, Spurrier received a surprise phone call from Mississippi coach Houston Nutt, who congratulated the coach and his USC team for being bowl eligible. It seemed to rejuvenate Spurrier to hear praise from a peer.
That same night, Eric Hyman attended a Gator Bowl gathering in Jacksonville, Fla., and heard words on encouragement and congratulatory comments from other athletics directors about USC's season. On Wednesday, at the weekly gathering of assistant coaches for a meal together, Hyman relayed those comments to Spurrier.
Then there was the incident at practice a week ago that dripped with irony. All season, assistant coach G.A. Mangus has played good cop to Spurrier's bad cop in dealing with Garcia. So the team loosened up when Spurrier laughed as he stopped to inform Mangus that coaches needed to be more positive in their comments to players.
Finally, prior to Spurrier's weekly call-in radio show a week ago, play-by-play announcer Todd Ellis reviewed some numbers from USC's history as a way of telling the coach this team already has accomplished a great deal. Ellis suggested to Spurrier that the team was worthy of more "positive" comments on the show.
Spurrier obliged. He almost went overboard, sounding every bit like a politician with his spin. Jerri Spurrier attended the show and was bubbly afterward.
"That was the best show," she said. "It was the most heartfelt, upbeat and most enthusiastic show I can remember."
No one was more pleased about Spurrier turning a new leaf than Hyman.
About three years ago, concerned about the negative tone to Spurrier's public comments, Hyman pulled out a note written by his father, Art, some 50 years ago when he was in the military.
Hyman passed the note along to Jerri Spurrier, who loved it and had her husband read it.
"You cannot expect a soldier to be a proud soldier if you humiliate him," Art Hyman wrote. "You cannot expect him to be brave if you abuse and cower him. You cannot expect him to be strong if you break him. You cannot ask for respect and obedience and willingness to assault hot landing zones, hump backbreaking ridges, destroy dug-in emplacements if your solider has not been treated with the respect and dignity which foster unit esprit and personal pride. ...
"In essence, be considerate, treat your subordinates right, and they will literally die for you."
It appears Spurrier might be taking those words to heart. He is fast learning to praise in public and criticize in private. It is a refreshing change and quite admirable for a coach who has known great success operating his way for as long as he has been in the business.
It could be we have met the New Ball Coach.