The last time Steve Spurrier coached at Legion Field, the SEC championship was at stake.
There will be a lot less riding on Spurrier’s next game at the aging stadium in Birmingham, Ala. — featuring a pair of unranked 7-5 teams in the fourth annual Papajohns.com Bowl on Jan. 2.
And while many South Carolina officials and fans made it clear their preference was to play an ACC school in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, Spurrier had no qualms with the Gamecocks’ first matchup with Connecticut when it was announced Sunday.
“At the end of the year, you go wherever they tell you to go,” Spurrier said. “There’s no sense worrying about, we want to go here or we want to go there, or we hope to play in this one or that one. It doesn’t matter. We knew we were going to play a Big East team.”
It looked like that team would be No. 17 Pittsburgh (9-3) after the Panthers lost to Cincinnati 45-44 on Saturday. But the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, which picked ahead of the Papajohns.com on the Big East side, decided Sunday to match Pitt against North Carolina.
Asked about the 11th-hour maneuvering, USC athletics director Eric Hyman said, “You just don’t know ‘til you know. You hear so many things, rumors and innuendos.”
Hyman said USC would receive a $900,000 payout from the Papajohns.com, one of six bowls owned by ESPN. The Gamecocks are responsible for selling 10,000 tickets.
USC sold 7,284 of its 11,000-ticket allotment for the Outback Bowl last season. But Hyman is confident the 34-17 victory against Clemson will help encourage fans to travel.
Spurrier, whose Florida teams played Alabama in Legion Field in 1992-93 in the first two SEC championship games, thinks the game’s proximity also should help.
“That’s not a bad drive, I-20 straight through Atlanta and right on over,” Spurrier said. “I hope our fans, if they like to go to bowl games, they’ll want to go to this one just like all the rest of them. I don’t think they were particular where we played.”
Many USC fans were excited about the prospects of playing a bowl game in Atlanta for the first time in 40 years. But Hyman said he understood the Chick-fil-A’s decision to go with Tennessee, which beat USC and finished a game ahead of the Gamecocks in the SEC East.
Among the SEC-affiliated bowls that picked after the Chick-fil-A, Hyman was not crazy about the Dec. 27 date for the Music City, which would meant an abbreviated stay in Nashville, and thought the Liberty (Memphis) and Independence (Shreveport, La.) bowls were too far for fans.
“Really, you couldn’t ask for anything more (than Birmingham). There are a lot of positives,” Hyman said.
UConn won its final three games after losing three in a row following the Oct. 18 stabbing death of cornerback Jasper Howard. The Huskies beat South Florida 29-27 on Saturday on a game-winning field goal by Dave Teggart as time expired.
“It gives us another opportunity to play a game, which I think this team richly deserves after being 7-5 and having gone through all the things that we went through this year,” UConn coach Randy Edsall said.
The Huskies’ five losses have been by 15 points.
Spurrier said he watched the Huskies’ 33-30, double-overtime win at Notre Dame on Nov. 21.
“You’ve got to admire what they’ve done there. They’ve only been playing Division I seven or eight years,” Spurrier said of UConn, which became a full I-A member in 2002. “So they’ve come a long way. They’ve done a super job there.”
Meanwhile, USC has a chance to hit most of its major goals, which included posting a winning record, beating Clemson and winning a bowl game.
If USC has to go to Birmingham to do so, rather than Tampa or Atlanta, is OK with junior fullback Patrick DiMarco.
“Any January bowl game’s huge for any program,” DiMarco said. “We were definitely happy and proud to go to the Outback Bowl last year. Playing in the Papajohns this year is going to be another exciting experience. We’re just going to go and live it up and have good memories of it.”