WHEN HE BECAME THE University of South Carolina’s 32nd football coach in November 2004, Steve Spurrier asked a simple question. “Why not us?”
“Why not the University of South Carolina Gamecocks?”
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He admitted to borrowing the first question from the Boston Red Sox, who just weeks earlier had broken an 86-year “curse” by winning the World Series.
At the time, many believed a similar curse haunted the Gamecocks. Six losing seasons in 10 years. Just three bowl wins and one conference championship ever. Gut-wrenching, last-second losses. Blowout defeats.
But during the next nine seasons, Coach Spurrier answered his own questions by transforming the Gamecocks. With his cockiness and confidence, Mr. Spurrier showed USC can win big in college football.
Last week, the coach severed his formal ties to the university.
He had already quit as the head coach, leaving the sidelines during the 2015 season. This year, he served as a special ambassador at USC for seven months before resigning to accept a similar role at the University of Florida, his alma mater. As a USC ambassador, Mr. Spurrier was paid about $8,300 a month to, as he said, talk to boosters, occasionally meet with athletic director Ray Tanner and “shake a few hands.”
Gamecock fans shouldn’t fault Mr. Spurrier for returning to the University of Florida. That’s where he won the 1966 Heisman Trophy as a player, won six SEC championships and one national championship as the Gators’ coach, and met his wife of 50 years, Jerri.
Instead, fans should be grateful that Mr. Spurrier not only won a lot of games, but proved the Chicken Curse was a myth and big victories can be routine.
Under Coach Spurrier, USC climbed to near the top of college football. The Gamecocks won 11 games for three straight seasons, captured the SEC East championship in 2010, and finished the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons ranked among Top 10. They won four straight bowls, including two over traditional powers Michigan and Nebraska.
More importantly for many USC fans, the Gamecocks beat Clemson five straight seasons. That was unprecedented in a rivalry the Tigers lead 67-42-4.
South Carolina fans no longer just hoped to beat Georgia, Tennessee and Florida; they expected to win. The Gamecocks even beat top-ranked Alabama in 2010.
With Coach Spurrier, South Carolina recruited some of the best players in the state and the nation, including running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Mr. Clowney was the nation’s top recruit in 2011 and was the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. The Gamecocks finished the 2013 season by beating Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. Their final ranking was No. 4, the highest in history.
Unfortunately for USC, that proved to be the high-water mark of Mr. Spurrier’s tenure at USC. In 2014, the Gamecocks barely eked out a winning season. When they started 2015 with a 2-4 record, he left the sidelines for good.
Mr. Spurrier is clearly South Carolina’s best football coach ever. He won more games than any other Gamecock coach — 86 — and his team’s overall talent was the school’s best.
From all indications, USC played by the rules in recruiting players and keeping them eligible under NCAA guidelines. In the years before he arrived, several USC players had run-ins with the law. Those troubles diminished greatly under Steve Spurrier.
Mr. Spurrier is known for his quips and digs at opponents. Some of the barbs have been unnecessary, but he enlivened interviews and news conferences.
His biggest disappointment at South Carolina was not winning a Southeastern Conference championship or a national title.
His biggest failing, however, was not leaving South Carolina at the top. It’s clear from last year’s 3-9 record, which included a loss to The Citadel, that USC no longer had enough All-America and All-SEC players to compete for division, conference or national championships. Only the most optimistic fans think the 2016 Gamecocks will win 11 games, qualify for a major bowl or beat a top-10 team. It may be several seasons before USC enjoys that success again.
That is Mr. Spurrier’s fault.
But he showed USC fans that those achievements are possible. He proved any football team with confidence, good coaching and great players is not cursed.
Twelve years ago, Steve Spurrier asked: “Why not the South Carolina Gamecocks?” His answer: No reason at all.
We congratulate him on his new position back at his alma mater.
In Columbia, meanwhile, USC’s new head coach, Will Muschamp, will seek to answer that question again.