Nov. 23, 2004
It was widely reported that it was going to happen, but there was still some doubt. He wouldn’t have been the first high-profile coach to sign on at South Carolina and then abruptly change his mind.
But that door in South Carolina’s south end zone opened, and there he was. The smirk that had ruled the SEC for so long was walking toward the front of the room. He looked out of place without the familiar visor perched on his head, but he was wearing something else that immediately made it real – a garnet-and-black striped tie adorned with small palmetto trees.
The Ol’ Ball Coach, Darth Visor, Steve Spurrier. At South Carolina.
It was really happening.
Athletics director Mike McGee hung up the phone late in October and knew what he would do the next day. Coach Lou Holtz had called after a gut-wrenching loss to Tennessee that Saturday night and told McGee he was going to retire at the end of the season. Even in the midst of losing one coach, McGee started turning wheels to get the next one.
“I asked coach Holtz, ‘Would you be helpful in a search for somebody who might possibly take the job?’ ” McGee said. “He said he would.”
McGee didn’t tell Holtz who he was thinking of, but McGee already knew his top target. Spurrier had resigned from the Washington Redskins in December 2003 after a failed two-year stint, and there were already rumblings that he wanted to get back in the college game. He had not coached in the 2004 season and the speculation was that he would be on some sideline in 2005.
McGee wanted that sideline to be the West side at Williams-Brice Stadium. The next day, he began making it a reality.
The Gamecocks were bowl-eligible after beating Arkansas in early November and the word of Holtz’s retirement was already circling. Center John Strickland was disappointed but knew the new guy wouldn’t have any effect on him – he was a senior and about to leave, too.
Getting ready for practice one day, though, Strickland heard the hot new rumor from a graduate assistant.
“Halfway through the season, he said, ‘Man, I got a feeling Steve Spurrier is going to be the next coach here,’ ” Strickland said. “I was like, ‘What?’ ”
It surely didn’t seem to make any sense. Why would Spurrier, as successful a coach as has ever been, want to risk tarnishing his legacy by coming to South Carolina? Sure, they’d had some good years, but nothing like what Spurrier had done.
Then again, maybe that was the appeal of the job, to do something that had never been done. And the Gamecocks had gotten Holtz.
“Frankly, Dr. McGee is very persuasive,” then-sports information director Kerry Tharp said. “He got coach Holtz to come after he had left Notre Dame and was in broadcasting. Coach Spurrier had won a national championship and all those SEC championships. For him to come to South Carolina when he did was just a real blessing.”
McGee knew that Holtz and Spurrier were friends. They had played golf at Augusta National for a weekend earlier in the year.. Two weeks after Holtz called McGee to tell him of his retirement plans, McGee had already contacted Spurrier.
“It was clear he was going to get back in the game,” McGee said. “Coach Spurrier, we had several mutual friends, because he and I had both been coach at Duke. That was part of our early conversations, about Duke and our experiences there. It wasn’t a cold call, because we had that early common interest. It was always kind of to the point that we got to things we were talking about next.”
Spurrier was interested in talking about the job and McGee flew to Washington to speak with him. Using the pitch that had landed several other high-profile coaches (Holtz, Eddie Fogler and an up-and-comer named Ray Tanner), McGee asked Spurrier if he would be interested in building a winner at a school that had long craved one.
The coach who had turned his alma mater, Florida, into a national power said he would like that.
By mid-November, the particulars had been covered. Spurrier and McGee were talking virtually every day and school president Andrew Sorensen had also chatted with the coach by telephone. McGee also had arranged for Spurrier to talk to Holtz several times, accepting Holtz’s promise to help “recruit” the new coach.
“They had a fairly good relationship,” McGee said. “He was helpful.”
Spurrier and McGee agreed on a contract with a handshake and McGee returned to Columbia. As the Gamecocks prepared to play Clemson, the national media began to report that Spurrier was USC’s new head man.
After the Clemson loss, the brawl and Holtz’s retirement presser, USC needed some good news. It arrived when Spurrier walked into the press conference at 1 p.m. that Tuesday.
“While we were tending to that and working to have that go off as well as it could, the wheels were in full motion behind the scenes in Mike’s dialogue with coach Spurrier,” Tharp said. “Things were happening very quickly. We had to make sure that coach Holtz’s retirement press conference was properly handled. At the same time, we were making preparations and plans to announce coach Spurrier’s hire.”
Spurrier met with Tharp and McGee in his new office at Williams-Brice and was briefed on the fight, the fallout and any other questions he might hear at the press conference. Then he went to the other end of the stadium and waited for his moment.
Spurrier didn’t have to say one word. His presence alone had Gamecock Nation doing backflips. But Spurrier ignore an open mic?
“I’d like to borrow a phrase from the Boston Red Sox. Why not us? Why not the University of South Carolina Gamecocks?” Spurrier said. “Why can’t we get to the top of the SEC? And certainly, that’s going to be my vision, my dream. Our ultimate goal is that we can finish atop the SEC, that we can someday win the game in the Georgia Dome. I want to pledge to everyone out there that loves Carolina football, that you’re going to get my best shot.”
“The rest,” McGee said, “is history.”