Steve Spurrier and George O’Leary, at 70 and 69 years old, are not having the seasons they envisioned. But the two coaches, who are among the oldest in college football, spent the past decade building their programs to new heights.
Spurrier led South Carolina to its three best seasons in school history. The Gamecocks had never won 11 games in a year before recording three straight 11-win seasons from 2011-13.
UCF had never been ranked nationally before O’Leary guided the Knights to an 11-win season and a No. 20 final ranking in 2010. In 2013, O’Leary led UCF to a 12-1 season, including a 52-42 win over No. 6 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
Patrick Cobb, a spokesman for AARP, said the success Spurrier and O’Leary shared in their 60s proves what the Head Ball Coach has said all along, age is just a number.
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“It used to be that 50 was the new 30 and 60 was the new 40, but now people should be proud of their age and own it,” Cobb said. “You can be successful no matter what your age is. Older workers are oftentimes more well-off in the workplace because they’re a little more knowledgeable about what’s going on and they still can be successful.”
Spurrier and O’Leary square off again at noon on Saturday.
O’Leary’s path is somewhat similar to Spurrier’s, although he wasn’t as successful as Spurrier early in his coaching career. He had a strong stint as the head coach at Georgia Tech before accepting the job at Notre Dame, but he never coached a game for the Irish because of inaccuracies on his resume. Instead, O’Leary spent a couple of years in the NFL as an assistant before taking over the UCF program.
“He’s done an excellent job there,” Spurrier said of O’Leary. “He was fourth or fifth in the nation several years ago and we were the only team that beat them. That was just two years ago. They had a drop off somehow, have a bunch of guys hurt, and I guess you go through that sometimes.”
The two teams met in Spurrier’s first game as the coach at South Carolina. USC beat the Knights 24-15, but UCF went on to finish the year 8-3 after going 0-11 in 2004.
“Central Florida sort of brings back a lot of memories for me,” Spurrier said. “We sold out the place and I still remember on the bus coming to the stadium, our fans were out there with their fingers in the air to see South Carolina football. The stadium was packed for kickoff, packed during warmups that night. Certainly we have as good of football fans as anybody in the country.”
O’Leary said he admires the way Spurrier runs his football program, as well as the way Spurrier speaks his mind, no matter the topic.
“I like Steve. I’ve always liked Steve. I enjoy people that say what they want to say when they want to say it, which I think he does just to egg people on a little bit,” O’Leary said. “I think he’s a guy that loves the game of football, obviously, and I think he’s been good for the college game. He does things the right way as far as the program is concerned, and he has a very inventive mind as far as scoring points.”
Deke Adams, who has served as South Carolina’s defensive line coach since 2013, said he sees no difference in Spurrier since he joined USC’s staff.
“He’s still wide open at it and still loving the game of football,” he said.
With USC starting 1-2 and UCF 0-3, there has been speculation that Spurrier and O’Leary might be reaching the end of their storied careers. O’Leary also is the interim athletic director at UCF. He has received several questions recently about whether he can be successful doing both jobs and has defended his stance that he can.
“I’m a head football coach. I meet once a week as the AD with the senior staff and make sure everything’s running the way it’s supposed to run, but I spend more and more time doing what I love to do, which is coach football,” he said. “No one’s more disappointed than I am as far as the start of the season.”
Spurrier spent the offseason trying to rally the troops after a disappointing 7-6 record in 2014. He called those who suggested that South Carolina was on the decline “enemies” who were trying to bring the program down and vowed that the Gamecocks would be much improved in 2015.
After a 52-20 loss to Georgia, Spurrier was asked this week what his message is to fans who might be panicking. He urged them to wait until the end of the season to judge.
“After three games we’re not where we thought we would be. We’ll find out where we’ll be after four games on Saturday,” he said. “We’re not playing as well as we thought we would be right now. That’s a fact of life. And we’re going to try to turn it around. We’ve got plenty of time. We’ve played three of 12 games, and we’ll see if we can get something going this week.”
Besides, as Spurrier said on his radio show on Thursday night: “I got three more years on my contract and it pays pretty good, so we’re not planning on tossing in the towel.”
Oldest college coaches
1. Bill Snyder, Kansas State, 75
2. Steve Spurrier, USC, 70
3. Frank Solich, Ohio, 70
4. George O’Leary, UCF, 69
5. Frank Beamer, Va. Tech, 68