In the six weeks since Steve Spurrier resigned as football coach at South Carolina, Paul Finebaum – in his job as a national radio and TV sports analyst, and on a somewhat more personal level – has had time to digest the end of the Head Ball Coach’s career.
And while Spurrier’s decision to leave USC in mid-season surprised him, Finebaum – in Columbia this weekend as part of SEC Network coverage of Saturday’s game vs. The Citadel – believes that, in the end, it was the right decision for coach and team.
“I thought you could see the end coming last year,” after the Gamecocks struggled to a 7-6 finish, Finebaum said. “I felt like – and I wasn’t the only one – he made a mistake coming back this season, but he did it.
“Then, for whatever reason, he walked away” the week after a 45-24 loss at LSU, which dropped the Gamecocks to 2-4. “And that’s probably a good thing because I think (interim coach) Shawn Elliott has done a good job of inspiring the team. To be frank, they’ve played better without Spurrier.”
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While some USC fans worry about athletics director Ray Tanner having to replace a coaching legend, Finebaum believes the Gamecocks program can not only survive losing Spurrier but, with the right coaching hire, become even better.
“I think a lot of people can do it,” Finebaum said. “I don’t mean to disrespect (Spurrier), but a lot of coaches can turn it around – because it’s been done elsewhere. I think, frankly, we made too much of Spurrier doing it here. It’s being done in a lot of places in college football that, on paper, are more difficult than South Carolina, (such as) Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State.
“The most important thing is not just to do it, but to sustain it, and I think South Carolina has enough going for it that you can do it there. Look at (Memphis’ Justin) Fuente and (Houston’s Tom) Herman” – coaches mentioned as possible successors to Spurrier and elsewhere – “and those aren’t easy places to win. I think with the right person, you can turn the program around.”
He also mentioned Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Texas coach Charlie Strong, a DC at USC under Lou Holtz, as possible Gamecocks candidates.
Finebaum admits to a bit of angst about Spurrier’s actions, having admired Spurrier’s tenure at Florida and USC, and having had the coach as an occasional guest on his talk shows.
“I defended Spurrier six weeks ago when a lot of my friends criticized him” for quitting mid-season,” Finebaum said. “But I also have mixed feelings about what he did, why he did it. I think he could’ve told Tanner he was leaving at the end of the year, and Tanner could’ve done as much due diligence on the future coach as he’s done now.
“I don’t think he can really get past that (quitting). I also thought he made a mistake going on (ESPN’s) GameDay” a week after resigning. “I don’t think he came off very well; it was too soon.”
Ultimately, though, Finebaum believes USC fans will recall Spurrier kindly.
“I think people will look past the average-to-mediocre years and focus on 2010-13, because those were the most productive (a 42-11 record),” he said. “I think overall he gave the program a great deal of credibility and a national voice.
“On the other hand, it’s hard to look past the end. It’s a dreadful finish if you’re honest about your perspective on his legacy.”
Whatever his feelings about the coach, Finebaum said the Gamecocks can become SEC contenders. “I think today is different than it was over the course of time,” he said. “In the past, you were fighting history, when it was hard to change the dynamics. Things are different today, with the visibility of the SEC, the fan base is larger.
“I think they can get something going, and it will stay going, vs. 30-40 years ago when some schools just had no chance. I think South Carolina people are foolish to think (winning) is only Steve Spurrier’s doing.”