Oct. 31, 2004. Halloween. Trick or Treat time . . . for the kids, for Mike McGee, for the University of South Carolina football fortunes and the program’s fans.
Late the night before, McGee, Carolina’s director of athletics, learned he would be in the market for a head football coach. And the No. 1 name on his -- and every other college program with a possible vacancy and big-time ambitions -- list was Steve Spurrier.
Let Spurrier, out of coaching after his failed challenge in the pros, get away and the future would be cloudy.
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Secure Spurrier, who had compiled an enviable record in college stops at Duke and Florida, and positive possibilities multiply exponentially.
Of course, McGee and the Gamecocks received the sweetest treat of all, winning Spurrier’s services, and, as McGee says, “The rest is history.”
Almost eight years later, McGee, now retired and living in Colorado, reflected on the process that brought Spurrier to Columbia and noted how smoothly each step unfolded compared to some of his other high-profile hires.
“Lou (Holtz) told me after the Tennessee game (Oct. 30) that (2004) would be his last season and Steve had agreed to come before the Florida game (Nov. 13),” McGee said in setting the time frame that reduced what can be long and involved to less than a couple of weeks.
“Lou thought that we had had a good week of practice and would do well against Tennessee. Instead, the team did not play well (a 43-29 loss) and he called that night. He had done a great deal for the program, winning the bowl games and recruiting well in places, and his letting me know early was another important thing. He also played a role in hiring Steve; he called Steve and gave him an honest evaluation of the program.”
Like all good administrators, McGee had a list of potential candidates in his mind long before Holtz’s call. In fact, Holtz, then 67, had told McGee in the summer that 2004 might be his last season.
The timing mattered, and McGee acted quickly. With Spurrier out of coaching and available to talk immediately, McGee did not have to wait until after the season to begin his search. He took full advantage of his head start.
“I had received a call the week before from the president of another university who was considering candidates if he had to make a change at the end of the season, and Steve is the first one he asked about,” McGee said.
After checking with Holtz to make sure he had not changed his mind, McGee went to work with Spurrier in his sights. He did not know Spurrier other than from informal chats at Southeastern Conference meetings, but his glittering record spoke volumes and a couple of calls ascertained Spurrier’s interest in returning to college coaching.
McGee started the process with Spurrier with the promise that he would not contact any other candidates until Spurrier made a decision.
“An important thing from my perspective is we had almost instant rapport,” McGee said. “The fact that I had been a head football coach made it possible for me to see things from his perspective. We talked coach-to-coach, not only administrator-to-coach. Also, we had both been head coaches at Duke and had some mutual friends. A lot of his Duke friends were my Duke friends. That early relationship helped the whole process.”
McGee flew to Virginia to make his case and said he and Spurrier talked late into the evening. Their conversations included the usual topics in a hiring process: the program, prospects, expectations, issues that would be faced and finances.
“The thing is, Steve had other opportunities,” McGee said. “I laid out what we had here and what we wanted in our football program. We had made a start (under Holtz) and now we needed to take the next step. Then, we talked by phone. I knew after our face-to-face meeting I wanted him to be our coach and early on I had a clear sense that he would be our coach.”
Spurrier later said he looked at USC's history as a selling point.
"That's one of the big reasons I thought it was the perfect place,” he said in 2005. “I want to go somewhere they haven't done a whole lot so we can get in uncharted waters, do some things that have never been done.
“That to me is more exciting than going to say, LSU. They've won a national championship. They've won the conference. They've got the best players in the SEC, according to all the recruiting polls. So all you're doing there is doing what's expected."
In hiring George Raveling to coach basketball at Southern California and Holtz to take over the football program at USC, McGee had faced reluctant candidates. Both turned him down multiple times before he convinced them to take the jobs.
Compared to those, Spurrier’s hiring was a walk in the park.
“I felt strongly that Steve would be our best opportunity, but I wanted to make sure the administration was fully apprised of the situation,” McGee said. “I called the president (the late Andrew Sorensen) and laid everything out to him, and he responded positively.
“That’s when we sent Steve a letter of intent, and he had agreed (before the Florida game).”
All that remained was to keep the deal a secret until after the season, but the story inevitably leaked and the hiring press conference lost any element of surprise. No matter, McGee said, “The rest is history.”