Shawn Elliott worked a “Clifford the Big Red Dog” reference into South Carolina’s film study Monday.
That’s no small feat for a college football coach and no small reason why the Gamecocks have more bounce in their step in Elliott’s three weeks as interim head coach than they had in the first half of the season.
Clifford is an outsized dog in a popular children’s show who travels most everywhere he goes in a gleeful, bounding manner, the same way freshman wide receiver Hayden Hurst came to the sideline after catching a 47-yard pass against Texas A&M last week.
“Have you ever seen a more excited young man?” Elliott asked Tuesday. “He thought he was sprinting back to the sideline, and we were like, ‘No, no, you’ve got to play another play.’ ”
When Elliott teased Hurst about it during Monday’s film review, the room broke out in laughter. Humor was in short supply as South Carolina (3-5 overall, 1-5 SEC) went 2-4 overall and 0-4 in the SEC to start the season under Steve Spurrier.
“We’d been needing that,” Elliott said. “As a coach, you read players. You look in their eyes. You see how they walk into meeting rooms – is their head down? Yeah, I felt we had not had fun. Even in our wins, we had not had a whole lot of fun.”
Elliott took over the team on Oct. 13, the day after Spurrier resigned, and his first goal was to pivot his team’s attitude to a more positive direction. Elliott doesn’t believe the Gamecocks tuned out the 70-year-old Spurrier in his 11th season as head coach.
“I just think we all knew there was something that needed to be changed, but I wouldn’t say they tuned him out,” Elliott said. “I don’t think you tune out coach Steve Spurrier.”
They are clearly tuning into Elliott, though.
“You play games certainly to win, but you start as youngsters and little kids because you enjoy playing,” he said. “They’re so much fun. That’s why you do it. Who wants to go in there and spend time and energy to do something you don’t love or enjoy? I sure don’t. It was something that needed to be changed, and the only way to change it was to try some new techniques.”
Some of Elliott’s changes have been obvious – playing music throughout practice, for instance. Some have been more subtle –kidding a player in a meeting or stopping for a quick private chat.
“When you go out, you kind of find an interest, maybe in a defensive lineman or something,” Elliott said. “You walk up and you talk to them about maybe what their day’s done. Joking around with them. I’m bouncing around with them, our players and coaches are interacting. Just simple, simple things you say to someone, and it’s how you make them feel.”
South Carolina’s players most often use the word “energy” to describe Elliott and the changes he has brought to the team.
“We are having a lot of fun out there,” senior running back Brandon Wilds said. “Everybody has a positive vibe. (Elliott) just brought energy to the table. Coach Spurrier is an older coach. Nothing wrong with that. He is well respected. Coach Elliott is just more of an up-tempo type of guy.”
The Gamecocks are 1-1 since Elliott took over, beating Vanderbilt 19-10 and losing to Texas A&M 35-28. South Carolina takes on Tennessee (4-4, 2-3) on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., as it tries to translate its heightened energy level into more victories.
“We’re having a little bit more fun. There’s a more upbeat mentality. Winning is going to make it a lot more fun, of course,” Elliott said, “and we’re going to try to get that done.”
Gamecocks vs. Volunteers
Who: South Carolina (3-5, 1-5 SEC) at Tennessee (4-4, 2-3)
When: 4 p.m., Saturday
Where: Neyland Stadium; Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network (TWC Ch. 384)
Line: Tennessee by 16 1/2