Morris: USC smartly shines under Thursday night lights

08/24/2014 8:15 PM

03/14/2015 3:30 AM

GIVE SOUTH CAROLINA credit for continuing to schedule challenging opening-game opponents, even though the Gamecocks probably no longer need the national attention they once sought through this vehicle.

And why not?

The national television spotlight will shine on USC and Texas A&M when they meet Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium in the football debut of the SEC Network. Additionally, challenging matchups help sell more tickets for the season-opener, and teams tend to get more motivated to play when they know they are facing a quality opponent.

Whatever the rhyme or reason behind the scheduling during Steve Spurrier’s 24-year college coaching career, his teams at Duke, Florida and USC have lost once on opening day. Oddly, that defeat came in 1989 when Duke fell 27-21 against USC in Columbia.

Spurrier said he had no concrete answers for why his teams have enjoyed such success on opening day, although he did believe playing most of them at home was a contributing factor. Of course, having outstanding teams over most of his career also helps.

“I don’t know if there’s a common link. I don’t know what it is,” Spurrier said Sunday. “We have been fortunate in the openers. ... I don’t have the answer for it. We coach them all the same, try to get the guys prepared the same, the opener, the last one, the bowl game and so forth.”

Spurrier teams split two road openers while he coached at Duke, never played a road opener while at Florida, and have opened the season with wins at Mississippi State (2006), N.C. State (2009) and Vanderbilt (2012) during his nine seasons at USC.

It made sense for his Duke teams to open on the road, because the Blue Devils rarely drew large crowds at home. He never played a road opener at Florida because the Gators were selling out every game.

Florida was going to sell out its home-opener during the 1990s, regardless of the opponent. The only name opponent Spurrier’s powerful Florida teams played in a home-opener was Oklahoma State in 1990, and the Cowboys finished that season with a 4-7 record.

Otherwise, Florida did what most national powerhouses did those days, and scheduled an opening game against a beatable opponent, trouncing such patsies as San Jose State, Arkansas State, New Mexico State and Western Michigan. Spurrier’s Florida teams never played a ranked opponent on opening day.

When he arrived at USC for the 2005 season, ESPN wanted to televise his first game back in the college ranks and believed that playing Central Florida on a Thursday night would maximize its audience. USC saw it as an excellent vehicle to gaining national exposure for the program.

Since then, USC has become somewhat of the traditional national-opener team, having played the first game of the season on a Thursday night for ESPN cameras in six of the past eight seasons.

As much as those Thursday night games gained national attention for USC, they did not necessarily guarantee sellout crowds at Williams-Brice Stadium. The 2010 home-opener against Southern Mississippi drew a crowd that fell 12,000 short of capacity. By last season, it was apparent USC had figured out that to fill the stadium, it needs to play a quality – if not, name – opponent. A year ago, USC fans filled Williams-Brice Stadium (81,572) to see their Gamecocks defeat North Carolina.

Tickets for Thursday’s opener against SEC opponent Texas A&M have been sold out for weeks. So, USC gets the best of all worlds: National exposure on the inaugural game for the SEC Network as well as a sellout crowd. It comes with the bonus of both teams being able to play on the opening-night big stage.

“I think it really gets our players juiced up through the preseason practices,” Spurrier said. “They know it’s going to be a national TV game, so they want to play well. I think it’s a good opportunity for us.”

Makes sense that it should continue for years to come.

About Ron Morris

Ron Morris

Ron Morris

Morris has been employed at The State newspaper for 15 years, the last 11 as sports columnist. He is an Oklahoma native who was reared in Wyoming and graduated from UNC Charlotte. He previously worked for the Durham (N.C.) Morning Herald and the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat.Along the way, Morris has written a book, "An Illustrated History of ACC Basketball" and won numerous national and state awards for sports column writing, enterprise reporting and feature stories. He is a five-time sportswriter of the year winner in South Carolina by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. Morris has run a marathon, hitch-hiked across the country and appeared in Sports Illustrated for counting the number of times the ball bounced in a men's basketball game between Catawba College and Appalachian State. Email Ron at rmorris@thestate.com or call him at (803) 771-8432.

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