David Cloninger

Behind the smirk was often a likable Spurrier

South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier has been known to smirk during news conferences.
South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier has been known to smirk during news conferences. gmelendez@thestate.com

“I did it … my way.”

Frank Sinatra

I think what I’ll always remember is that smirk.

He would flash it often — in a news conference after a line he knew would get repeated, after a particularly good round on the course, after anything he did, really. Steve Spurrier never smiled; he smirked, and without arrogance.

He did it because that’s the only way he knew.

Spurrier was better, that’s all. Better at football (coaching and playing), better at golf, better at one-liners. The arrogance came from a lifetime spent being better by talent, and the times he was petty and childish were taken in hand because of the several thousand times he was so darned likable.

The smirk I remember most was on Nov. 13, 2010, in Gainesville, Fla. At the stadium he had built, he gave another fan base its most significant bragging point. When Spurrier’s Gamecocks beat Florida to clinch the SEC East championship and, finally, send him back to Atlanta, that was the one.

He knew the Gatorade bath was coming, so he hunched his shoulders and let the icy liquid pour over him. When the cooler was empty, he slightly shrugged his shoulders to get rid of any lingering cubes, then flashed that smirk as his quarterback embraced him.

That was the one. The one that said, “See? Told ya.”

Spurrier did what he said he would. He took USC to unprecedented heights, winning more games than anyone ever had and taking it to the SEC Championship Game, which he had christened the Spurrier Bowl while he was at Florida. He got a division championship. He went to bowl games year after year. He coaxed the country’s best recruits to play for him.

He did what no other coach could. Spurrier made little ol’ South Carolina a winner.

Spurrier was the one who recognized that Williams-Brice Stadium and USC needed to look more attractive to recruits. He was the one who knew better facilities drew better players, and while they might not win big, they would win enough to draw more people and more dollars to benefit the university.

It all flowed into the best success USC football ever had, which coincided with the best overall athletics success USC had. The Gamecocks won 11 games in three consecutive seasons, three more times than they ever had, and through it all was Spurrier, ever charming and ever cantankerous.

He had his downtimes. His imperious “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” tone made for good copy but painted a picture of a man who loved the kudos when he won but couldn’t handle it when he didn’t.

That’s a lot of what made him so compelling. He never apologized, just said what he thought, and if you disagreed, well, tough. Steve Spurrier was an original, and he knew his supporters would never question — they would cheer him, love him, sometimes boo him, but never leave him.

The “This, that and the others” and “but anyways” were frequent and the news conferences always featured one quote or moment that you knew would live forever. Spurrier was a natural figure, with a ball or whistle in his hand, and he never forgot how to work a room.

It’s why the news of his abrupt departure in the middle of a season was disturbing. Less than three months after he declared that his team might be better than predicted and for fans not to listen to the “enemies,” Spurrier quit after his team started 2-4 with no relief in sight. Injuries and a brutal schedule have hit this team, yes, but concerns of a streak — never a FULL losing season at USC — and of not staying too long might have swayed the Head Ball Coach’s thinking.

I’ll miss him. Something about this beat, I told my friends and colleagues — there’s always something to write about.

How he left wasn’t pleasant, but his career is unchanged. Spurrier is a winner, and despite the ending, he did what he said he would. Having never been one to reflect on what he’s done in his magnificent run, I’m sure he would simply shrug, smirk and sum up when asked about his life.

“It is what it is.”