David Cloninger

Recent USC coaches and their first seasons

Former South Carolina coach Sparky Woods
Former South Carolina coach Sparky Woods File photo

Expectations are middling. Most think Will Muschamp doesn’t have the players to compete this year.

That’s a departure from recent South Carolina coaches. Several came in with names to count on and had strong first seasons. Some came in without much to work with, and the record reflected it.

Looking back at recent USC coaches and their first seasons:

Richard Bell (1982)

Part of a 45-36-1 run with the Gamecocks, he was named coach after Jim Carlen was surprisingly fired.

“It was a shocker to us all,” Bell said. “There was no indication prior to that.”

The remaining staff decided that if two or three of them lobbied to replace Carlen, nobody would be hired. They decided to unite behind Bell.

“I had been there and knew the players, so I thought we had a chance to be a pretty good team,” he said. “We got the team together and said, ‘This will always be coach Carlen’s team. The thing we can do to try to make him proud is compete and try to be as good a football team as we can be.’ 

The Gamecocks finished 4-7. Bell was fired in December 1982. He’s taking this year off from his defensive coordinator position at Prince Avenue (Ga.) Christian School, but, “that’s not a retirement. Just sitting out this year.”

Joe Morrison (1983)

“We met for lunch, and coach shows up late,” junior Del Wilkes said. “He had bloodshot eyes, and told me the coaches had gone out the night before, played poker and drank a little too much. As a teenager, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a different kind of coach.’ ”

Wilkes quit before Bell’s season but returned after that meeting. Morrison never grabbed facemasks or screamed about toughness. He simply said that if his players believed in his system and didn’t turn the ball over, they could beat any opponent.

“Coach Bell had T-shirts that read, ‘Nothing less than my best.’ Coach Morrison wanted them gone,” Wilkes said. “He said, ‘We won’t do anything starting with the word ‘nothing.’ 

Morrison’s first season ended 5-6, but the Gamecocks thrashed Southern Cal, 38-14. The “Man in Black” image bled into the team and manifested in 1984’s “Black Magic.”

Morrison died of a heart attack on Feb. 5, 1989. He was 51.

Sparky Woods (1989)

It wasn’t easy taking over a program in February, much less one reeling from scandal and after one of its most successful coaches, but Woods had an up-and-comer’s reputation.

He first got his arms around a shattered team. That started with one man.

“I knew Appalachian State pretty well, because my brother (Mark) played two years for Mack Brown and Sparky was there,” quarterback Todd Ellis said. “At the time, there was some talk of guys considering pushing the eligibility issue, to leave early. I told Sparky I was coming back.”

Woods and athletics director King Dixon wanted Ellis to lead on and off the field as USC cleaned up its image.

“We took coach Morrison’s edge on a little bit,” Ellis said. “The Man in Black persona, us as the rebels.”

It was easy to change a uniform, not so easy to leave the memory of a man who presided over some problems, but also won a lot of games.

“Talk about a man’s man – coach Morrison probably ate a steak at halftime most games. He lived pretty hard, he smoked,” Ellis said. “We were under some stress of things going on in the ’80s. When he died, we were all part of the memorial and many of us were a part of the funeral. Just bad, awful times.”

Woods was never disrespectful of the previous regime, but always looked forward. He beat Duke and Steve Spurrier in his first game and started 5-1-1.

Ellis suffered a season-ending injury at N.C. State and the Gamecocks’ offense turned to Dickie DeMasi. USC squeaked by North Carolina but lost to the Wolfpack, Florida State and Clemson with DeMasi under center.

USC finished 6-4-1.

“We thought we had a chance to make a seven-, eight-win season, probably go to the Peach Bowl and basically request who we wanted to play. We could have been the first team to win a bowl game,” Ellis said. “I don’t get hurt that day … nothing against Dickie, but I had the experience. I played 42 straight games without a major injury, then that happened.”

Woods was fired in 1993. He’s currently associate head coach, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator at Richmond.

Brad Scott (1994)

Scott was the offensive coordinator for Florida State’s 1993 national championship team and walked into a stocked cupboard. Woods’ first group of seniors was talented, and junior QB Steve Taneyhill was in the middle of an outstanding career.

The first meeting sent a message – get with me or pack your bags.

“He told us we were all out of shape,” Taneyhill said. “I think he just looked around the room and maybe saw the linemen not built the way he envisioned when he came from Florida State. That was his No. 1 thing in that offseason, was getting us in shape.”

The Gamecocks lost six games in 1993 after holding fourth-quarter leads. Scott, used to waves of talent at FSU, wanted to weed out weakness.

“You were held accountable for everything,” Taneyhill said of winter workouts, still shaking his head over 20 years later. “Be at breakfast, go to class … we had curfew the first few games, which we never had with coach Woods. It’s all in that line of, ‘Who really wants to be here?’ ”

Taneyhill trimmed his famous long blonde locks per Scott’s rules and embarked on a 7-5 season. Scott made history, beating West Virginia for USC’s first bowl win. He tied several other USC coaches with seven wins in his first season, but none of them won a bowl.

Scott had three losing seasons out of four afterward. He was fired in 1998, then became a Clemson assistant two weeks later. He currently serves as a Clemson assistant athletics director.

Lou Holtz (1999)

“He came in and talked right away about a lack of accomplishment. He said, ‘You guys as a whole have accomplished some things, but nothing to the level of the SEC,’ ” defensive back Andre Goodman said. “Our intensity level went up.”

Holtz preached building a foundation instead of adding bricks to an existing structure. The Gamecocks had some talent, but 1999 was an 0-11 disaster.

Too many injuries. Carousel at quarterback. The defense was grand, the offense putrid.

“His confidence didn’t waver,” Goodman said. “His energy was always, ‘Well, we’ll win the next one’ and no excuses about the last one. There was never any sense that we were practicing for nothing.”

It would pay off over the next two seasons with USC winning 17 games.

“I think what probably resonated the most is we didn’t understand what winning football looked like,” Goodman said. “We talked a lot about our history, in the sense of what we had a chance to do.”

Holtz retired in 2004 after a third winning season in six years. He presently analyzes football and golf for Sirius XM.

Steve Spurrier (2005)

“Why not us?,” he borrowed, proclaiming USC had just as much going for it as anybody. Over the next 10 years, he proved it.

“We just started coaching the players we had. We had to boot seven or eight guys off the team – they wanted to steal and do all sorts of stuff instead of following the rules,” said Spurrier, now an ambassador/consultant to Florida’s athletics department. “But mostly, it was a good bunch of guys. We didn’t start out very well, but won our last five in the SEC.”

After losing by two at Georgia, the Gamecocks were blistered by Alabama and Auburn. At 0-3 SEC, many figured the Head Ball Coach was getting a taste of exactly “why not South Carolina.”

Yet USC crushed Kentucky, then beat Vanderbilt by seven. The Gamecocks won for the first time at Tennessee, topped Arkansas by four and beat Florida for the first time since 1939. They wound up 7-5.

“We hoped to do a little better. The Georgia game, the Clemson game, the Missouri bowl game, we had a chance to win,” Spurrier said. “I think about that 2005 season a lot, actually. South Carolina’s record against Tennessee and Florida since joining the SEC was 1-12 and 0-13. So the odds of beating both teams was a combined 676-to-1.”

Spurrier became USC’s all-time winningest coach. He retired after six games in 2015.

Will Muschamp (2016)

He inherits a 3-9 team that lost its two best players. Still, Muschamp doesn’t see a lost cause.

“We are excited about where we are,” he recently said. “We are really excited about where we’re headed.”

Based on past first years of USC coaches, it could be as exciting and thrilling as a rollercoaster ride.

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Was the cupboard bare?

The last 11 South Carolina football coaches (following former winningest coach Rex Enright) had varied success in their first years at the helm. Recalling each and examining the talent they inherited on a scale of 1-10:


First season: 1956

Record: 7-3 (5-2 ACC)

Highlight: Beat No. 17 Duke 7-0

Bare-cupboard scale: 8

Returning players: With Mackie Prickett, King Dixon, Alex Hawkins and Sam DeLuca, Giese nearly won the ACC.


First season: 1961

Record: 4-6 (3-4 ACC)

Highlight: Beat Clemson 21-14

Bare-cupboard scale: 3

Returning players: There wasn’t much left from a 3-6-1 team the year before, although Billy Gambrell and Ed “Punky” Holler stood out.


First season: 1966

Record: 1-9 (1-3 ACC)

Highlight: Beat N.C. State 31-21

Bare-cupboard scale: 1

Returning players: A decent running tandem of Benny Galloway and Ben Garnto couldn’t save the season.


First season: 1975

Record: 7-5

Highlight: Beat Clemson 56-20

Bare-cupboard scale: 9

Returning players: Kevin Long and Clarence Williams each rushed for 1,000 yards and Hall-of-Famer Jeff Grantz was the quarterback. Rick Sanford, Jay Saldi, David Prezioso, Mike McCabe, Steve Courson … even punter Max Runager went on to win a Super Bowl.


First season: 1982

Record: 4-7

Highlight: Beat Navy 17-14

Bare-cupboard scale: 7

Returning players: Only beat two Division I opponents despite the core of what would become Black Magic. Amazing stat: The 1982 Gamecocks had the program’s top four leading tacklers on one defense.


First season: 1983

Record: 5-6

Highlight: Beat Southern Cal 38-14

Bare-cupboard scale: 7

Returning players: The talent already in place had another year to grow and would benefit from playing the first five games at home the next year. “If they ain’t swayin’ … ”


First season: 1989

Record: 6-4-1

Highlight: Beat Duke 27-21

Bare-cupboard scale: 7

Returning players: In his first game, Woods beat a certain visored coach who would go on to win the ACC. Had Todd Ellis not been injured in the eighth game …


First season: 1994

Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)

Highlight: Beat West Virginia 24-21 for program’s first bowl win

Bare-cupboard scale: 9

Returning players: Steve Taneyhill. Brandon Bennett. Toby Cates. Terry Cousin. Chris Rumph. Randy Wheeler. Stanley Pritchett. Tony Watkins. L-O-A-D-E-D.


First season: 1999

Record: 0-11 (0-8 SEC)

Highlight: (This space available)

Bare-cupboard scale: 5

Returning players: The defense was stocked with future stars and Holtz brought in some solid freshman offensive talent. The problem was health – four quarterbacks saw extended time and the offensive line was a revolving door. This team could not score.


First season: 2005

Record: 7-5 (5-3 SEC)

Highlight: Beat Florida 30-22

Bare-cupboard scale: 6

Returning players: Some definite stars (Ko Simpson, Sidney Rice, Syvelle Newton, Kenny McKinley) but not an all-around great team. Spurrier got the switch flipped after a 48-7 drubbing at Auburn to win close SEC game after close SEC game, culminating in the program’s first win in Knoxville and first win over Florida since 1939.


First season: 2016

Bare-cupboard scale: 1

Returning players: While much of Muschamp’s team is unproven, this is a team that was threadbare in talent last year and lost its two best players (Pharoh Cooper and Skai Moore). Some of the newbies (Brandon McIlwain, Bryan Edwards, A.J. Turner, Mark King) may turn out to be great, but as of today, most haven’t played.