I have to admit that, after I look at Spurrier's success at South Carolina over his first four years, I was little bit taken aback by a later Dr. Saturday piece. Not exactly what the Doctor says; most of it is a solid attempt to question Spurrier's claim that his first four years were the best four years of South Carolina history. My previous piece had been about Spurrier's first four years compared to the first four years of previous head coaches, and those findings still stand: Spurrier has been the most successful coach during his first four years at South Carolina in nearly 50 years.
What jumped out at me, though, was the Doc's chart. It pretty clearly showed that this was no "golden age" for the Gamecocks, something that took me by surprise. Part of this, of course, is because my Gamecock fandom is relatively short-lived; I never really paid attention to South Carolina until I decided to attend in 1998. My first season on campus was a disastrous 1-10 campaign, followed by an utterly embarrassing 0-11 mark.
But let's look a little more closely at the Gamecocks' winning percentage just in the SEC, which strips away a nonconference schedule that can vary widely from year to year.
Ah, Lou Holtz. The last "savior" of the Gamecocks.
Questioning Lou Holtz can be a dangerous place for a blogger, particularly one who covers South Carolina, to be. Holtz's relative success -- the climb in the average winning percentage doesn't lie -- gained him quite a bit of goodwill in Columbia. It is not out of the question that, had he decided to run for governor in 2002, he might have had greater success than he had at running the football team that year. (Coincidentally, this would have presumably saved South Carolina the whole Argentinian mistress affair. Win-win proposal.)
If the question is, "From a win-loss perspective, did Holtz leave South Carolina in a better position than when he got there?", the answer is, "Yes." But a program, of course, is more than rolling four-year averages. It is a sense of direction, both on the field and off. And going from 0-11 to 8-4, then 9-3, 5-7, 5-7 and 6-5 -- with conference marks of 0-8, 5-3, 5-3, 3-5, 2-6, 4-4 -- leaves a mixed bag at best and a sense that things have stalled or started back down at worst.
But there were also problems off the field, some of which drew national attention, some of which didn't. Discipline had almost entirely broken down, the most obvious symptom of that being the season-ending brawl with Clemson in 2004. Most non-South Carolina fans, though, didn't follow what happened after the players were told they would not be attending a bowl; in the end, six players were charged with stealing $18,000 worth of items from the athletics department. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Second item in link.]
And then came the situation with South Carolina's nutrition program during the Holtz Administration, nicely summed up in this sentence from a story about Spurrier's first days in Columbia: "Keeping his Gamecocks away from fried chicken could be as big a job as turning them into consistent SEC winners." Yes, players under Holtz were apparently allowed to wander over to a fast-food establishment across the street and order up some fried chicken when they felt the urge.
Finally, the NCAA sanctions came down for five major violations -- making South Carolina the third school punished for breaking the rules in the wake of Holtz's time there. Holtz's response to the NCAA decision -- which he presumptuously ordered a reporter to print in full -- was typically self-serving. He pretended to take responsibility for one of the violations while throwing everyone else under the bus. His excuse for the violation he pretended to take responsibility for was that he was trying to keep athletes from dying. If you doubt me, follow the link above; I couldn't make that up if I wanted to. (Holtz's assertion that South Carolina received "three years probation without any restrictions" is true only if you don't count a loss of two scholarships for two years each as restrictions.)
I could seem ungrateful for what Holtz did for South Carolina, and I shouldn't. While it's irksome, and typical, that he will be the first to tell you that Spurrier likely would not have come to Columbia had it not been for what Holtz accomplished -- well, he's probably right.
Spurrier, though, seems to have run a relatively clean ship. Some of his disciplinary decisions seem a little weak at times, but they are positively draconian compared to the repeated chances Holtz gave Derek Watson. And I feel pretty confident that the players aren't ordering fried chicken for lunch.
So if you ask me if I want the sugar rush of Lou Holtz's great two years followed by a three-year slump and the collapse of the program, or Steve Spurrier's more balanced accomplishments, I think I'll go for the latter.
It will be easier as Gamecocks fans to look ourselves in the mirror when he steps aside for the next man who will save South Carolina football.
NEXT WEEK: Georgia
MONDAY: South Carolina Leans on Hope, Again
TUESDAY: The Carolina Calendar
WEDNESDAY: Spurrier Meets with Two Students; Stephen Garcia -- and the Rest of the Depth Chart; Hope and Homerism
THURSDAY: Guessing the Gamecocks
EARLIER TODAY: A Gamecock's Mind