There was a time, not that long ago, that one of Steve Spurrier's signature wins at South Carolina had brought a Gatorade bath from his players. Spurrier was frustrated not because he didn't enjoy being wet, but because he thought the shower should be reserved for winning championships. On Saturday night, as his Gamecocks watched the final moments tick off their SEC East-clinching win against Florida, Spurrier braced for the shower just a moment before it hit.
And when it did come, he smiled.
For Spurrier and his beleaguered tenure at South Carolina, Saturday was the definitive redemption. There's no mistaking that five seasons of sustained average or above-average years under Spurrier was the greatest deal of success the Gamecocks had known in decades, but it was not what Spurrier came to Columbia to accomplish, and it was not what the school had hired him to do. The tone had been set when Spurrier said, at his introductory press conference, "Why not us?"For five years, Spurrier seemed to find out why. His first team was dismissed as a four-win afterthought in some preseason predictions; it went 7-4 with the first wins against Tennesee and Florida in years before a loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. The Gamecocks also finished just short of the SEC East title. His second team improved, slightly, to 8-5, including a win against Clemson and a victory against Houston in the Liberty Bowl. Still, no championships.
Then came 2007. The Gamecocks stormed to a 6-1 record and Top 10 ranking before reality crashed down around them. A home loss to Vanderbilt began a five-game slide that left South Carolina at home for the bowl season and dashed the hopes for a special season once more.
It was then that the retirement rumors began in earnest picking up where the "Spurrier headed to this job" rumors had been before. The following two years brought 7-6 records with bowl losses in which his teams looked flat and lost. The game was passing the Head Ball Coach by; and he seemed to realize it, given that he began correcting those who turned the phrase into the "Ol' Ball Coach."
But this year was going to be the year, if it was ever going to happen. Tim Tebow had left Gainesville, and Florida wasn't looking good in its first year without him. Georgia had gone 8-5 last year, and things only got worse to open the season; Tennessee was on its third head coach in as many years.
The campaign started out strong, with a win against then-No. 1 Alabama being the first showing of the "New Carolina." Earlier editions of South Carolina would have folded the moment Stephen Garcia tossed a football out of the end zone for a safety with a lead to begin the second half; instead, the Gamecocks regrouped and pulled off the upset.
Over the last four weeks, though, the "Old Carolina" seemed to be returning. South Carolina lost to Kentucky after the Bama win, was too close to a loss at Vanderbilt despite an overwhelming statitistical advantage, was underwhelming in a two-touchdown victory against Tennessee, and got shelled at home by Arkansas -- a week before the most important game in the program's history. You cold almost see the ghosts of other prominent coaches who failed to awaken South Carolina saying, "That's why not."
But against Florida Saturday night, South Carolina inexplicably found its "A" game again. The Gamecocks played error-free football. They didn't lose game-changing turnovers. There were few of the reckless coaching decisions like the fake punt Spurrier called against Arkansas. Marcus Lattimore gained 212 yards and three toucdowns on 40 carries en route to becoming the leading single-season freshman rusher in school history. Stephen Garcia, Alshon Jeffery and Co. didn't have the flashiest day in the passing game, but they did everything that was called for under the game plan.
The Gamecocks' defense, which seemed lifeless against Arkansas, was stifling. Florida's rushing attack had 35 yards on 20 carries; its three-quarterback combo averaged 4.9 yards per pass. Aside from John Brantley's 130 yards passing, no Florida player had more than 50 yards in any single offensive category. South Carolina forced two turnovers. After returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown, Florida wouldn't score again until there was 7:12 left in the fourth quarter.
By then, the game was almost over. South Carolina was rolling to victory with an iconic Gator at the head of the pack. You could argue that Steve Spurrier truly became a Gamecock on Saturday, and South Carolina truly became an SEC team after almost 20 years in the conference.
Of course, an SEC East title is not the destination Spurrier and his team envision. They want the championship that will be decided in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 4. To do that, South Carolina will need to defeat an Auburn team that won by eight points the last time the two met. That seems like an almost impossible task, but this brand of Gamecock has already done what no one thought they could. And it all started with that question more than five years ago.
Why not us?