If there ever was, there's no question about it after this season: Steve Spurrier is the greatest coach in the history of South Carolina football. Most of the people who questioned Spurrier's sanity when he set up shop in Columbia several years ago can at least see some of what Spurrier saw, or at least have to concede that the decision wasn't as bad as it looked at the time.
Spurrier loves to brag about the first time something has been done at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks achieved several firsts this year. The three-game winning streak against Georgia marks the first time the Gamecocks have ever won that many in a row against the Dawgs. The four-game run against Clemson matches the high for consecutive wins in that series. This year brought the second consecutive 11-win season, after last year became the first 11-win year in program history. South Carolina has never been ranked in three consecutive years, as it is now. Oh, and Spurrier has become the winningest coach in South Carolina history. He did so with 32 fewer losses than the former winningest coach, Rex Enright.
But there's one question that still looms over Spurrier, and will until he finally decides to take off the headset for good: How long is this going to last? After all, the now 67-year-old Spurrier has long made a show of not being the kind of guy who spends his entire life thinking about football. And he's long sent signals that he does not want to be carried out of the stadium in a hearse.
"I’m not going to coach a lot longer," he said. "I’m not going to be a lifer, to where you coach until they run you out."
How you define "a lot longer" could tell us a lot about when South Carolina has to make one of the most fateful decisions in the history of its program. It's now clear that Florida can handle hiring a Ron Zook and Notre Dame can handle hiring a Bob Davie (and a Tyrone Willingham and a Charlie Weis) and still find a great coach to lead the program later.
But for the Gamecocks, this could be an all-or-nothing hire coming up. The good news is that Spurrier has made Columbia a better landing place that anyone could have imagined eight years ago; the bad news is that Ray Tanner or his successor as athletics director will have to make the right call when sifting through the applications, or it could set back a lot of what Spurrier has built.
So how long is a lot longer? Spurrier's pat answer used to be that he was ready to coach for four or five more years. A couple of years ago, he noted out loud that he was reducing that answer to three or four more years. But he hasn't revised the estimate since. And the two-year contract extension that was inked in December was as much for recruiting purposes as anything else, as Tanner acknowledged.
Part of this is probably what Spurrier accomplishes over the next few seasons. If he can wrap up an SEC title and a BCS appearance -- or, come 2014, an improbable trip to the new college football playoffs -- it's likely that Spurrier would like to ride off into the sunset as a hero. (At that point, South Carolina's main campus might very well be located in a city named Spurrierville.) If the next couple or three seasons produce more close calls, Spurrier might stick things out until he can't take it any more, just to give him a chance to get the SEC championship that he has made the central focus of his time at South Carolina.
The question becomes more interesting if Spurrier's teams take a step back at some point. If Spurrier has a couple of seven- or eight-win seasons -- something that seems unlikely but not impossible -- does he decide to take off before he's tarnished too much of his legacy? Or does he decide to try to rebuild what he's lost, a decision that's had a mixed record among those who have tried it?
The only person who knows the answer to those questions, of course, is Steve Spurrier. And he's not saying anything, at least not in his customarily blunt terms. So South Carolina fans hope he keeps calling ball plays for a few years more, and that the Gamecocks administration will be ready for the moment when Spurrier decides to start working on his Hall of Fame induction speech.