clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Steve Spurrier Turned Around the South Carolina Gamecocks

After his first five years at South Carolina, it looked like Steve Spurrier had hit a rut and the experiment had failed. Four years later, Spurrier is the winningest coach in school history. How did he do it?


He's not really interrupting me, and certainly not correcting me. In some ways, it's one of those outbursts of truth that we've come to expect from Steve Spurrier. Or maybe he's just trying to prod me to get to the question after a couple of sentences of background that we're both too familiar with.

We're in one of the several side room as SEC Media Days, because Spurrier draws so many questions in the main room that not everyone gets a chance to ask one. But I wanted to hear his thought on something that interests me both as a South Carolina fan and someone who writes regularly about the SEC.

What happened?

"Coach, you’ve mentioned a couple of times you’ve won 33 games over the last three years, you won the SEC East before that," I had begun. "Before that, though, there were several kind of 7-6, 8-5 seasons."

"Lot of ‘em," Spurrier interjected.

To be precise, Spurrier had experienced five seasons at the beginning of his South Carolina tenure where his record had ended up between 6-6 and 8-5. But for someone who had never experienced back-to-back five-loss seasons as a college head football coach, five of them in a row probably seems like a lot.

I continued with the question.

"What were the things that changed? What do you think has allowed you to have the success you’ve had the last four years?"

David Manning -- USA TODAY Sports

Because there was, in a sense, no real explanation for it. In retrospect, it's easy to look back at Stephen Garcia and Marcus Lattimore and figure that of course South Carolina was bound to turn things around. But after the 2009 season, Spurrier was 35-28 in Columbia -- perhaps the best record in at least a half-century for a coach who had served five years at South Carolina, but not what Spurrier or Gamecock fans had envisioned when he took over for Lou Holtz after the sloppy denouement of the 2004 season.

Five years after he took over in Columbia, fans from other SEC teams were starting to crow that Spurrier's best days were behind him. The swagger was gone. The only question was how long Spurrier would stick things out at South Carolina, and whether he would ever get to a postseason game more prestigious than the Outback Bowl. Now, Spurrier is getting ready to begin his tenth season at the helm of South Carolina, with a team that is one of the front-runners to win the SEC East.

What happened?

Spurrier's answer, surprisingly, didn't start with ball plays or offense or even recruiting -- though it got there soon enough. It started with money.

* * *


Well, first of all, we’ve got some donors that have given some big money, over a million bucks -- I think we’ve got 12 or 13 now, and when I got there we had one, and her name was on the stadium. Mrs. Williams-Brice gave a little over two million, I think, back in 1972, I believe it was. And her name will be on the stadium forever. And then since then, not until about 2005, we found a lady, Dodie Anderson, who was in a position to give a lot of money -- and now we’ve recruited about 11, 12 more others. And, so our facilities are in good shape -- that’s what I’m trying to say. Our facilities are right there amongst the best.

Of course, Spurrier thought the Gamecocks facilities were among the best when he first took the job in late 2004 -- or at least he said so. By 2006, he had changed his mind, and was going around encouraging fans to give more to the athletics department. "I'm not talking about 98 percent of our fans who contribute loyally every year and do all they can, I'm talking about the 2 percent of the wealthy who can step up and really make a difference for us," he said.

I'm talking about the 2 percent of the wealthy who can step up and really make a difference for us-Steve Spurrier

Meanwhile, Athletics Director Eric Hyman crafted a nearly $200 million facilities plan covering football and several other sports. Upgrades to Williams-Brice -- which was a drab, gray stadium when I attended as an undergrad and is now accented with garnet and signs touting past achievements -- and the fairgrounds outside are among the changes visible to fans. But there have also been improvements to the training room and locker room. There's "the Dodie," a 40,500-square-foot academics facility that cost $13 million to build, and which was named after Anderson. South Carolina is also working on a $14.5 million indoor practice facility and new practice fields outside of it, not to mention additional upgrades outside the stadium.

Not all of that is built straight from the university's cash flow, of course. Large construction projects tend to be funded through bonds, but new revenue also expands a university's ability to take on debt. And thanks both to contributions to the program and revenue streams like the SEC's television contracts, South Carolina's revenues have grown rapidly over the last several years.

According to the USA Today financial database, contributions to the South Carolina athletics department have grown from $16.2 million in 2005 to almost $25.9 million in 2013. (Not all of these are individual contributions, but it's as workable and complete a figure as can be found over an extended period of time.) And big donor figures have been part of the change; 10 individuals or couples had given a total of $1 million to South Carolina athletics by the end of the 2013 budget year, up from six as recently as 2011. Three more have pledged to give that much.

Of course, there are other sources of the new money as well. Rights and licensing income -- largely in the form of TV deals -- has swelled from almost $12.6 million in 2005 to more than $31.2 million in 2013.


And so the in-state kids, Mr. Football, Stephon Gilmore, No. 1 round pick of Buffalo a few years ago -- we got him to come. And then Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney, Alshon Jeffrey. And once you get the best player in your state, then you can get a lot of the other good players in the state, and then maybe -- the Atlanta area’s a wonderful recruiting area for us -- two and a half hour drive, Georgia can’t get ‘em all, I say. Actually, we’re sort of getting some now that Georgia was after, but not until just really the last several years. We’ve sort of built it up because of the facility improvement, getting the best guys in our state, and then that allows you to spread out a bit and get the ballplayers.

When Spurrier arrived in Columbia in late 2004, it had been almost three years since Mr. Football had signed with the Gamecocks: Moe Thompson, a defensive end who won the honor in 2001. Thompson was the third South Carolina recruit holding the position, following Jermale Kelly in 1995 and Derek Watson in 1998.

But from 2008-2011, the Gamecocks signed four straight Mr. Footballs: Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney and Shaq Roland. Three have already been major contributors to the team's recent success, and Roland will almost certainly have to play well this year for South Carolina to live up to its ranking.

And as far as the effect on recruiting, the approach appears to have worked. From 2003-2008, a six-year time frame that includes the last two classes signed by Lou Holtz, the Holtz-Spurrier transitional class and three full years of Spurrier signees, South Carolina signed 11 four- and five-star recruits from the state of South Carolina, according to Rivals -- an average of 1.8 a year and just shy of 23 percent of the all such recruits from the state. Three times, South Carolina signed a single four- or five-star recruit from the Palmetto State, and only once did the Gamecocks sign more than two.

MARCUS LATTIMORE | Frankie Creel -- USA TODAY Sports

And then, beginning with the 2009 class, something changed. South Carolina reeled in five four- or five-star recruits that year, followed by four in 2010. Over the six signing days from 2009-2014, the Gamecocks signed 17 high-level recruits from South Carolina, an average of 2.8 a year and more than 33 percent of all four- or five-star recruits. The Gamecocks signed at least three of those recruits from South Carolina in all but two years (2012 and 2013).

Rivals Scout
South Carolina
Clemson Others South Carolina
Clemson Others
2003 2 1 1 4 1 1
2004 2 1 4 0 1 3
2004 1 3 4 1 2 4
2006 1 3 3 0 2 3
2007 4 4 2 4 3 3
2008 1 7 4 1 3 2
2009 5 4 4 4 3 4
2010 4 3 6 2 3 4
2011 3 2 1 4 2 1
2012 1 2 2 2 3 1
2013 1 2 2 1 2 3
2014 3 1 5 3 1 4

The Scout rankings tell a similar story. South Carolina signed almost 1.7 four- or five-star recruits from the Palmetto State from 2003-2008, and almost 2.7 from 2009-2014. The share of four- or five-star recruits from South Carolina who signed with the Gamecocks rose from 26.3 percent to 34 percent. Scout has South Carolina signing four in-state, high-level recruits each in 2003 and 2007, but a total of two between the other four years from 2003-08 combined; only once since 2009 did South Carolina sign just one in-state upper-tier recruit (2013).

But that's not entirely a satisfying answer. The overall rankings for South Carolina's recruiting classes have bounced around under Spurrier, and even accounting for the four classes that take the field at a given time doesn't necessarily paint the picture of a program relentlessly on the rise. The rolling four-year average of Rivals rankings for South Carolina's classes is up from 18.75 from 2005-08 to 17.25 in 2010-14, but it's been higher at some points. Things are a bit more dramatic under the Scout rankings, where the Gamecocks have risen from 23.5 to 18 -- but that still doesn't feel like the entire difference between 7-6 and 11-2.


We’ve got an excellent group of coaches; they can coach, they can recruit, they do a lot. It allows me to play a little golf and travel around a little bit more. So we’ve got a good situation there.

There was one point, early in his tenure at South Carolina, where it looked like Steve Spurrier had broken through. The Gamecocks had beaten Houston in the Liberty Bowl in 2006 and then sprinted out to a 6-1 record the following year. The only loss was a 28-16 defeat at LSU, a team that would go on to win the national championship. South Carolina would climb all the way to No. 6 in the rankings, and with Vanderbilt and a shaky Tennessee team over the next two weeks, it seemed like a sure bet that the Gamecocks would find their way into the Top 5.

They never won another game that season.

At the end of the year, on a bitter cold night, I remember watching Clemson storm the field in Columbia right after the game-winning field goal went through the uprights. There was a picture floating around at the time of Spurrier at the game with a look of utter disgust on his face. In the last three weeks of the season, the defense had boosted Darren McFadden's Heisman hopes, then boosted Tim Tebow's Heisman hopes and then given up a go-ahead field goal in the waning seconds of perhaps the most important game of the year. South Carolina had fallen from 6-1 to 6-6 and would end up missing a bowl game.

Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix found a new job -- whether he went to Ole Miss willingly or not is anyone's guess -- after the end of the season. By late December, Spurrier had offered the job to Brian VanGorder, a proven defensive coordinator who had done a great job at Georgia. VanGorder lasted a little bit more than a month before he accepted a job with the Falcons, the team he had been with (albeit in a lower position) when Spurrier hired him.

Spurrier sniffed that he was going to do what he should have done in the first place and hired Ellis Johnson. I was skeptical. It might have been the best hire Spurrier's ever made.

In 2007, South Carolina allowed almost 378.1 yards a game; in Johnson's tenure, the team would allow more than 350 yards a game once. The 2007 Gamecocks allowed 5.18 yards a play; again, Johnson's team would surrender more than five yards a play in just one season. (In both cases, it was the 2010 SEC East-winning edition of the team, oddly enough.)

But it was what happened after the 2008 season that convinced many watching South Carolina from the outside that Spurrier was done. In that offseason, no fewer than six Gamecocks assistant coaches left the program. There were reasons for all the departures -- especially for the one by Ron Cooper, who announced at a coaches' meeting that he had secured the commitment of a player to whom he had been ordered not to offer a scholarship -- but it still looked bad. With an aging coach, it looked like a group of coaches trying to get a new job before the old job disappeared.

The guy hired to replace Cooper was Lorenzo Ward. When Ellis Johnson left after the 2011 season, Ward took over command of the defense and has largely kept things going.

LORENZO WARD | Jeremy Brevard -- USA TODAY Sports

The new offensive line coach was Eric Wolford, who lasted for a year before he got the head coaching job at Youngstown State. Spurrier turned to Shawn Elliott, then the offensive line coach at Appalachian State.  Elliott was also given the title of running game coordinator just as a player by the name of Marcus Lattimore was arriving on campus.

When Elliott took the job, South Carolina's last 1,000-yard rusher had been Derek Watson in 2000. Elliott has produced two 1,000-yard rushers in the last four years, almost certainly would have had another had Lattimore not gotten hurt in 2011 and would have had a decent shot at four straight years with someone eclipsing the mark if Lattimore hadn't gotten hurt in 2012. Perusing Phil Steele will tell you that their sack rate is better, if still a little elevated in some of Elliott's seasons, but the line is obviously playing better now than it was when Elliott arrived.

One other guy who was hired after the coaching exodus in 2008: G.A. Mangus, the quarterback coach responsible for Stephen Garcia's best season and the career of Connor Shaw.

When South Carolina went to the Georgia Dome for the SEC Championship in 2010, the coaching staff included Johnson, Ward, Elliott and Mangus. Cause and effect is always difficult to establish with something like coaching, but it's hard to look at that and say there's not a connection.

* * *

In a way, it's not really surprising to say that facilities, recruiting and coaching all played a role in South Carolina's emergence as a power in the SEC East. What is perhaps somewhat surprising is that Steve Spurrier -- who won a half-dozen SEC titles and a national championship at Florida doing things his way -- was able to oversee that kind of reinvention in the twilight of his career. This year, having blown away Rex Enright's record as the winningest coach in South Carolina history, Spurrier will tie him for the longest single tenure -- Enright was coach twice. If he coaches for two more seasons after this one, Spurrier will have spent as long at South Carolina as he spent at Florida; at SEC Media Days this year, he openly pondered the possibility of having a longer tenure in Columbia than he had in Gainesville.

But his age -- 69 -- and those looming milestones beg the question of who will take over whenever Spurrier decides to retire as the greatest coach in the history of two SEC schools. In a way, Spurrier has outlasted most of the most logical successors. Mark Dantonio, a South Carolina alumnus, is 58 and has experienced health issues. Charlie Strong, who coached at South Carolina under Lou Holtz, is certainly not going to leave Texas willingly to take the Gamecocks job. Gary Patterson might have made sense when Hyman, a former athletics director at TCU, was in Columbia and TCU was in the Mountain West, but neither is true anymore.

Kim Klement -- USA TODAY Sports

Increasingly, attention is turning to Elliott and Ward. Both are young and both have been a part of the revival of the Gamecocks. Ward would become a historic figure as the first African-American head football coach at South Carolina and make the university the fifth SEC school to hire an African-American for the job. For a state with one of the largest African-American populations in the country by percentage, hiring Ward to be one of the state's most visible figures would send a powerful message.

There are also pitfalls to hiring either. Ward has only had full control of the defense for two years, and it did slip a bit in 2013, though offensive numbers were up pretty much across the board in the SEC last year. There's also the question of whether Ward will stay in Columbia long enough to get the job; African-American coordinators who experience success in the SEC don't tend to remain coordinators for very long. Elliott, on the other hand, has never had full control of the Gamecocks on either side of the ball; he would arguably face a steeper learning curve than Ward, who is the de facto head coach of the defense.

For now, it doesn't appear to be an issue. After reviving the Gamecocks and his own coaching career, Steve Spurrier seems happy to play things out for a little while longer. He's survived what likely seemed like an interminable streak of mediocrity and is once again being talked about as one of the greatest head coaches in SEC history.

Why leave now? This is the fun part.