Late in the summer of 2006, more on a whim than anything else, I started a blog called Cock 'n' Fire. At the time, Steve Spurrier was about to begin his second season as head coach at South Carolina after putting together a mildly surprising 7-5 campaign in 2005. The trajectory of the program seemed to be going up. The site name was the same as the one Spurrier was using to describe his new offense and, in a way, it was emblematic of the New Carolina.
You see, I have been writing in whole or in part about Steve Spurrier for as long as I've been regularly writing about college football on the Internet. Cock 'n' Fire would grow into Garnet and Black Attack when the site moved over to the relatively young SB Nation network, and from Garnet and Black Attack I moved here in 2008. Spurrier is one of only three SEC head coaches who still have the same job as they did when I started blogging, the others being Les Miles and Mark Richt.
And an entire generation of South Carolina fans has grown up without knowing another head football coach. The average freshman who walked onto the campus in Columbia this August was eight years old when Steve Spurrier coached the Gamecocks for the first time. Thanks in no small part to Spurrier's efforts over the last decade, this fall's incoming class was six years old the last time South Carolina had a losing record.
That era, or at least Steve Spurrier's part of it, will end at noon today when Spurrier steps to the podium and announces that he is retiring after 25 years of serving almost exclusively as a head coach in the SEC. (There was the three-year interruption for his ill-fated voyage to the NFL and the resulting sabbatical.) In that time, he took both Florida and South Carolina to unprecedented heights. He revolutionized the game, particularly during his time in Gainesville. (One reason his job in Columbia was so hard was because of the behemoth he created in Florida and the scramble by other programs to catch up.) He became one of the most despised, most beloved and most fascinating figures in college football. Forever great and often small. Unflinchingly confident and unfailingly thin-skinned. Intensely competitive and totally balanced. A living contradiction walking around like he had a Coors Light in his hand and no shirt on his back, in part because he sometimes did.
So an era is ending for me as well. For the first time in almost a decade, I will be writing about college football and not Steve Spurrier. He will almost certainly hover over everything South Carolina does for the next few months, but the focus will be on playing out the string in the 2015 season and finding a new coach. The team will be less relevant than it was during Spurrier's heyday in Columbia. And whatever quips the Head Ball Coach might dispense will be from the cheap seats right next to the rest of us. I'm relieved, because I asked for this. And at the same time, I'm incredibly saddened. I might not have lost a friend, but I've lost the next-closest thing a writer can have. I've lost a subject.
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You have to understand that Steve Spurrier and South Carolina were not a natural fit in 2005. Four years earlier, in what would become to that point perhaps the greatest season in Gamecocks history, Spurrier had led Florida into South Carolina's first blackout and ruined the most impressive gameday atmosphere Columbia had ever seen. After beating the Gamecocks, Spurrier would try to calm the Florida beat reporters down by reminding them that the Gators hadn't beat some big, powerful team -- it was, he said, just South Carolina.
The comment stung. Even before that, Spurrier was no less hated in Columbia than he was in other cities in the SEC, with the possible exception of Athens and Knoxville. And now, he had pointed out with a simple swipe just where South Carolina stood in the SEC East pecking order at that time -- nowhere close to Florida. Georgia, yes, and Tennessee, maybe. But not anywhere near Steve Spurrier's team.
In retrospect, though, the combination of Spurrier and the South Carolina fan base was a near-perfect match. Both had a habit of shooting off their mouths, though Spurrier's boastfulness came from an air of superiority and Gamecocks fans' crowing stemmed from an inferiority complex. Both were extremely thin-skinned about criticisms, even more so when those criticisms were valid. And both hated Georgia with the power of 1,000 burning suns.
And then Spurrier won. He won more than any South Carolina coach had ever won before, not only amassing the largest number of raw victories in Gamecock history, but the best winning percentage among any coach with more than two years in Columbia and the longest streak of non-losing seasons. Spurrier took over a program that had never won 11 games in a season and the did so in back-to-back-to-back years.
Looking back now, it's obvious that it all had to end, because these things do end. With the exceptions of Nick Saban's Alabama and Les Miles' LSU, no one stays up in the SEC forever -- and that includes programs with a lot more history and prestige than South Carolina. A coach wins and becomes the most popular man in the state. He loses and sees his popularity decline, momentarily if he can turn things around and permanently if he can't. And then we move onto the next guy and see if he can manage the cycle any better. And with those few notable exceptions, he can't. Sunrise, sunset. Football's answer to the circle of life.
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All you're left with when that cycle is done are memories. And even for the second longest-tenured coach in South Carolina history, Steve Spurrier left a lot of those memories. They're the reason why even those of us who thought the time had come for Spurrier to retire are finding it difficult to come to terms with a future without him.
There was the five-game SEC winning streak in 2005, which included the first victory against Florida in decades and the first road win at Tennessee in history. For once, South Carolina fans were interested in other teams' games until the end of the year; had Kentucky upset Georgia in the latter's SEC finale, the Gamecocks would have gone to Atlanta. There were the near-misses of 2006, when only one of the Gamecocks' five losses came by more than a touchdown, and the heights of 2007 before a five-game losing streak brought everything crashing down for the first time.
And there are the personal memories for me. Sitting in the South Carolina heat on Sept. 11, 2010, as Marcus Lattimore introduced himself to the SEC and began the run toward Atlanta that every Gamecock fan had dreamed of. Sitting in the Georgia Dome later that year, with my father (an Alabama fan) beside me, watching South Carolina play Auburn for the SEC Championship. And on one level, it never mattered whether they won or lost -- it mattered that they were there in that moment, and I was there in that moment, and I got to share that moment with the man who introduced me to sports in general and this sport in particular, and taught me so many other, far more important things.
That is what we cherish about sports. In 20 or 25 years, no matter who takes over as head coach at South Carolina next and how well he does, or who takes over after that and how well he does, I'm not going to remember the scores of each of the 135 games South Carolina played under Steve Spurrier. I'm going to remember a handful of moments, of course, the brutal Marcus Lattimore runs, the acrobatic Alshon Jeffrey catches and the punishing Jadeveon Clowney hits. But mostly I'll remember the pride of an 11-win season, the pure fun of a trip to the SEC title game, the strange feeling that South Carolina fans could expect to win a game instead of dreading which new way the team would find to lose it.
No, Steve Spurrier never won the conference championship that was his self-proclaimed top goal in Columbia. But he brought me and South Carolina fans those memories and more. He brought us a sense of real hope. Maybe it lasts and maybe it leaves Columbia when he walks away from the podium later today. But it was there, and it was real, and it can never be taken away from us. For a decade of work, that's a lot of legacy for Steve Spurrier. And for those of us who watched him, cheered for him and wrote about him over the last 10 years, it's a lot to be grateful for.