Steve Spurrier's tenure in Columbia has had two distinct periods so far, each of them spanning five seasons.
The first was the building phase, where the team won seven, eight, six, seven, and seven games, respectively. It was a time when Spurrier was learning how to change the Gamecock culture. It was a time of fits and starts. The first season, the team went 5-3 in SEC play and beat Florida (back when that was a big thing) on its home field. The subsequent team won eight despite falling to 3-5 in the conference. Spurrier's third team then started 6-1 and reached the top ten of the polls before losing five straight to close the year and not getting invited to a bowl despite the 6-6 finish. The next two teams seemed to settle into a groove of largely beating bad teams and losing to good ones.
It was the Head Ball Coach's sixth team that finally had a breakthrough, with a season-making upset of defending national champ Alabama on the way to the SEC Championship Game. The next three teams all won 11 games, which is an amazing achievement even if there wasn't a trip to Atlanta or BCS bowl berth in there. Last season was a significant drop off, but it still felt connected to the previous four years if for no other reason than Dylan Thompson and Mike Davis were still around. These second five seasons were a period defined by stars like Marcus Lattimore, Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, and Davis, among others.
If you've listened to Spurrier talk over the past few months, you might get confused about how much more time he'll coach there:
Spurrier future plan trending up -- Nov: 0 years. Dec: 2-3 years. Jan: 4-5 years. July: 6 years. https://t.co/KYcavBTEdd— Trav Haney (@TravHaneyESPN) July 26, 2015
But if we call it five more years, then he's heading into his third and final act with the Gamecocks.
Spurrier's emphatic midweek press conference was about recruiting as much as anything, and the early returns suggest that it worked. And while it was classic Spurrier—he even feuded with the media back when he was winning nearly annual SEC titles in the early '90s—it was also a different kind of Spurrier. He's backed into a corner, and he doesn't entirely seem like he knows how to handle it.
It's mostly his own doing, as his ill considered comment from last December about only coaching two or three more years is as much a reason why he's in that corner as anything. The fact that he fell down from 11-2 to 7-6 is another big reason why, as it feeds into the same kind of narrative about him being old and maybe not still having it anymore. Maybe the largest problem was defense, the part of the game he doesn't do much hands-on work with, but it's still his responsibility as head ball coach. That regression is ultimately no one's fault but his.
Spurrier seems convinced that bringing in Jon Hoke will solve a lot of the problems on defense, though some of them were going to be solved anyway by that terribly young unit getting a year older. That hire hasn't inspired as much confidence as some of the others in the conference, probably because Hoke's only DC experience outside of Spurrier's final three years at Florida was a single season at Kent State in 1993. If he's that great of a defensive mind, why has he been an NFL position coach for the past 13 years? Is this the coaching equivalent of him loading up on former Fun 'n Gun players while he was in Washington?
Also working against him is this year is the fact that he has to turn over some key cogs in his offense. He's had some transitional periods for recent starting quarterbacks, with Shaw splitting time with Stephen Garcia and Thompson splitting time with Shaw. The leader for the job out of the spring was Connor Mitch, who has six career pass attempts. Spurrier is so confident in the eventual named starter that he reminded everyone at SEC Media Days that there isn't a rule saying you can't win while playing multiple signal callers. There isn't yet an answer to whether someone can replicate Davis as a running back either. At least the receiving corps looks good with the electric Pharoh Cooper back and Deebo Samuel looking great in the spring game.
Linebacker Jasper Sasser also looked like a potential star in the spring game at the spur position. He was able to snag an interception and make some good plays despite the defense only playing two coverages all game. But even then, the fact that the defense had only two sets doesn't inspire confidence that the unit that collapsed last year can hope to get above just average this year.
Spurrier's goal at South Carolina has always been to win an SEC title, and if he's serious about coaching another half decade, he doesn't have to do it this fall. What he does need to do is bounce back from last season to prove to recruits and Gamecock stakeholders that years 11-15 can be better than 1-5 were. It won't be easy either. Spurrier's best four years came during a time when Florida and Tennessee were down, but Butch Jones has the Vols pretty close to back and the Gators no longer have a head coach who thinks offense is an annoyance. The SEC East of the next five years will probably be tougher than that of the past five. New cross-division rival Texas A&M appears for now to have a chance to be more consistently good than Arkansas was as well.
No one is more competitive than Spurrier is, so he'll keep fighting away. But there is no doubt that we're reaching the home stretch of his storied career, and it's hard not to think that 2015 will set the tone for the rest of the way.