For the last few years, as the South Carolina Gamecocks football team rose to heights that the program hadn't experienced in more than a century of history, there was one specter that haunted the dreams of Gamecock fans: When would Steve Spurrier retire?
After all, no one else has ever been able to do what Spurrier has done in Columbia. And the track record of programs that hire head coaches to replace legends has been mixed at best. It seemed inevitable that the end of Spurrier's tenure would be a negative for South Carolina, something that the Gamecocks should try to push as far into the future as possible.
But as Kentucky won in Columbia on Saturday night for the first time in 16 years -- the first time since South Carolina went 0-11 during Lou Holtz's first season -- it became clear that Steve Spurrier leaving his position as head coach of the Gamecocks would not be the worst thing that could happen to the program. It became clear, at least to this me, that it is time for Steve Spurrier to retire.
I don't type those words with any joy or even any anger, though there was certainly some of the latter as I watched South Carolina once again fall victim to the kinds of mistakes that have led a program that went 42-11 over a four-year span from 2010-13 to slump to 8-7 since the beginning of last season. I have always thought I would be one of the last South Carolina fans to abandon Spurrier or even suggest that he should go, because I have such a deep appreciation for what he has done in Columbia and because I like his attitude and outlook on college football. I love the fact that he's able to keep football in perspective and have fun both with the game and his comments about it.
At this point, though, the only way for Spurrier to preserve his legacy and allow someone else to build on what he leaves behind is for him to quietly tell Athletics Director Ray Tanner that he will retire at the end of the season. Otherwise, he risks doing the kind of damage to South Carolina's program that Jackie Sherrill did to Mississippi State in his last few seasons, or that Bobby Bowden did to Florida State before finally giving way to Jimbo Fisher. And given the lack of a head-coach-in-waiting and the similarities between their places in the recruiting world, a messy denouement for Spurrier is more likely to lead to the decade-plus of recovery that Mississippi State faced after Sherrill's tenure than the relatively quick bounce-back we've seen in Tallahassee since Bowden's departure.
Recruiting is one of the major reasons that it is best if Spurrier retires now. Given his infamous two-or-three-years comments and how those remarks have wreaked havoc on the Gamecocks' recruiting class in 2015 and are likely to do the same in 2016, there is no longer any way that the Head Ball Coach can undertake the rebuilding process that is needed in Columbia. I am not one of those who believes that recruiting is destiny; if it were, then Missouri would not be the two-time defending champions of the SEC East and Ron Zook could start working on his remarks for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. But it is vital to the success of any program, and if you can't recruit well in the SEC, you're losing ground.
And losing ground is the thing that worries me the most about Saturday's loss. Isn't it possible that Kentucky is just a better team than it used to be, one person tweeted at me during the game. But even if that's true, it's part of the point. If Kentucky starts to consistently beat South Carolina and the Wildcats pass up the Gamecocks in the SEC East, Spurrier's program will be falling behind where it once was. Kentucky has now defeated South Carolina in back-to-back years for the first time since 1998-99, when the program went 1-21. South Carolina has come too far to return to that level.
The only plausible case that could be made for Spurrier staying around is the notion that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the Kentucky loss was a fluke or that Spurrier can find some MacGyver-esque way to squeeze seven or eight or even nine wins out of this team. Even if he can do that, though, it seems more like a way for him to exit gracefully than a reason for him to stick around. Because this team as it is currently constructed cannot consistently win 10 games, or get to the SEC Championship Game, or achieve any of the other goals that have come to define success at South Carolina over the last few years.
The choice for South Carolina now is between two or three lost recruiting classes for no purpose other than seeing if Spurrier has another magical season in him, or taking a risk on hiring a new coach and giving him two or three season to try to rebuild the program. Steve Spurrier will not stick around Columbia for a five-year rebuilding plan, or likely even a three-year renovation. A new coach would. Lorenzo Nunez could be a quarterback of the future for a team that has a future; but he will need a team around him, and it's increasingly unlikely that Spurrier can recruit the players needed to build that team.
Who could take over for Spurrier? There are candidates out there. South Carolina alumnus Mark Dantonio will turn 60 before the next football season and has a nice set-up at Michigan State -- but despite his health issues, Dantonio might be able to coach another eight or ten years, and as Bear Bryant famously put it, coaches react differently when mama calls. Tanner could use the influx of cash from the conference's new media deals and play on Dantonio's sentiment for his alma mater and perhaps make a compelling pitch.
And there are others, I'm sure; young coordinators or head coaches at mid-major programs that deserve a chance to prove what they can do at an SEC program. Those hires aren't sure things, but no hire is a sure thing. And at this point, sticking with Spurrier might be the biggest gamble of all.
If Spurrier leaves now, the next coach will not have to deal with the kind of issues that Spurrier faced when he came into Columbia. Lou Holtz built a program on the cheap, then let it decay over the last few years of his tenure, culminating in an on-field fight with Clemson and players stealing things from the athletics department. Spurrier had to institute a nutrition plan at the program because players saw nothing wrong with walking across the street to a fast-food restaurant after practice. Having put in a decade at South Carolina, Spurrier has gone a different route than Holtz. He's actually built a modern SEC program. He should leave before he squanders that achievement in an increasingly hopeless pursuit of glory.
Spurrier is still a great coach. But he is no longer the coach that South Carolina needs. The greatest remaining service he can perform for South Carolina is to retire at the right time.
That time is now.