In the next seven months, Steve Spurrier will coach his 10th season at South Carolina, his 30th as a coach and turn 70 years old.
Spurrier sat down with The State for a wide-ranging interview that includes what he has accomplished with the Gamecocks, what he hasn’t yet and what the future might hold for the Head Ball Coach. Along the way, he discusses Alabama football coach Nick Saban, UCLA coaching legend John Wooden and the 2014 Gamecocks.
Spurrier, who spent 12 seasons at Florida, is 77-39 in nine seasons at South Carolina, including 41-31 in the SEC. South Carolina is coming off three straight 11-win seasons but has not played in the SEC championship game since 2010.
“There’s more to life than the SEC championship,” Spurrier said. “The most victories in any four-year period prior to 2010 was 28, and we’ve managed to do 42 in the last four years,” Spurrier said. “That’s a pretty good increase. Hopefully, we can continue as we go.”
Q: After having Stephon Gilmore, Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, you don’t have a marquee national player this year. Now that that group is gone, do you have to do things differently than you have the past four years?
A: Going into last season, on the preseason All-SEC (team), only Kentucky had fewer than us. We had (Jadeveon) Clowney as a first-teamer, obviously. I think maybe A.J. Cann and Kelcy Quarles were second team. It wasn’t like we were loaded with preseason all-conference guys or anything like that, but with Connor Shaw, two starting defensive backs, Jimmy Legree and Victor (Hampton), they both played well, and Kelcy Quarles and Clowney so it’s a little different but not all that much, I don’t think. We’re confident Dylan (Thompson) is going to play well. He has played enough to give us all hope and confidence he can play this game. He’s actually a little bit of a similar situation to when I coached at Duke, ’87, ’88, ’89, we had a fifth-year senior quarterback Anthony Dilweg, who came in the same year with Steve Slayden. Slayden became the starter and Dilweg had a redshirt year. He had to pack his entire college career into one year. Dylan is in a little bit the same situation. He knows he’s going to get to be the starter the whole season, and he’s really preparing, I think, to be the very best he can be.
Q: Do you have a No. 2 quarterback?
A: No, not yet. It’d still be Connor Mitch, Perry Orth, (Brendan) Nosovitch, and the new kid, Michael Scarnecchia. I think Dylan told somebody the other day, ‘This guy tries to learn everything he can.’ He’s been impressive just with his attitude and picking up the system. This summer, the coaches are allowed to meet a couple hours a week with them. Scarnecchia is just a true freshman. When we recruited him, we told him he would most likely be redshirted, but we will see how he does. If he’s good enough to play, we’ll find out.
Q: The past three years, you have won 11 games, but you haven’t been back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game since 2010. Are you beginning to get a little itch about that, or is that just the way it falls?
A: That’s just the way it’s happened. To go 6-2 in the conference, which is the best record ever for South Carolina – and we did it three years in a row – how can you be upset? We are disappointed that we beat the division winner and they never lost again, but give them credit. Give the other guy credit. Jack Nicklaus finished runner-up 19 times in the majors. Of course, he won 18, but every time he finished runner-up, he shook the hand of the other guy and said, ‘Well done, you beat me.’ Missouri ran the table after we beat them. People kept asking me, I said, ‘If they win it all, I’ll call coach (Gary) Pinkel and congratulate him,’ and that’s exactly what I did. But the other side of that is something I have learned from being here – there’s more to life than the SEC championship. I would still say that’s the biggest goal we could reach right there, but total wins, where you are ranked, the state championship, bowl victories. Winning that bowl game just makes life so much more pleasant until you play again. In sports, we are all as good as our last game. If you win that bowl game, the fans, the team, it just gives you a good feeling heading into the offseason. We have been able to do that the last three years, go 11-2 and win the state championship. We’ve had a lot to brag about but not the SEC. We are still going to try to win an SEC, that’s for sure, and hopefully real soon.
Q: If I had told you in 1997, ‘There’s more to life than the SEC championship,’ would you have agreed? Would that have been good enough?
A: Well, my last year at Florida, we did not win the SEC. We had a heck of a team in 2001, we won the state championship, beat FSU, won the Orange Bowl and finished No. 3 in the nation, and we were disappointed because our expectations obviously were to win the SEC, which we did seven of the 12. So it’s different. Your expectations and what you achieve are different at every school. Every school is different. For example, at Alabama, if I had had five No. 1 recruiting classes in the last six years like Alabama, I would say, ‘Fellas we are going to mess up if we lose a game, because we’ve got the best players in college football.’ But we’re not in that situation. Our history is not all that super before we got here, so everything is sort of relative to each school. Maybe what their past has been and which direction they are headed. But to finish in the top 10 three years in a row when our school has never done that, to win 11 games three years in a row, our school has never done that, that’s been fun, no question.
Q: Is it more enjoyable to be able to appreciate more of the steps along the way? Is that a nicer way to live your life?
A: It’s just the way it is. You set your goals. We set a lot of goals. We set about 10 or 11 goals every year. We hit everything except the division and the SEC last year. That’s a wonderful year. Actually, the year at Florida that we won the national championship, we had the goal to win them all that year because we had a team that was capable. Our team goals, and I’m sure they will probably be very similar this year, we start with winning eight. We were setting our goals one year and Damario Jeffery said, ‘Coach, we don’t need to put that eight on there do we? We’re past that.’ I said, ‘No, no, Damario, we are not past that. We are going to start with eight.’ If we get some injuries and we lose some close ones, and it’s late in the year, we are still going to try to win eight. Fortunately, we have gone to eight, nine, 10 and 11. We try to win all the home games. We try to beat Clemson, that’s always one there. Win the bowl game and finish in the top 10. That’s a real good year. Didn’t get all of it, but that’s a good year. You know what’s funny, just talking about relative, in 2005, the Little Rock Touchdown Club gave me the SEC coach of the year and we were 7-5, lost the bowl game and ended up 7-6. In 2010, I think I got one of the coach of the years, too. The last three years, I’ve gotten no coach of the years and we’ve gone 11-2. I also ask people, ‘How many upsets you think we’ve had in these 11 victories?’ They will guess five or six. I say, ‘No, no, we are favored in most of them.’
Q: So are these past three years some of your best coaching jobs?
A: Oh, I don’t know. My coaching, I hope, is very consistent every year. That’s what I try to do. Then the players and the bounce of the ball sometimes determines the number of wins. It’s as simple as that. Good quarterback that doesn’t make mistakes, like Connor Shaw. Connor was really good almost all the time. He wasn’t perfect a few games on the road, but at home here, he really was good.
Q: Is it more surprising to you that you are on the verge of 10 years at South Carolina or that you’re on the verge of 70 years old?
A: Neither one. Pat Dooley, he kept saying, ‘I predict you’ll be at South Carolina longer than you were at Florida.’ He keeps telling me that. I say, ‘I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes, see how it goes.’ The age thing really has nothing to do with your mental or physical fitness. If you read all the books, your health is determined by what your mental and physical and fitness is. I played golf the other day with some guys, and we were coming in and the guy said, ‘I parred the second hole and you’ve got me down for a five.’ I said, ‘No, no, you remember, you putted below the hole and then you missed a little four-footer to the left.’ He said, ‘Hey, you’re right.’ I don’t know why I remember, but I remember what everybody did on every hole. My buddy said, ‘What’d I do on 15?’ I said, ‘You missed the green and you chunked it and you chunked it and you chipped up and made double bogey.’ I don’t know why I remember all that, but I just do. I don’t know what that says, but the other guy couldn’t remember one hole from the other. I still think I’m pretty capable of calling the plays and running the offense and being the head coach. But we do have an excellent group of assistant coaches. These guys carry the bulk of the load. These recruits, these guys do a super job of bringing them in, getting them here and they can certainly coach their position also. It’s really been interesting with these out-of-state kids. Everybody is looking at South Carolina, their players stay out of trouble, they are not in the newspaper for drugs or DUIs or fights and they are winning, their guys go to the NFL that are good enough and they graduate their guys. We have a good program, and it’s not me so much as all the support staff people – Maria Hickman, the lady that is in charge of our academic program. But it starts with the president, (Harris) Pastides, athletic director Ray Tanner, and it spreads out to all the coaches. At one point, somebody said, ‘Three of our top four programs are in the top five right now.’ We have been able to get players from Virginia, Alabama, they want to look at South Carolina now. Northeast players are coming through. It’s sort of neat.
Q: Are you still thinking the same about how long you will coach?
A: All coaches go under the assumption they are going to be there four or five more years. I’ve been doing that since I was about 55, probably, so I am still going under that assumption. You don’t see many people retire anymore. You see them get fired. When a coach gets in his 60s or more and his team is not doing very well, they have to make a change. One of my biggest goals as a coach is to never get fired because very, very few can say they didn’t get fired or get run off or forced to resign. Obviously, I would like to go out on top, whenever that is.
Q: What does “on top” mean? A championship?
A: Well, have a very good year. You don’t want to go out as a loser, and it can happen. All you have to do is look around a little bit. Who would have thought Florida would go 4-8. Georgia didn’t finish in the Top 25. I remember one year Texas was preseason No. 4 or 5 and went 5-7 or something like that. It can go bad if you don’t watch it.
Q: Aren’t you unfireable here, though?
A: If president Pastides walked in here and said, ‘Steve, you need to probably resign. We are going to have the announcement day.’ I’d say OK, because that means somebody else he thinks would be better at this time.
Q: But with what you have done here and the point you are at in your career, you’re going to get to decide your own end, don’t you think?
A: No, I don’t think anybody ever is in that position. Heck no. Heck no. That’s how people get fired, thinking they are unfireable. If I go bad, they need to get rid of me. Just like if Ray Tanner goes bad, the president has got to get rid of him. If the president goes bad, the trustees have got to get rid of him. We all know that. We are on the line every day. Everything is pretty good right now, but if somebody goes bad, the next person is ready. That’s how you’ve got to be in life. You go bad, you go out drinking and don’t come cover the ball games, you’ll be gone too.
Q: In your nine seasons at USC, did you ever get close to leaving?
A: At times, after a loss or this, that and the other. … When it’s not going very well, something mentally says, ‘How much more of this you want?’ Then all of a sudden you win and game and, ‘OK, life’s pretty good.’ But I think that’s just natural feeling. Gosh, if we ever lost about three in a row around here, I’d be like, ‘Gosh what am I doing?’ But we’ve got a good team and good players, but still there is a chance we could lose two or three in a row, I know that. But I think that’s just human nature if you have done something a long period of time and it looks like it’s going bad, that’s your natural feeling. Fortunately, we have not lost three in a row in a long time. We are winning the close ones now. It’s really been an amazing run the last three years. Kentucky and Vandy could have beat us on our home field last year. We have had some good fortune all the way up and down. Hopefully, it’ll keep going.
Q: When you go to Destin, Fla., for the SEC meetings and listen to them talk about all the money and to Hoover, Ala., for the annual SEC Media Days and see the hundreds of media members there, do you ever shake your head at the circus the league has become?
A: That’s what A.D.s and presidents talk about because there is so much money involved. Certainly, I wish they would find a way, which is not complicated, to give some expense money to college football and college basketball players. There is so much money coming in. I know people say, ‘What about all the other sports?’ The fact is, college football and basketball players, most of them come from difficult backgrounds. Their parents can’t send them $400 or $500 every month for spending money the way a lot of the other sports performers have. If they based it on need, athletes in whatever sport could share in the surplus of money we have. In 2015, supposedly something is going to happen, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch something is going to happen until it does. I certainly hope something happens. At the SEC Meetings, I made a suggestion to (SEC) commissioner (Mike) Slive. I said, ‘Why don’t we just give $200 to 75 football players every game and $200 to the parents or guardians of those football players. That’s $400 per game for 75 players, half to the players, half to the parents. That’s only $30,000 a ball game, very simple. Parents have a little bit of money. Players have just a little bit of money. It would go a long way to helping everybody, but as you can tell, nothing will happen with it.
Q: Why is John Wooden one of your coaching idols?
A: My daughter, Amy, gave me John Wooden’s latest book, Pat Williams wrote this one, and his greatest secret was just doing all the little things right, doing the fundamentals. All of his philosophy of coaching, I have really tried to learn from and do a lot of the things he talks about. He kept it very simple. He said he’d scout the opponent. They needed to know who their best shooter was and what kind of defense they play. He said, ‘We had an idea of how they played, but we didn’t study them up and down, every player and his weakness.’ He said, ‘We worried about our guys. We wanted our guys mentally, physically sharp and ready to play every time out.’ Another one of his sayings was you treat your players the way they deserve to be treated. You don’t treat everybody equal. People aren’t equal in life. That helped me along the way – and all of us last year. Jadeveon was in a very unusual situation. He did not have to play last year. He could have come in and said, ‘Coach, I am a fool to play and risk injury when I can financially secure myself, my family.’ He could have said that, and I would have said, ‘You know what? You are right.’ He didn’t play two games. We got flexible, but I tell you what, when that Wisconsin game was over and we had won, he had a bigger smile than all of us. He was hugging everybody.
Q: What are your impressions of this year’s team?
A: We get to watch some of the (summer) workouts now, and I was down there and guys were running around all over the place, nobody was sitting down. I said to (strength coach) Joe Connolly, ‘We’ve got a pretty good bunch of guys don’t we?’ He said, ‘Coach, attitude wise, this is, by far, the best group of guys since I have been here.’ It used to be voluntary in the summers. We had a starter last year who said, ‘Coach, it’s voluntary isn’t it? I just couldn’t make it yesterday.’ You can’t punish them. Now you can run them or do something. He said, ‘There are no ego guys.’ We don’t have any big stars. I think they are going to gel together pretty well, but what that means, nobody knows until we start playing. It is a group of players with wonderful attitudes.
Q: How impressive is the 18-game home winning streak to you?
A: Good luck to the next guy who tries to break it when it ends. And the last four years, 26-2 at home is pretty good, too. The kids who have been going to college here, they are used to coming out of this place a winner. We lost to Arkansas and Auburn. Arkansas beat us pretty good. That Auburn game we sort of let get away, but that game got Connor Shaw in the box I guess, so it worked out in the long run maybe, who knows?