In the storied, hall-of-fame career of Steve Spurrier, his work in 2011 should be listed right atop his resume. Leading South Carolina to its first-ever 11-win season — and doing so while surviving the loss of two key players — was top-notch work. Fittingly, the coach was more than ready to praise his team and enjoy the aftermath of the school’s 30-13 Capital One Bowl rout of Nebraska yesterday:
“The record speaks for itself as the best team ever. … This is about as big as it gets for me. I love it.”
He should. The man who is now just three wins shy of 200 for his career came to Carolina to prove that he could still build a college football program. He had done so at Duke. He had done so at Florida. But a two-year foray into the NFL had left his reputation slightly dented. And when he took over in Columbia in 2005, not many people outside the Palmetto State believed the coach could strengthen a program that had spent most of the last century getting its beak kicked in.
Carolina needed Spurrier to put the school on the football map. Spurrier needed Carolina if he was going to regain his status as a master builder.
Done and done.
At Duke, Spurrier won an ACC title in 1989. That’s no easy feat, but even in the Blue Devils’ championship season, the team finished just 8-4 (2-3 out of conference). That’s great work, but certainly not Spurrier’s best.
At Florida from 1990 through 2001, the coach never won fewer than nine games in a season. He cracked the 10-win barrier nine times. He won six SEC titles. And in 1996 he won the school’s first national championship. Again, that’s a remarkable feat, but Florida is a recruiting paradise and the school itself has deep, deep pockets.
South Carolina? It’s a school that ranks in the lower-half of the SEC in athletic budgets in the middle of a state that ranks in the bottom-half for population. Facing those obstacles, it took Spurrier a while to gain traction, but there’s little doubt he’s done that now.
Credit should go to his recruiting and to former top defensive aide Ellis Johnson, who has now departed to become head coach at Southern Miss. The talent level has risen at Carolina (see: Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney as two obvious examples) and Johnson’s defense allowed Spurrier to start winning even though his Fun n’ Gun offense failed to develop as it had at Florida.
But it was Spurrier himself who held everything together in 2011. When quarterback Stephen Garcia used up his ninth life and was finally dismissed from the Gamecock team, Spurrier leaned more heavily on Lattimore. When the phenomenal tailback was lost to a season-ending knee injury, Spurrier’s staff reworked Carolina’s attack to feature more zone read plays for new quarterback Conner Shaw.
When it appeared the Cocks would tumble minus Lattimore — he had provided 36% of the team’s total offense — USC instead found new ways to win. In other words, Spurrier wasn’t just plugging new players into his system. He adjusted his system to match the talents of his players. That’s quality coaching.
No, South Carolina didn’t win a national title this past season. And they didn’t win the SEC. Heck, USC didn’t even win the SEC East Division. But when you consider how far Spurrier has brought his Gamecock program in seven years — when you consider the “degree of difficulty” he faced in Columbia — there’s no question the coach did a tremendous job in 2011.
In fact, we at MrSEC.com feel he did his best job.