The general started with a pretty good team and lost only 2 ( Vandy and Alabama) in his first seven years. How many undefeated teams has Spurrier had?
If a person were to build a Mt. Rushmore-style monument to SEC football coaches somewhere in the Smokies or the Ozarks, the debate over who should fill slots #3 and #4 on the mountain would likely grow pretty heated. Georgia’s Vince Dooley is the second winningest coach in history (all games included) from an SEC institution. Tennessee’s Robert Neyland ranks first in winning percentage in all-games and in all-SEC game coached. Were it not for his military service, there’s no telling what numbers he could have posted. Ole Miss’ Johnny Vaught and Georgia’s Vince Dooley rank #3 and #4 respectively in terms of all-time wins in conference games.
The debate could rage for days.
But there would be no argument over who’d take up the first two slots on such a shrine — Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant and South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier.
Bryant is a legend. Say his name anywhere in the country and even non-football fans will likely recognize his name today, 30 years after he hung up his houndstooth hat. The more Spurrier wins at Carolina, the more he closes in on Bryant territory. And the more the man with the visor distances himself from everyone else in SEC coaching history.
In terms of all-time SEC wins, Bryant ranks first with 159 (22 while at Kentucky and another unimaginable 137 at Alabama). Spurrier is #2 all-time with 120 counting his 4-0 mark to begin the 2012 season (87 wins came at Florida, 33 have come so far at Carolina).
More impressive than simple win totals, however, is the fact that both coaches — Bryant and Spurrier — were builders. They didn’t take over programs at their heights, they either returned them to past glories or took them to new pinnacles altogether.
For comparison’s sake, let’s toss out Bryant’s lone season at Maryland back in 1945. Let’s also ignore Spurrier’s work in the USFL and NFL. Doing that, we’re left with three multi-season collegiate stops for each man. While Bryant toiled at Kentucky, Texas A&M (then a member of the Southwest Conference) and Alabama, Spurrier has worked at Duke (in the ACC), Florida and now South Carolina.
At each of those stops, Bryant and Spurrier improved the football fortunes of their employers. Below we’ll look at both coaches’ achievements and we’ll start with Bryant’s:
Paul “Bear” Bryant
Kentucky (8 seasons from 1946 to 1953)
In the five seasons prior to his arrival, the Wildcats were 17-27-3. In 1950 — Bryant’s fifth year in Lexington — the Cats finished 11-1, won their first ever SEC title, and defeated #1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. (In those days, the final polls came out prior to the bowl games and that allowed the Sooners to grab the national title.)
Bryant went 60-23-6 while at Kentucky. He took UK to four bowl games (they’ve only been to 11 other postseason games before or since). And they didn’t win a share of another SEC title until 1976. To date, 1950 is the Wildcats only stand-alone SEC championship in football.
Texas A&M (4 seasons from 1954 to 1957)
In the five seasons prior to his arrival, A&M had gone 20-26-5. But by Year Three of Bryant’s tenure in College Station he had the Aggies at 9-0-1 with a Southwest Conference championship under their belts.
Bryant went 25-14-2 in College Station. His league title in 1956 was the school’s first since 1941 and its last until 1967.
Alabama (25 seasons from 1958 to 1982)
In the five years prior to Bryant, the coach’s alma mater had gone 14-32-7. But by his fourth season in 1961, Bryant had nabbed the school’s first SEC title since 1953, rolled up an 11-0 record, and collected his first national championship.
All told, Bryant would go on to post a staggering 232-46-9 record at Alabama. He won or shared 13 Southeastern Conference championships and won the school six national titles according to the major polls. Bryant stepped down after the ’82 season and Alabama wouldn’t win a portion of another conference crown until Bill Curry captured part of the 1989 title.
Alabama has been to a remarkable 58 bowls all-time. That’s 34 without Bryant… 24 with him.
Duke (3 seasons from 1987 to 1989)
In the five seasons prior to Spurrier’s arrival, Duke mustered a 19-36 record. After a 5-6 season in his first year, Spurrier posted winning records in Durham in his final two years on the job. His 1989 team finished 8-4, went to a bowl game, and won Duke’s first ACC title since 1962. The Blue Devils haven’t captured another ACC crown since.
Overall, Spurrier finished 20-13-1 at Duke and his one bowl trip came 29 years after Duke’s last bowl trip. The school has been to only one postseason game since.
Florida (12 seasons from 1990 to 2001)
In the five years before Spurrier returned to his alma mater, the Gators had gone 35-22.1. They had never in school history won an SEC championship (thanks to NCAA violations in 1985). But in Spurrier’s first year, his team finished 9-2 and would have won a piece of the crown if not for, yep, NCAA violations committed by UF’s previous regime.
The Ol’ Ball Coach would go on to compile a 122-27-1 mark in Gainesville. He would officially win six SEC championships and the school’s first-ever national title in 1996. He did so in the age of the SEC Championship Game when shared titles became an impossibility.
Florida has been to 39 bowls in more than a century of football. Spurrier led them to 11 of those postseason affairs.
South Carolina (8 seasons from 2005 to the present)
In five years prior to Spurrier’s arrival, South Carolina had gone 33-26 overall. They had never won so much as a division title since joining the SEC in 1992 and they hadn’t won a conference title of any kind since their lone ACC championship in 1969. In Spurrier’s sixth season, the Gamecocks captured their first East Division crown. Currently they are undefeated halfway through their 2012 conference slate and from the looks of their defense they have a darn good shot of reaching Atlanta again this December.
Overall, Spurrier is 61-35 in Columbia counting his 6-0 mark this season. Of the school’s 17 bowl trips all-time, Spurrier is responsible for six of them.
Spurrier’s career has shadowed that of Bryant’s. Both had short, multi-year stints outside the SEC (Bryant at Texas A&M for four years and Spurrier at Duke for three seasons). Both took their alma maters to great heights (Bryant’s six national crowns easily trump Spurrier’s lone championship, of course). And most impressively, perhaps, both took over programs that were simply horrible in football and turned them into winners… Bryant at Kentucky and Spurrier at South Carolina.
The two men coached in different eras. Everything from the number of games on the schedule to the size of the SEC to the way a national titlist is chosen to the color of the athletes on the field has changed from Bryant’s one year at Maryland in 1945 to the current environment Spurrier inhabits. For that reason, it will be hard for Spurrier or anyone else to ever truly equal — much less surpass — Bryant’s success in the Southeastern Conference. That’s no knock on Bryant, but his numbers came in a different era. They can’t be compared directly to today’s numbers, but that means they can also never be trumped.
Even so, what Spurrier has done in turning Carolina into an SEC and national championship contender clearly helps to separate him from the many other great coaches not named Bryant who’ve stalked the SEC’s sidelines over the past eight decades.
No disrespect to all those other legendary figures, but when it comes to SEC football coaches there’s Bryant, there’s Spurrier, and there’s everyone else. What Spurrier is currently doing in Columbia should make that crystal clear.