The Head Ball Coach Hangs Up His Visor

South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier has resigned, effective immediately, bringing to an end the most successful era in South Carolina football history, and likely ending one of the greatest coaching careers in the history of the game.

The Head Ball Coach, as he calls himself, is stepping down after a poor start for his Gamecocks team, who are currently 2-4 halfway through his 11th season at the school, including a 0-4 record in conference play.

Spurrier says his reason for leaving is because of the team’s struggles, as they are 9-10 since the beginning of last season, saying that he hasn’t done a good enough job, and that someone else, in this case interim coach Shawn Elliott, should “have a go at it.”

Elliott is promoted to the interim role in his sixth season on the Gamecocks staff, having been the offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator.  Elliott, a Camden, S.C. native, came to South Carolina from Appalachian State, where he was part of the coaching staff during the school’s run of three consecutive FCS national championships.  Elliott played at Appalachian State from 1992-95.

The most surprising aspect of Spurrier’s resignation is that it is immediate.  In recent years in sports there have been plenty of “farewell tour”-type seasons (Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jeff Gordon, among others), but there will be no such stage for Spurrier’s final game.  In fact, it turns out that his final game was officially a home game but, due to floods in Columbia, was played in a half-empty stadium at LSU in Baton Rouge.

Spurrier said at Tuesday’s announcement that because he felt a change is necessary, he wanted to make the change immediately, feeling that when such a move is imminent, it must be made quickly.  Spurrier didn’t feel his players would want to play for a coach who they knew wouldn’t be coaching them next year, so finishing out the season would be unproductive.

The unconventional resignation of Spurrier shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he was definitely unconventional in his coaching style.

Spurrier’s coaching, in many ways, changed the way the game of college football is played, particularly in the SEC.  The “fun ‘n’ gun” offense, known for its ultra-effective use of the passing game, revolutionized a game which had commonly seen teams play well by running the ball and playing good defense.  Spurrier adjusted, though, at South Carolina, using strong running backs in some seasons for a more prolific rushing game, particularly during Marcus Lattimore’s tenure with the Gamecocks (2010-12).

But Spurrier was known just as much for his playful jabs at rivals as he was for being an offensive mastermind.  The coach often used press conferences as a way to poke fun at opponents, often including Georgia and Tennessee during both his Florida and South Carolina tenures, Florida State during the Florida years, and Clemson during the South Carolina years, among others.  One of his most famous jabs came during a run of Tennessee appearances in the Citrus Bowl (as opposed to qualifying for a bigger bowl game) in the late 1990’s, when Spurrier said, “You can’t spell Citrus without U-T.”  Another of his more well-known pokes is at Florida State: “You know what F.S.U. stands for, don’t you?  Free Shoes University.”

Spurrier was born in 1945 in Florida but grew up in eastern Tennessee, where he was an all-state selection in football, baseball, and basketball at Science Hill High School in Johnson City.  He played quarterback at Florida from 1963-66, winning the 1966 Heisman Trophy.  In 2006, Spurrier was recognized by the Gainesville Sun as the second greatest player in Florida’s first 100 years of football.

The San Francisco 49ers selected Spurrier as the third overall pick of the 1967 NFL Draft, and he played for the 49ers for nine seasons, before playing his 10th and final NFL season for the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976.  Spurrier threw for 6,878 yards, 40 touchdowns, and 60 interceptions in 106 career NFL games.

After paying his dues as an assistant coach at Florida (1978), Georgia Tech (1979), and Duke (1980-82), Spurrier’s head coaching career began with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the now-defunct USFL in 1983.  At age 37, Spurrier was at the time the youngest head coach in professional football.  He led the Bandits to a 35-21 record in three seasons before the league dissolved after the 1985 season.

Spurrier’s college coaching career began in 1987, when he returned to Duke as head coach, inheriting a program that had averaged just over three wins the previous four seasons.  After a 5-6 campaign in 1987, his last losing record until his 2-4 farewell, the Blue Devils were 7-3-1 and 8-4 the following two seasons, with the 1989 team winning a share of the ACC championship, and reaching a bowl game for the first time since 1960, losing in the All-American Bowl.  Spurrier’s total record at Duke was 20-13-1 over three seasons.

Spurrier took over at Florida on December 31, 1989, during a time that the program was under NCAA investigation, and had never won an SEC Championship.  The success began quickly, as the Gators had the best record in the SEC in 1990, although they were ineligible to win the title due to NCAA sanctions.  In 1991, Spurrier led the school to its first recognized SEC title.  By the time he was finished in Gainesville, Spurrier had led the program to five SEC championships, seven SEC East division titles, and the 1996 national championship, beating rival Florida State 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl to win the title after losing to the Seminoles in the regular season.

In 12 seasons at the helm at Florida, Spurrier’s teams only lost more than two games in a season twice, and finished outside of the top 10 in the AP Poll only twice, never finishing worse than 13th.  This includes six top five finishes, including four in a row from 1995-98.  Spurrier’s overall record at Florida was 122-27-1, including an 87-12 conference record, a mark that is nearly unthinkable in the SEC.

Spurrier left Florida, resigning on January 4, 2002, before being hired 10 days later by the Washington Redskins of the NFL, signing the most lucrative coaching contract in NFL history at the time.  However, after seasons of 7-9 and 5-11, Spurrier resigned, walking away from $15 million and three years remaining in his contract.  Spurrier’s departure from Washington after the 2003 season was comparable to his resignation from South Carolina, as he expressed his opinion that the team needed new leadership as a reason for his departure.

After Spurrier sat out the 2004 football season, South Carolina announced on November 22, 2004 that Spurrier would replace the retiring Lou Holtz as coach of the Gamecocks.  The program had an all-time record below .500 at the time, and a 36-67 conference record since joining the SEC in 1992.

In Spurrier’s first five seasons in Columbia, the team was decent but couldn’t seem to get over the hump, combining for a 35-28 record, including an 18-22 conference record.  However, each of those seasons resulted in a winning record, except for a 6-6 mark in 2007.

In 2010, the Gamecocks turned a corner, defeating defending national champion Alabama, on their way to a 9-3 regular season, and the school’s first SEC East division title.  While the team finished 9-5, after losses to Auburn in the SEC title game and Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, they finished 22nd in the final AP Poll, good for their first top 25 finish since 2001, and just their fifth ever.

From 2011-2013, Spurrier’s Gamecocks compiled three straight seasons with an 11-2 record, easily the best three-year stretch in school history, resulting in finishes of ninth, eighth, and fourth in the AP Poll.  Each year the Gamecocks defeated the eventual SEC East champion (Georgia in 2011-12, Missouri in 2013), but fell just short of the division title.  South Carolina also won its bowl game in each of the three seasons, with a pair of Capital One Bowl wins, and an Outback Bowl victory.

In 2014, despite a preseason ranking of ninth, the tide began to turn.  Defensive struggles led to four losses by seven points or less, and the Gamecocks posted a 7-6 record, with an Independence Bowl victory avoiding Spurrier’s first losing season as a college coach since 1987.  When the struggles continued this season, the Head Ball Coach decided his time was up.

Spurrier finishes at South Carolina with an 86-49 record in 11 seasons with the Gamecocks, and a 44-40 conference record.  While that conference record isn’t overwhelming, it is still impressive if you consider the school’s history in its SEC era (since 1992) at the time of his hire.  The Gamecocks spent a total of 25 weeks ranked in the AP Poll during Spurrier’s tenure, after spending only 13 weeks ranked in their entire history before Spurrier arrived.

Spurrier-coached Gamecock team also went 6-4 against rival Clemson, in a series the Tigers have historically dominated.  The Gamecocks won five straight in the series from 2009-13, a school record.

Spurrier is the second-winningest coach in SEC history, behind only the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, and is the all-time winningest coach at both Florida and South Carolina.  Bryant is the only other coach to be the winningest at two separate SEC schools.  Spurrier is the only Heisman trophy winning player to coach a Heisman winner, and won the SEC Coach of the Year award a remarkable seven times (five at Florida, two at South Carolina), in addition to two ACC Coach of the Year awards while at Duke.

Since he announced his departure from the coaching spotlight, many analysts have publicly said Spurrier is among the five or 10 greatest coaches in the history of college football.  There is nothing in his resume to go against that claim, as he was a winner everywhere he coached, at three programs that had each not had much success before his arrival.

That being said, it’s unfortunate that Spurrier, because of the nature of his resignation, won’t be given a standing ovation or carried on the shoulder pads of his players as he leaves the field for the final time, as that final time came and went unceremoniously on Saturday without anyone knowing.  While there will surely be some kind of recognition at South Carolina in the weeks to come, such as him being honored on the field, the end in itself was a 2-4 start to his age-70 season and, dating back to last year, a stretch of eight losses in the Gamecocks’ last nine SEC contests.

Steve Spurrier has changed the game of college football, plain and simple.  Now, as he is likely to hit the golf course more often, he can hang up his trademark visor, and reflect on an incredible career.

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2 thoughts on “The Head Ball Coach Hangs Up His Visor

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