Since accepting the head football coaching position at The University of South Carolina in 2005, Steve Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to unprecedented success: consistent wins over rivals Clemson, Florida and Georgia, back-to-back 11-win seasons, a Southeastern Conference Division title and perhaps the team’s first ever real shot at winning the SEC Championship and competing for a national title.
Despite a busy schedule, Coach Spurrier sat down with Columbia Metropolitan Magazine for an exclusive one-on-one interview, where he shared details on coaching, his plans for the season, the Gamecocks’ future, and some players to watch.
Q: Your tenure at USC is the longest run of success the program has ever had. Are you surprised?A: I felt like we definitely had a chance to do what we have done. We have dramatically improved our team as far as players and assistant coaches. I think even our fans have improved. They know how to come to the ballpark expecting the team to win and to be successful. So our expectations are up, as they should be, and hopefully we can have another big year. Still, we have not won an SEC championship. That was the goal when I got here nine years ago and that will be our goal again this year.
Q: Is there a particular moment or accomplishment that you are most proud of as South Carolina’s coach?
A: I’d hate to pinpoint just one game; there have been so many good ones. One is probably from 2005, when South Carolina had beaten Tennessee once in 13 years and was 0 for 13 against Florida. Somebody told me that the odds of winning one of those two games was 26 to 1, and the odds of winning both of them was 26 to 1 times 26 to 1 – so the odds were around 676 to 1, mathematically. And we actually beat both of them. We had a great game in Knoxville and won 16 to 15, and then the game here against Florida we won 30 to 22, and some of the older Carolina alumni were actually crying when they left the stadium. They thought we would never beat Florida, and now we have beaten them three times in eight years. Then there was the Alabama game here, when we beat them while they were number one team in the country, and then beating Florida in the Swamp for our only division championship in school history. Bowl games against Nebraska and Michigan in the last two years earning us 11 wins — those were huge games also.
Q: How about beating rivals Georgia and Clemson consistently?A: Certainly I believe our three biggest rivals are Georgia, Clemson and Tennessee. It has been neat to beat those guys — Tennessee and Georgia three years in a row, and now Clemson four years in a row. But that’s history, and we will see if we can do it again this year. We don’t sit around and brag about it too much. We know what the statistics are, but each year is a different year, and we will try our best to be prepared to beat them this year if we can.
Q: Do you think you have established a foundation for continued success at South Carolina?
A: I think so. We recruited really good players but also players who know how to be good leaders – DJ Swearinger, Devin Taylor, Marcus Lattimore, Stephon Gilmore – players who know how to work, how to prepare, how to go through the summer. Summer workouts are voluntary. You cannot force the players to go, but our guys go to all of the workouts now. We have 99 percent attend. The players who are going to play in the games are here all of the time. That’s because the older guys showed them, and that leadership is passed down year to year. The guys who will be juniors and seniors are showing those freshmen and sophomores how we do it at South Carolina, and they are expected to fall in line.
Q: Some of the other SEC coaches want to move to nine conference games a season. Yet, you want to stay at eight. Why?
A: Eight conference games are plenty. We always play the upstate team (Clemson), a team from the ACC and an in-state school, like Furman or Wofford; this year it is Coastal. Those small colleges are very appreciative that we will play them because they get a big paycheck and it helps pay for their football programs. They don’t get big money like the SEC schools. So we actually can help out smaller instate colleges, and I think that’s a smart thing to do. Their kids love coming up here and trying to beat us, and they’ve almost beaten us a couple of times. Wofford, every time we play them, it’s down to the wire.
I read a survey of Clemson fans that asked which was the bigger game: FSU, South Carolina or Georgia? And FSU was the bottom of all of them, and that’s the only conference game of the three, so they’d rather be playing Georgia and us than their conference opponent. Sometimes I think the commissioners of the conference don’t understand that we’ve got some rival games and like to beat the guys that live close by. To fans, our game with North Carolina was bigger than Missouri. We’ve been playing North Carolina probably since the 1920s or 30s, so it’s a big game for the fans.
Q: Who are some of the standout players on this year’s roster and what do you expect to see from them this season?
A: Well, obviously Jadeveon Clowney. He was a pre-season all-American player. Some people have him up for the Heisman. It will be difficult for a defensive player to win it, but who knows? Maybe he can scoop up a fumble or get some interceptions and score a touchdown or two. He might have a shot at it. But he needs to just concentrate on playing defensive end and playing defense — because we are going to move him around — the best he can.
Bruce Ellington is probably our best returning receiver right now. And both of our quarterbacks played very well last year. Connor Shaw is going to be our starter, and we will have a lot of new linebackers who haven’t played much, but we hope they are going to turn out to be really good.
Q: Do you plan to pick either Shaw or Thompson to start the season as quarterback, or will you alternate them as needed according to their strengths?
A: We went back and forth out of necessity because Connor had a stress fracture on his foot. But at the bowl game, they both played, they both threw two touchdown passes, over 150 yards each I think, and they both played very well. Connor is the winningest quarterback in school history, and I think as a starter he is 17 and 3. So, I don’t think we could bench our winningest quarterback.
Q: You’re about to start your 9th season at USC. Do you think you’ll spend 12 years here?
A: There are very few guys coaching who are 68 years old. You know why? They’ve been fired. No one ever says, “I’ve had enough.”
Q: How do you feel that the role of the college athlete has changed since you were in college?
A: Total amount of time involved in the sport is the biggest thing. Of course athletes nowadays are stronger and faster and better, and that’s because of year round training, eating habits are a lot better, and mainly the conditioning that is put forth by the athletes now. I think the biggest difference is they are much faster – just a lot better athletes playing the game.
Q: USC consistently has been recruiting some outstanding high school football players. Why do you think they’re drawn here? Is it all about playing for you, or is there something bigger?
A: It is always interesting to me, because when our players are asked, “Why South Carolina?” a lot of them say they wanted that home state university, and they like the coaches. Mainly our position coaches do most of the recruiting; I mean I do a little bit with all of them, but they develop more of a personal relationship and show them the opportunities here. But honestly winning is important, and graduating your players. We are high nationally in graduating players. The ratio is more than 75 percent. And then our GPA, I think, in our football season last year was the highest ever. So we’ve established a track record of graduating our football players, helping them make good grades, and keeping them out of trouble. That was a little bit of a problem when I first got here. So, that’s how you recruit.
Plus, we’ve had a track record of sending players to the NFL – 13 drafted in the last two years. I think we’ve had more drafted in the last two years than Florida or Tennessee or a lot of other schools. So players like that too. Getting trained at South Carolina, coming here to graduate and play, then having a good chance to sign with the NFL is the total package we are trying to offer here. Those who want it can do it. Now we can’t guarantee they will play for the NFL, but if they are good enough, then they will get a shot.
Q: You have said on occasion that you think college athletes should get a little extra money other than their scholarships. Why is that, and do you ever see the NCAA letting that happen?
A: On occasion? I always say that! I think it will only happen if the players start yelling about it, because obviously I’ve tried to yell and get other coaches to yell, but I just can’t get any of them to yell too loudly.
It is just amazing the amount of money that comes into college sports. I asked somebody, “You know how much money March Madness brought in?” They said “Oh, $50 million?” I said “How about $1 billion.” That’s a lot of money. Where it goes, I don’t know. It brought in more than the Super Bowl, more than the NBA playoffs, more than the major league World Series – it was the highest sporting post season in the country, and you don’t even have to pay the performers.
I would hope that football and basketball players could get a little extra, not paying them their value, because if we did that, they’d be making $100,000 to $200,000 or more. But we are just trying to get them a little bit more than what they are getting now, so they can live a little bit more like the normal students do. And they don’t get any money from home. Most football and basketball players are not from wealthy backgrounds.
Q: How do you feel about the Clemson/Carolina rivalry?
A: We have been playing them 100 years or so, so obviously it is a big rivalry. My experience as a coach is not to talk too much about an opponent throughout the year. The week of the game is when you start talking about it a little bit. You really want to beat them, obviously, and the fans really want it, but talking about it all year does not help. When I got to Florida, Georgia had won 15 of the last 20 games. But we had better players than they did, so we started beating them, and we started beating them regularly. And the word we got is that Georgia started talking about trying to beat Florida year round. You know, saying, “We are going to dedicate spring football to beating Florida, we are going to do this to beat Florida, we are going to lift weights to beat Florida.” Then the game would roll around and they wouldn’t play very well. I think they’ve changed their ways now. They’ve got a new athletic director, Greg McGarity. He said, “I don’t want to talk about Florida until the week of the game!” He’s smart; he really is. And Georgia has beaten Florida the past two years.
I just believe that week is the only week we need to worry about them, and all the other times, worry about yourself and trying to be the best you can be. I talked to the guys right after they had worked out in the morning and I said “Let’s get ready for North Carolina,” because that is the next opponent, the one we need to focus on.
Q: You’ve had knee surgery yourself. What went through your head when Lattimore went down on the field for the second time against Tennessee last year?
A: It was a sad situation. His knee was dislocated, but there was no nerve damage which was the only positive thing about it. He received surgery from possibly the best doctors in the world. He is an exceptional young man – he’s always on time, he’s the first one there and the last to leave. He always does everything you ask and a little bit more. Even though he got hurt, his influence allowed us to keep playing and to keep winning. He had a strong influence on the team.
Q: How does it feel to have your sons working with you here at South Carolina?
A: It’s been a lot of fun, and it keeps me very happy being somewhere where all of my family is located. All of my family lives here, except one daughter, my middle daughter, Amy. She and her husband live in Panama City. My youngest son is expecting his first daughter in September, my 12th grandchild.
Q: How do you set goals for the team?
A: We set several goals, not just one, and try to make them realistic. Last year we hit eight of 10. The only ones we didn’t hit were winning the SEC, and we didn’t win the division. Every player has a role. Even if he doesn’t get in the game, he may be a practice player. Not everyone can be a star.
Q: You play golf – what is it about the sport that draws you?
A: Golf is a sport you can play until you are finished. I play in the offseason. It gives you a game you can compete against somebody, there’s a winner and a loser. It’s fascinating to all of us who play.
Q: What is a typical day like for you?
A: Coaches game plan a little bit Sunday afternoon and all day Monday starting about 8 a.m., then we practice Monday nights. During the season I work out six days a week. I do the treadmill and light weights. I do this usually from 1 to 2 pm. Then we meet, and then we go to practice. We don’t stay here past 9 or 9:30 pm. The most important time for a coach is your time with your players. Two hours of meeting and two hours of practice. Four hours – that’s all you need, you can’t get much more than that.
Q: How hard is it to come up with something new for a game that has been played for so long?
A: We always are looking for new ideas, and there are so many plays out there. But the basic stuff you do to practice every day is what you do to win.