The Ol' Ball Coach Returns To SEC

The Ol' Ball Coach Returns To SEC

HOOVER, Ala. -- Phil Fulmer knows Steve Spurrier all too well.

After all, Spurrier's Florida team was the only one standing between Tennessee and a string of Southeastern Conference Eastern Division titles in the 1990s. It was Spurrier's Fun 'N Gun offense that frustrated Fulmer's Volunteers, guiding the Gators to eight wins in 10 meetings from 1993 to 2002. And it was Spurrier that regularly flung off-the-cuff remarks and knee-slapping jokes at Tennessee's expense.

That's why Fulmer was best suited to speak for the entire conference when asked to describe his reaction to Spurrier's hiring at South Carolina.

"When I first heard he was coming back, I said, 'Ah, crap,'" Fulmer said.

The insult-hurling, visor-tossing, offensive architect whose teams dominated the SEC through much of his 12-year stint at Florida is circling familiar waters. After a failed two-year experiment in the NFL and one-year on the golf course, the Ol' Ball Coach's return to the SEC was the talk of the town during a loaded first day of the 2005 SEC Media Days in the Wynfrey Hotel.

Never mind that Florida coach Urban Meyer, who is coaching at the school Spurrier turned into a national power, made his debut along with Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron. Or that Fulmer, who skipped last year's media day, made his first public appearance in Alabama since his role in the Crimson Tide's NCAA probation was revealed.

None of them garnered as much notoriety or intrigue as Spurrier's re-emergence.

"I missed you guys," Spurrier said to the hundreds of media on hand. "Even the ones that wrote not real nice things about me. That's OK. It was a lot more fun hanging around the SEC than it was the other league I was in for a couple of years.

"It's good to be back."

Spurrier spoke about his success at Florida, his struggles in the NFL and the lessons learned in his time away from the SEC during his 30 minutes behind the podium. And, of course, he reiterated his hopes of guiding South Carolina to the upper echelon of the SEC, something his predecessor and good friend, Lou Holtz, couldn't accomplish.

South Carolina won 17 games in 2000 and 2001 under Holtz, but the number dipped to 10 in 2002 and 2003. It was bowl-eligible last season when word leaked that Holtz would retire at the end of the season and Spurrier would replace him.

The news soon was overshadowed by the nasty, season-ending brawl against state rival Clemson that cost South Carolina its first bowl trip since 2001.

But Spurrier's first few months on the job has injected the state with hope.

"Everybody was kind of taken aback from (the hire)," South Carolina tight end Andy Boyd said. "How do you react? It's the second legendary coach in five years at your school. There's not too many people that can say that. That's pretty special.

"Everything he says, I'm hanging on every word whether it's on the field or in meetings, stuff like that. He's been around long enough. He's made systems work. If his players aren't smart enough to pay attention to it, that's stupid on our part."

Even Florida center Mike Degory, who was part of Spurrier's final recruiting class in 2001, said he has been fascinated about his former coach's return.

"It's exciting," Degory said. "He's a great football coach. I had a great time when I played under him (in 2001). We had a great year that year. To have him back in college football and back in the SEC, I'm excited.

"He's back where he belongs."

Spurrier's goal of turning the Gamecocks into an SEC contender won't be easy even though he accomplished a similar feat at Duke. A program that already has the misfortune of competing against division rivals Florida, Tennessee and Georgia each season also had a tumultuous offseason.

In all, 12 South Carolina players -- current and recently departed -- were arrested for various offenses. Several players have been suspended. Five, including running back Demetris Summers and defensive end Moe Thompson, were dismissed from the team.

As if that's not enough, the Gamecocks are at the mercy of the NCAA because of violations committed under Holtz. The school reported 10 violations and proposed penalties of a two-year probation and the loss of four scholarships over two seasons.

The setbacks haven't deterred Spurrier. Neither have the question marks that surround his team, including a yet-to-be-named starting quarterback. Or the fact that South Carolina hasn't won a conference championship since 1969.

Spurrier said the "curse" can be lifted if South Carolina wins its first big game against a big-time opponent. That's what happened in his second game at Florida, when the Gators won at Alabama and began their SEC dominance.

"That was a game that whatever black cloud hovered over Gator football was blown away because we won a game and didn't play very well," Spurrier said.

"I am hoping that we have a game with a strong opponent, we don't play that well, but something happens and we hang in there. If that happens, then all those curses and black clouds and jinxes, hopefully that will be knocked away."

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who will coach against Spurrier for the first time in his career this season, said he wouldn't be surprised to see a confident South Carolina team when the Razorbacks meet the Gamecocks in November.

"Everybody has a transition period," Nutt said. "I'm sure this is going to be that transition time. But knowing him, he's still going to have them ready and try to get his offense, his blueprint and get his personality relayed to the team. The players will feed off of (his confidence). He feels like he's going to win and carries himself that way. It's easy when you have a coach that feels like they're going to win.

"Some people call that cockiness. But if you back it up, it's not."

Spurrier has been much more low-key than at Florida, where he publicly poked fun of Tennessee, Georgia, Florida State and several other opponents. He has promised to keep much of his confidence and "cute" comments to himself at South Carolina.

Spurrier said most of the jokes came in the summer during Gator club meetings when he was interacting with Florida fans. But Spurrier said he has learned not to have fun at the expense of others even if it's in jest.

Instead, Spurrier said he'll concentrate on winning games at South Carolina.

"We need to beat somebody before (other coaches) are worried about South Carolina," Spurrier said in his best impersonation of Holtz, an expert in self-deprecation. "Some people are trying to make us one of their rivals when we haven't beaten them very much, if at all. Hopefully we can get a little respect, but we have to earn it.

"We have got to beat some people. We can't just say, 'Hey, Spurrier is coaching South Carolina.' That's not going to mean much to players."

Maybe not. But SEC Media Days proved that his return to the SEC could be a step in the right direction for South Carolina.

"I think he brings a lot of personality, obviously, to the conference and he's a great football coach and great competitor," Fulmer said.

"I think he very much knows he has a real demanding job in front of him. But if anybody can do it, he can."

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