Spurrier, Gamecocks ready to take their shot

This season may be Steve Spurrier's best chance yet at bringing an SEC title to South Carolina. John Korduner/Icon SMI

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Head Ball Coach isn’t gigging rivals as much as he once did.

If anything, he’s gigging himself.

As Steve Spurrier enters his sixth season at South Carolina, he might not come right out and say it. Occasionally, his smoldering frustration might say it for him.

But he knows his window is closing on ever winning another SEC championship.

Some might say that window was never cracked in the first place at South Carolina, which has won more than eight games in a season only twice in school history.

Spurrier, even after seeing each of the past two seasons end embarrassingly in lackluster bowl losses, hasn’t given up hope that it can be done at South Carolina.

Just don’t tell him that this season is a now-or-never proposition, and the same thing goes for this supposedly being the Gamecocks’ best chance to make some real noise in the Eastern Division race since Spurrier arrived in 2005.

“I like to be optimistic. That’s the way I’ve always felt you had to coach,” Spurrier said. “You’re supposed to tell your players they’re very good and they’ve got a chance to have a big year.

“But our guys don’t react real well to that, if you know what I mean.”

In other words, don’t build the Gamecocks up too much. They’ve been down this road before -- and long before Spurrier was navigating his way down George Rogers Boulevard every morning to work.

Let’s face it. South Carolina’s football history reads like a Greek tragedy.

Every time the Gamecocks seem poised to break through, they end up breaking garnet and black-coated hearts instead.

“We’ve got a lot of traditions around here,” senior defensive end Cliff Matthews said. “It’s about time we started a winning tradition.”

With 15 starters returning for the Gamecocks, a defense that should again be rock-solid and the playing field in the East leveling thanks to so many key players departing Florida, why not start that tradition this fall?

“We talk about it every day, that this is going to be our year,” said sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery, one of the best freshmen in the SEC last season. “If people are sleeping on us, they better be ready.”

Spurrier’s still not ready to announce to the world that his Gamecocks are ready for prime time.

He thinks they’re closer. He’s enthused by the young talent in the program, guys like Jeffery, and he’s eager to see what some of the guys coming in can do, guys like running back Marcus Lattimore.

But he’d rather let it play out than do a whole lot of talking about it, especially given how the past two seasons have ended for the Gamecocks.

“We’re averaging seven wins, which is not good by the standards we had at Florida,” Spurrier said. “But 35 wins is the most in a five-year period in the history of the school here at South Carolina. So you might say, ‘Gosh, you’ve done as well as anybody who’s ever been there,’ but we’re not content with that.

“South Carolina has just never had a great run. We’ve gone five years without a losing record, and I’m not sure that’s ever happened in the history of the school. So we’re not terrible. We’re just barely above average. We’re mediocre, and that’s not good enough for any of us.”

Spurrier won six SEC championships at Florida. At South Carolina, he’s averaging losing close to six games per year.

He turns 65 next week, albeit a young 65, and those who know him best wonder how much longer he’ll be able to tolerate what Spurrier himself refers to as mediocrity.

Make no mistake: Coping with five and six losses per year has been difficult for Spurrier, but it hasn’t been the most difficult aspect of taking on this challenge back in 2005.

“What eats at me is that we can’t get our players to play at a high-effort level and high-discipline level consistently,” Spurrier said. “I mean, we were just as good as UConn [in the Papajohns.com Bowl], but they played hard, played smart and played disciplined. What’s frustrating is that we can’t get all of our guys to do that.

“That’s coaching. We haven’t been able to coach them to do that. We’re trying, but somehow it’s not getting through.”

That said, Spurrier thinks this is the best staff he’s had at South Carolina. Shawn Elliott, who came over from Appalachian State, is the Gamecocks’ third different offensive line coach in three years and will also coordinate the running game.

South Carolina paid a bunch of money this offseason to keep Ellis Johnson, the assistant head coach for the defense and one of the top defensive minds in the league, from going to Tennessee.

The Gamecocks’ recruiting the past two years has been excellent under the direction of recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer, and Spurrier thinks second-year running backs coach Jay Graham is one of the brighter coaches on the staff. Graham was extremely instrumental in the Gamecocks landing Lattimore, one of the top running back prospects in the country.

“I like our staff. This is as good a group of guys as we’ve had,” Spurrier said. “The thing we’re doing better is creating competition at all the spots. Who says a player has to start just because he started the year before? It’s time we turn up the heat on a lot of guys around here.”

In particular, Spurrier has made it abundantly clear to junior quarterback Stephen Garcia that he better have a terrific summer if he wants to remain the Gamecocks’ starting quarterback next season. Otherwise, Spurrier insists he’s serious about going with true freshman Connor Shaw if he comes back ready to play in the fall.

“Our quarterback play and offensive line play have just not been good enough to win big around here,” Spurrier said. “Maybe we haven’t coached very well, either. Make sure you put that in there, too. We just haven’t been very good in those two areas the last several years.

“But, anyway, if some things work out, it could be a good year. We have a chance to be a good team.”

And with a little luck, maybe even a championship-contending team.