For everything Steve Spurrier has done at South Carolina, one thing has escaped the Head Ball Coach’s grasp in Columbia: an SEC championship.
After winning six SEC championships during his 12 years at Florida, including his first in his second year, Spurrier has yet to claim that coveted prize during his nine years as the Gamecocks’ coach.
Spurrier certainly had more to work with right away when he arrived in Gainesville, but chasing an SEC title in Columbia is eating at him.
“He’s one of the most competitive people I know, so yes, he wants that championship,” running backs coach Everette Sands said.
Spurrier was asked this summer if he felt unfulfilled without an SEC championship at South Carolina, and he shrugged it off. Spurrier doesn’t feel unsatisfied, but you can tell that an SEC title with a program he has built into a nationally relevant entity is something he craves.
But he’s also proud that he has taken the Gamecocks to new heights. The Gamecocks are coming off their third straight 11-win season and are one of only three teams to finish the past three seasons ranked inside the top 10 in the country. Spurrier’s 77 wins are the most by a coach in school history, and he has a winning record against rivals Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, including going 13-3 against them in the past four seasons. South Carolina was also picked by the media to win the SEC Eastern Division this fall.
Spurrier might not have an SEC title on his South Carolina résumé, but the Gamecocks have been a force in the SEC over the last few years. They’ve also owned their home state, going 6-3 against Clemson with five straight wins.
“What I've also learned at South Carolina, our fans realize there's more to life than winning the SEC championship,” Spurrier said. “They really do. We're in a state with Clemson. Clemson used to pretty much own South Carolina in football, no question about it. We have a state championship trophy. If you ask our fans at South Carolina, I can assure you a majority would say, ‘We would rather beat Clemson than win the SEC.’ That is how big it is to them, that one game.
“Personally I'd rather win the SEC. I don't mind saying that. Personally, that's the bigger trophy.”
And his players want the bigger trophy, too.
Redshirt senior defensive tackle J.T. Surratt knows the pain of missing out on an SEC title all too well. Having to watch the SEC championship from home during the Gamecocks' impressive three-year run, Surratt hasn’t had the stomach to complete an entire game. He has started to watch, but he cuts it off halfway through the first quarter each year.
Surratt will turn it back on in the fourth quarter, but not without a sick feeling in his stomach, he said.
“It always feels like we’re one or two games short,” Surratt said of continually missing out on the SEC title game.
“All those 11 wins are great, but 11 wins is still not enough. We’re still not satisfied.”
What gnaws at Surratt and Spurrier even more is the fact the Gamecocks have beaten the eventual SEC East champ the last three years only to, as quarterback Dylan Thompson said, “not get in the stinking game.”
Last year, the Gamecocks upset Missouri on the road in double overtime, but an earlier loss to Tennessee thwarted their SEC title hopes. A year earlier, South Carolina beat East champ Georgia 35-7, only to lose back-to-back games to Florida and LSU. And in 2011, the Gamecocks swept the East but lost to Auburn and Arkansas, sending Georgia to the SEC championship.
That 2010 trip to Atlanta seems so long ago, but Spurrier thinks he has another special group in Columbia. Stars like Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw are gone, but Spurrier has an offense that shouldn’t have trouble scoring with bullish running back Mike Davis, one of the nation’s best offensive lines and an experienced quarterback in Thompson. There are questions on defense, but the linebacker unit is solid and the defensive line is oozing underrated talent.
And with what Spurrier calls a “beautiful schedule,” the Gamecocks could find themselves back in Atlanta this December, nudging the Head Ball Coach another step closer to that elusive title.
“Hopefully we can add an SEC championship,” Spurrier said. “I can assure you, I tell those recruits, ‘If you come here, hopefully you'll be on the first‑ever SEC championship team ever.’ That's still our goal. We haven't quite done it. I think we've been close, but not close enough.
“We’re probably going to have to upset someone to win the SEC, I know that.”