Good luck pinning down Steve Spurrier about his football future.
For as long as I’ve known him, he’s almost always answered that question with a familiar high-pitched “Aaahh” and his standard, “About four or five more years. Yeah, put that in there, about four or five more.”
When I talked to the Head Ball Coach this week, though, there was a different tone to his voice. About all I could get out of him was, “We all expect to be back next season, and we’ll go from there.”
Above everything else, Spurrier is not a liar. He’d rather be caught on the wrong end of a 52-0 beating than a lie.
So you’re not going to get an ironclad guarantee out of him that he’ll be back next season as South Carolina’s coach. This season has been painful for him, no doubt. The Gamecocks (4-5, 2-5 SEC) have lost three games in which they’ve had two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter and need to win two of their last three just to qualify for a bowl.
“It’s tough because we’ve had leads in the fourth quarter and haven’t been able to stop the other team and haven’t moved the ball on offense and made first downs when we’ve needed to,” Spurrier said. “One play here or there could have changed about three games. Statistically, we’ve been real bad on defense and good on offense, but we haven’t put it together to win as many as we’ve had chances to. It’s as simple as that, and that’s on all of us.
“So, yeah, it’s not a lot of fun. You don’t sleep very well when you wished you would have called this play or that play. We’ll survive it, hopefully, and go from there.”
Those who are the closest to Spurrier feel his pain, but they also don’t get the sense he’s on the verge of hanging it up after this season.
Yes, he’ll turn 70 in April, but Spurrier’s 70 is like most people’s 60, maybe even younger, and he sure hasn’t been acting like these might be his final weeks of what’s been a Hall of Fame career.
He’s talking to recruits on the phone as much as he ever has. The Gamecocks’ 2015 signing class is ranked No. 8 nationally. He’s been his usual sharp self when it comes to calling plays, and the Gamecocks are on pace to break several school records on offense. He’s already started planning for the spring but is spending most of his time trying to figure out a way to win some more games and help the Gamecocks salvage what’s left of this season.
What Spurrier knows, and what a lot of people who coach in the SEC long enough know, is that the margin between winning six games and winning 10 games can be precariously thin.
The Gamecocks won 11 games each of the past three seasons and, in doing so, were 11-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less. This season, they’re 1-4 in those games.
The issue has been finishing games. South Carolina has been outscored 105-62 in the fourth quarter and overtime this season. Now compare that with the previous three seasons. The Gamecocks outscored their opponents 110-87 in the fourth quarter in 2013, 110-68 in 2012 and 114-70 in 2011.
“Last year, we were second in the SEC in scoring defense, second in run defense and third in total defense, and we’re dead bottom in everything on defense right now,” Spurrier lamented. “So, it’s a different team. But with all that, we’ve still had our chances.”
Spurrier’s never been one to mince words, so he’s not above pointing to the obvious struggles on the defensive side of the ball. But he’s also not one to make excuses.
“We win as a team and lose as a team, and we all could have coached a little better, including me,” said Spurrier, who has had only one losing season as a college head coach, his first year at Duke in 1987, when the Blue Devils were 5-6.
He’s not oblivious to the chatter surrounding his future, and he realizes he probably only fanned the flames when he skipped out of his postgame news conference without answering any questions after the bitter overtime loss to Tennessee.
Spurrier has since apologized, but at the time was afraid of what he might say, which would have only enflamed the situation. It’s pretty well documented he doesn’t have much of a filter.
“I know it’s normal any time a coach has done it as long as I have, and when his team’s not doing very well, that there’s going to always be that speculation,” Spurrier said. “I’m just trying to stay out of all that conversation right now. That’s why I’m sticking to my only real comment about it, and that is that we all expect to be back.”
That makes two of us. I also expect the Head Ball Coach to be back. For one, this is not the way he needs to go out. He has meant far too much to college football and to the SEC for this to be his final act. Even those rival schools and their fans that he has needled over the years would agree.
Well, maybe not all of them.
Anyway (as the Head Ball Coach would say), he has accomplished too much at South Carolina to walk away on such a sour note.
It’s also important to remember that Spurrier is incredibly impulsive. He could walk into the office of South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner the day after the Gamecocks’ last game and announce that he’s done.
Because when Spurrier is done, he’ll be done. He’s told me more than once that he’ll know when it’s time to let somebody else come in and give it a whirl. He’s not one to just hang around.
But he’s also not one to walk away from a challenge. When the NFL thing went awry, he didn’t want to jump back into the college game at a place that already had a long track record of winning. He wanted to go to a place where they’d never really done it, which is why he picked South Carolina.
Now, in his 10th season at South Carolina, he’s already the school’s all-time winningest coach after earning that same distinction at Florida in 12 seasons.
The only other coach in SEC history who can make that claim is Bear Bryant, who did it at Alabama and Kentucky.
It was always a long shot Spurrier would coach long enough to break Bryant’s record of 159 SEC wins. Spurrier has 130 heading into Saturday’s trip to his old stomping grounds at Florida.
Longtime Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley, who knows Spurrier as well as anybody in the media, asked him on the SEC teleconference Wednesday whether there was a chance this might be the last time he coached in the Swamp.
“Oh, gosh, there’s a chance of about anything in life, isn’t there?” Spurrier said with a light chuckle.
That's true, but there’s a better chance Spurrier will be back on the sideline next season.
And, yes, coach, I’ll put that in there.