South Carolina Welcomes Spurrier with Open Arms; Gamecocks Fans See Redskins Debacle as History

Article excerpt

Byline: Bob Cohn, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

COLUMBIA, S.C. - They strolled in through iron gates, past the "Gamecocks Proving Ground" sign and massed behind yellow ropes. Others stayed outside, watching from the roofs of their pickup trucks parked behind the hedges that border the field.

It was a steamy evening, a good night for air conditioning and TV. Yet so many of them, hundreds, maybe a thousand, cleared their dinner plates and came out to stand around for two hours in the heat for nothing more than a preseason practice under the lights.

Football is big at the University of South Carolina and always has been, despite a lack of championships, top bowl games and all the other usual trappings of success. But never has football been bigger than it is now. Steve Spurrier is coaching again, and he's coaching right here, dadgummit. Look there - the visor. It's him, all right.

And so the air was laced with something more than humidity and flying insects. There was anticipation and hope, both of which reside in the hearts of those like Jimmy Evans, locally born and bred, a South Carolina graduate, 63 years old, a real estate broker. He remembers his daddy taking him to watch the Gamecocks. He remembers Frank McGuire coming to coach the basketball team in 1964. McGuire was a giant. But this, Mr. Evans said, is a bigger deal.

"You might compare Spurrier to Bear Bryant," he said, invoking the name of the Alabama icon, the most hallowed, revered coach in Southeastern Conference football history, if not all of college football. "I don't think anyone achieved what Spurrier achieved at the University of Florida. But don't forget. He won the ACC title at Duke. That might be the biggest thing." Yes, they know all about Steve Spurrier here. They can recite his numbers at Florida and Duke and even the United States Football League, and they also know about his 12-20 flop as coach of the Washington Redskins in 2002 and 2003. But for that, Spurrier has received a pass, total absolution, as if it never happened.

"It wasn't his game," Mr. Evans said of the National Football League, reflecting a sentiment shared by many, including Spurrier.

Besides, if Spurrier had not failed so spectacularly in Washington, he wouldn't be standing in the middle of the Gamecocks' practice field on a sweltering August night. So it's all good.

He was hired last December, a seven-year deal worth almost $10 million. It was a parting gift from retiring athletic director Mike McGee - and a stunner. "The moon and the sun and the stars lining up just right," Mr. Evans called it.

Spurrier replaced Hall of Famer Lou Holtz, who called it quits after a long career.

Holtz helped lift South Carolina football from the dregs. But by the end, things had gotten messy. The program last month was cited for 10 NCAA infractions, five of which were considered "major." There was a nasty brawl with Clemson at the end of last season, and several of his players had a penchant for stealing.

Enter the ol' ball coach. Gamecock fans had gazed with envy at Spurrier's accomplishments during his 12 years at Florida. They had heard Spurrier's wise-guy cracks, knew all about the "Steve Superior" and "evil genius" stuff, witnessed firsthand the Florida Gators embarrassing the Gamecocks.

Then again, a lot of teams embarrassed the Gamecocks, so it wasn't just Spurrier.

"I didn't hate him," Mr. Evans said. "I hated to play him."

There is no hate among the faithful. Other than drawing the wrath of the state prep coaches' association by revoking the scholarships of six players, Spurrier has been showered with love from the day he arrived. The tickets are practically sold out, sponsorship is at a record high, and the Gamecock Club, the big booster group, reports a $1.2 million increase in donations in the past fiscal year.

"The fans have been very supportive, appreciative," Spurrier said after practice in his familiar twang, still, at 60, looking maddeningly youthful. …