Head Ball Coach giddy about future
Steve Spurrier has always been good with numbers.
He can remember scores, records and statistics from games he played in, be it high school, college or the NFL.
Not just select scores, either, but just about every score.
The same goes for his Hall of Fame coaching career. He can recite specific drives, including down and distance and the player who made the play, from games played 20 and 30 years ago.
So when I caught up with the Head Ball Coach recently, I wasn't surprised that he threw two numbers out there as he reflected on the 2011 season, the greatest season in South Carolina football history.
"You got your pencil there?" Spurrier said excitedly. "Write these two numbers down."
The numbers: 11 and 66.
"Last year was 2011, and South Carolina won 11 games. I wore No. 11 from my junior year in high school to 10 years in the NFL, including four years at Florida," explained Spurrier, adding in vintage fashion that they retired his number in both high school and college.
"Anyway, 11 has always been my favorite number. So I went into last season and told my wife that wouldn't it be neat if we won 11 in 2011 and I'm No. 11."
Now on to 66.
Spurrier turned 66 last April leading into the season. And in 1966, he won the Heisman Trophy. Not only that, but South Carolina defeated Nebraska 30-13 in what was the 66th Capital One Bowl (formerly the Orlando Citrus Bowl).
"And you know what the temperature was at kickoff?" Spurrier asked. "Yep 66.
"There ain't no way we could have lost that game."
As I hung up the phone with the Head Ball Coach, I was just starting to process all the coincidences that he cited, not to mention how much life he has pumped into the South Carolina program, when my phone rang again.
Spurrier had one more, and this one (surprise, surprise) was tied to his golf game.
"Chris, I forgot one," he chortled into the phone. "The lowest round of golf of my life was a 66 at Whispering Pines, N.C., in 1987."
It was almost as if Spurrier had just walked off the course.
"Yep, Bob Harris, the Duke play-by-play announcer, played with me that day," Spurrier recounted. "I'd just gotten hired by Duke and was speaking at a meeting. They called and asked if I could come speak and said they'd pay me a few hundred dollars. That was big money in those days.
"We played from the white tees, and I made seven birdies and one bogey."
It's about the same score he shot at South Carolina this season, at least in football terms, in making the kind of history Spurrier envisioned when he took the job back in 2005.
Not only did the Gamecocks win 11 games for the first time in school history, but they also won nine or more games in back-to-back seasons for the first time. They swept Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee for the second consecutive season. It was South Carolina's third straight win over bitter rival Clemson, the first time that's happened since 1968 to 1970.
Here's the best news for South Carolina fans: As proud as Spurrier is of what the Gamecocks have accomplished in his seven years on the job, his focus is squarely on the future.
He's as committed as ever to winning an SEC championship at South Carolina.
So while others may wonder how much longer he will keep coaching, Spurrier's attitude is that his work is far from finished.
He's having a blast and doesn't mind saying that he feels rejuvenated in a lot of ways.
"I like being the coach where they've done something for the first time ever," Spurrier said. "It's just a special thrill to do something that's never been done before, and here at South Carolina, we have so many opportunities to do that, so many.
"I knew the history here and what little tradition was here when I took the job, and that's really what was appealing to me. I was thinking, 'Man, look at all these firsts we can achieve.' Gosh, South Carolina had never even won a game in Knoxville in its history, never won in the Swamp, never won 11 games, never won nine or more games back to back," he said.
"The record against Tennessee and Florida in 13 years was one win and 25 losses. Now, we're 7-7 and swept Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee the last two years and are 8-0 against those guys. I think Lou [Holtz] was 3-21 in his six years against those four."
Spurrier has said several times that 2011 was one of the best years he's ever had in coaching, and that's saying something for a guy who's second only to Bear Bryant in SEC victories.
Bryant amassed 159 SEC wins, a record most in this league consider to be unbreakable. Spurrier has 116.
To put that total in perspective, the next closest active coach in the SEC is Alabama's Nick Saban, who has 64 SEC wins.
South Carolina's recruiting the past few years has been excellent, and the Gamecocks have been able to keep the best players in-state at home.
When you close down the borders and bring in highly regarded players such as Stephon Gilmore, DeVonte Holloman, Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, you're going to win a lot of games.
That run is set to continue this year with receiver Shaq Roland of Lexington, S.C., committed to the Gamecocks. Roland was Mr. Football this year in the state and rated by ESPN as the No. 5 receiver prospect in the country.
While Spurrier isn't ready to say that South Carolina has it rolling like Florida did in the 1990s when he guided the Gators to four straight SEC championships, he's convinced that the Gamecocks are moving in the right direction.
"We're not quite there yet, but we can potentially be pretty good because the recruiting has gone so well and guys are sticking," Spurrier said. "We still haven't won the SEC, and that's our goal here, to win the first ever SEC championship.
"We've got to avoid that year of taking a step back. History shows that teams that haven't ever won much, once they have that one big year, they go in the jar after that. Lou won nine games one year and followed it up with a 5-7 record after that Outback Bowl win. So I promise you we'll be on their butts."
I reminded Spurrier that he told me three or four years ago that 66 was about as long as he wanted to go in coaching.
He joked that he didn't think he'd even make it to 66 after the Gamecocks' woeful showings in the Outback Bowl following the 2008 season and the PapaJohns.com Bowl following the 2009 season.
"Well, it was a lot more fun coaching this team, and I don't mind saying that," Spurrier said. "The other thing is the recruiting. We're signing good players and more quality kids. It's a better quality of young men. They're on time, doing the things they're supposed to be doing and taking care of the things they're supposed to be taking care of.
"Clowney made a 2.9 his first semester, so he's coming around."
Following a brief pause, Spurrier cracked, "He's going to have three big years for us."
Despite approaching 70, Spurrier said he's in better shape now than he was 20 years ago. And the truth is that he could easily pass for someone in his mid-50s.
"Age is a funny thing," Spurrier said. "As we all know, it's just a number. I read something the other day that 60 is yesterday's 40, so I guess 66 is yesterday's 46. But, health-wise, gosh, I feel about the same. I work out six days a week and try to eat correctly and all that kind of stuff.
"And, hey, I can still remember all the plays and remember everybody's name."
He's also proven, even in the twilight of his coaching career, that he can adapt.
The Gamecocks ran a ton of the zone-read with quarterback Connor Shaw this season and may run even more next season, especially with a healthy Lattimore back in the lineup.
For that matter, they may run the ball a ton period, which is a far cry from Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun days at Florida.
"That's what we're best at, and all coaches have to coach to their personnel," Spurrier said. "We try to do that. Obviously, the quarterback has got to play without big mistakes and big errors. Connor was real good about that. Knocking on wood, we did not have a defensive score against us, and we used to give up three or four, it seems like."
Spurrier, who's already the all-time winningest coach at Florida with 122 wins, is just 10 wins away from also becoming South Carolina's all-time winningest coach.
Rex Enright won 64 games in 15 seasons at South Carolina. Spurrier could conceivably pass him in eight seasons.
There were a lot of people who advised Spurrier back in 2005 not to take the South Carolina job and told him that he'd end up regretting it if he did.
Certainly, there were some bumps in the road to get to this point, and Spurrier himself is the first to admit that the Eastern Division has been down the past couple of years.
But trust me, there are no regrets.
The Head Ball Coach is as giddy now about calling plays as he was in 1996 when Danny Wuerffel was pitching it around the Swamp.
And as a result, the future has never been brighter for a South Carolina program that once seemed doomed to football purgatory.
Chris Low covers the SEC for ESPN.com.