Steve Spurrier’s quitting as the University of South Carolina football coach – in the middle of the season no less – is as big in South Carolina as a king abdicating his throne.
Spurrier, a man in charge of a kid’s game played by teens and young adults, mattered to lawyers and doctors and judges – but he mattered to plumbers and ditch diggers maybe even more.
He made it possible for the rest of us in South Carolina to brag a little bit. He showed North Carolina that they could keep their soft cheese, we’ll take pigskin.
Buddy Grant of Chester has been going to USC games since 1960, when he was 5. His whole family – from his parents, through him and his siblings and his cousins, and on to his three kids – attended USC. Spurrier’s resignation is “a huge deal,” Grant said.
“I am shocked; disappointed, really,” Grant said. “I would have liked to see him finish out the season. That’s what coaches tell players: Finish what you start. But he’s done so much for the university. I told my kids, after Spurrier came and the team started to win consistently, ‘These are not your daddy’s Gamecocks.’
“Man, his picture is up on the stadium. It’s 80 feet tall, it seems.”
Grant paused, then, “He’s our head coach.”
Fans of USC football have lived through lean years and bad years and mediocre years, but Spurrier brought consistent winning and changed the gait of those fans. Bowlegs became more pronounced. Carolina fans began to strut. Spurrier brought swagger and confidence. Spurrier made USC a player.
But this year, the team has been pounded.
So on Tuesday, the 70-year-old Spurrier told the world that a new, younger coach can tell recruits that he would be around for years – a promise Spurrier admitted he could not have made.
Spurrier, glib for decades, was honest on his way out the door: “We’ve slid. It’s my fault.”
“I hate it that he stepped down, because Coach Spurrier has done so much for the university,” said Chip Comer, president of the York County Gamecock Club. “He has done so many positive things.
“And he won.”
That winning – and Spurrier’s presence – shoved the school’s exposure from regional loyalty squarely into the national spotlight. No longer was UNC the only school known across America as “Carolina.”
Leah Moody of Rock Hill, a member of the USC Board of Trustees, said Spurrier’s departure came as a shock, and that alumni, students and supporters are saddened by the news.
“In his years at USC, Coach Spurrier did good things for the university,” Moody said. “He is a good man, and more, he is a good guy.”
The news hammered at faithful fans whose lives are built largely on a foundation of their love of USC and its football team.
“I’ve had better nights, and now days,” said lawyer/pharmacist alum Alton Hyatt – perhaps Rock Hill’s biggest USC booster – who has been going to games since he was in diapers. “Personally, I hate it that he has resigned. He has done so much for not just the football program, but the university. He has changed the way people look at the school. Admissions requests went up.
“He has had the greatest success of any coach in my lifetime.”
Spurrier changed the expectations of Gamecocks football fans and people of the state in general. In a decade-plus as football coach, Spurrier was far more well-known than any governor, senator or anyone else in the state.
“Spurrier’s leaving, it is like losing a member of my family,” said USC superfan Dana Ballard, assistant transportation supervisor for the Fort Mill School District. “My office is all Spurrier. It’s like a shrine. He changed the way I feel about Carolina, and did it for so many other people, too.
The coach quit with his team holding two wins and four losses – staring at the distinct possibility of not just a losing season, but a bad losing season.
“That’s Spurrier,” said Billy “Skeeter” Ellis, a chimney sweep and contractor who, when not cheering for his Gamecocks, can be found clinging to a roof 50 feet in the air. “Spurrier doesn’t like losing. He hates it.
“He does it his way and people will say, ‘That’s ‘Spurrier being Spurrier,’ because that’s who he is.”
Spurrier also had the guts to say that the Confederate flag was an embarrassment to South Carolina, and it had to come down from its place of prominence at the Statehouse. He said that eight years before the mass shooting in Charleston brought the flag down forever.
“It’s a detriment to our state,” Spurrier told me in 2007, at a York County Gamecock Club gathering in Fort Mill. “In my opinion, to make our state a better place, we need to get rid of it.”
That’s Spurrier: direct, expecting great things, settling for nothing less.
“I am stunned Spurrier quit, but look at the past 10 years – it was all good,” said Tim Montgomery of Chester, who has gone to every USC home football game since 1962. He drives his USC-themed RV to every game.
“He’s done better than any other coach ever has here. He set the standard, and we all got to cheer for a winner.”
Superfan Alton Hyatt flew to Baton Rouge, La., last week to watch the Gamecocks play in a game that was moved from Columbia because of the devastating flooding there. He watched his team lose and his coach lose. He watched Spurrier take off his trademark visor in frustration when the game ended.
“I had no idea that would be the last time any of us would see him coach the Gamecocks,” Hyatt said. “The way people feel about not just the team, but the school, the university, it changed under him. The bar rose.”
Steve Spurrier made everybody in South Carolina believe that they could and should be great.
And on Saturday, like Buddy Grant and Tom Montgomery, Alton Hyatt will drive to Columbia and watch the Gamecocks run out onto the field.
Instinctively, he will look for Spurrier and see nothing but memories.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065