Tom Sorensen

Steve Spurrier gave South Carolina fans reason to believe in Gamecocks

Whether you like Steve Spurrier or dislike Steve Spurrier, whether you like seeing him win or like seeing him lose, admit this: His departure makes college football in the Carolinas less interesting.

On Monday, Spurrier told the people who needed to know that he no longer would be football coach at South Carolina. His sudden and stunning decision will give his detractors another reason to rip him and even anger some of his supporters.

But Spurrier is 70. His team is playing poorly. And if he knows his time has ended, let’s thank him for the entertainment and get out of the way.

The Gamecocks opened the season in style, beating North Carolina 17-13 at Bank of America Stadium. The Tar Heels had the better team, but South Carolina had the better coach, and that was enough.

The Gamecocks lost four of their next five, beating only Central Florida. Against schools their size, they lost by an average of 17.8 points.

Let’s offer some context: You know what South Carolina was before Spurrier was hired in November 2004? It was boring. It was unsuccessful. It was to college football what the Jacksonville Jaguars are to the NFL. For rivals such as Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, the Gamecocks were homecoming.

I was in Columbia for Spurrier’s introductory news conference, and when he asked, “Why can’t we get to the top of the SEC?” I wrote down 15 reasons.

As it turned out, few applied. He lifted the program to a place it had never been. Despite playing in the best conference in college football, his Gamecocks went 11-2 in 2011, ’12 and ’13.

Spurrier no longer was the innovator he had been at Duke and Florida. His fun-‘n’-gun offense had long since been appropriated. He won in a more conventional fashion. But he won, at least until last season, when the Gamecocks went 7-6 overall but 3-5 in the SEC.

Age didn’t mellow him. He still offered great one-liners about the competition. And if he didn’t like something he read, he let the writer know. This was no problem if you lived outside Columbia or had the support of your employer. Coaches and players are as entitled to criticize us as we are them.

I criticized Spurier for running up the score when he was at Duke. I picked up my phone in the office a few days later and Spurrier was on the line. He asked me where I played college football. I told him I didn’t. He said somebody who knows as much about college football as I do surely played. I told him I didn’t. He said that I obviously possessed the kind of insight one acquires only by playing the game. I told him I didn’t.

“Thought so,” Spurrier said and hung up.

Whenever I ran into him, or my co-workers ran into him, he’d ask if I was still working for The Charlotte Observer. When we said yes, he was always incredulous that I still had a job.

I asked: If I had praised you in that column, would you have remembered it?

Probably not, Spurrier said.

A few years ago, someone from the South Carolina sports information department called to ask for my cell phone number. I knew what was coming, and smiled. Spurrier called a few hours later.

He said he liked the column except for one part. That part was about a round of golf he played in a celebrity tournament. One of his playing partners told me Spurrer talked incessant trash. Spurrier called me to deny it and ask who I had talked to.

I told him I wasn’t going to give up the guy’s name. Spurrier said “It was (I’m making up this name) Jones, wasn’t it?” Nah, coach, it wasn’t Jones.

You’re not going to tell me, are you? Spurrier asked. I’m not, I told him.

“I bet it was (I’m making up this name) Smith. It was Smith, wasn’t it? Had to be Smith.”

It wasn’t Smith, I said.

“Does he live in Winston-Salem?” Spurrier asked. When I said no, he said, “So he lives in Charlotte. I know who it is.” This went on 10 minutes. The Gamecocks were about to play Alabama. Probably there was film to study. But as long as he thought there was a chance I’d give up the name, he wouldn’t let go. Finally, and reluctantly, he gave up.

Spurrier is a College Football Hall of Fame coach. His record at Duke, Florida and South Carolina is 228-89-2.

He was 12-20 in two seasons coaching Daniel Snyder’s NFL team in Washington. That might be the highest winning percentage for any of the temp coaches Snyder has hired.

Spurrier won a national championship at Florida. But I’ll remember him most for his work at South Carolina. The school has some of the most loyal fans in the country, and finally they found a coach who gave them a reason to believe.

Before Spurrier, the Gamecocks were in the same conference as Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

Under him, they finally were in the same league.