Steve Spurrier and top-notch recruiting has fueled the Gamecocks.
Steve Spurrier was worried. He had just returned from the Outback Bowl after the 2008 season. Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks had lost 31–10 to Iowa, their third straight loss, following defeats of 56–6 at Florida, Spurrier’s former team, and 31–14 at Clemson, the Gamecocks’ heated rival. It was a sour way to end a season that the Gamecocks started 7–3.
Four years into his tenure at South Carolina, Spurrier was 28–22 and 15–17 in the Southeastern Conference, never finishing better than 8–5 overall and 5–3 in the league. But Spurrier’s staff had begun to make in-state recruiting progress for the Class of 2009, which included cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was scheduled to enroll early, in January 2009.
But after a bowl game in which South Carolina “stunk it up,” as Spurrier recalled, he said he had a sinking thought on his mind when he returned to Columbia: “Man, I’m hoping somebody didn’t get to Gilmore and change his mind because of what we had done in that game.”
Sure enough, Gilmore and his mother were in Spurrier’s office, as they promised they would be. Spurrier and his staff were happy, obviously, but even as they look back on the moment, they didn’t know if Gilmore would be a program-changing recruit.
There was no doubting his talent, as the nation’s sixth-ranked “athlete” in his class, according to Rivals, and Mr. Football in the state of South Carolina. Gilmore’s teammate at South Pointe High in Rock Hill, S.C., DeVonte Holloman, arrived in Columbia in the summer of 2009 as Rivals’ 10th-ranked outside linebacker. He and Gilmore provided a tipping point for the Gamecocks.
“If we would have lost them, that would have hurt us,” says Steve Spurrier Jr., who serves as his father’s wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. “They’re the ones who, when we started recruiting, would get guys around.”
The talent — particularly in-state kids — began flowing to South Carolina in the ensuing years, and the wins came with greater frequency than ever before, albeit in a different fashion than Spurrier’s Florida teams. The athletic department committed to facilities improvements, an important recruiting chip. Fans began to believe and expect success, and now Spurrier can sit in his office on a spring day and say, with all the confidence that he flashed in the mid-1990s at Florida, “We’re a top-10 program now.”
After going 7–6 (3–5 SEC) in 2009, with a 1–4 finish, South Carolina was 9–5 (5–3) in 2010 and played in the SEC Championship Game for the first time. Each of the past two seasons, South Carolina went 11–2 and 6–2 — its best overall and league records in school history. It finished in the top 10 for the first time ever in 2011, at No. 9, and bettered that by one spot in 2012. Moreover, South Carolina has four straight wins over Clemson for the second time ever, and first since 1951-54. The Gamecocks have never won five in a row over the Tigers.
Once an SEC doormat — see 1–10 and 0–11 seasons in 1998 and 1999, with no league wins either year — the Gamecocks in 2013 will chase their first conference title, with a defense led by All-America end Jadeveon Clowney, the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and a potential Heisman Trophy finalist this season.
Spurrier reached this point with steady growth. When he arrived at Florida, his alma mater, in 1990, the Gators had enough talent to go 9–2 and 6–1 in the SEC that first year. In Lou Holtz’s final three years at South Carolina, before Spurrier took over in 2005, the Gamecocks went 5–7, 5–7 and 6–5. The program wasn’t ready to thrive.
Spurrier sat out the 2004 season after two frustrating years with the Washington Redskins. He wanted back into coaching in 2005 and closely monitored the situation at North Carolina, where John Bunting was on the hot seat. Spurrier was familiar with the area from his days coaching at Duke in the late 1980s.
But North Carolina decided to retain Bunting after the 2004 season, so Spurrier turned his focus to South Carolina, an area he was less familiar with and a program with a minimal history of success. Spurrier still relishes telling the story about how his friends in Florida asked him why he wanted the South Carolina job — after all, they told him, he could never win there.
“I really wanted this job because I felt like there was nowhere to go but up, and we had a chance to achieve so many firsts,” Spurrier says. “If (North Carolina) had fired (Bunting) that year, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Spurrier and his staff were not familiar with the dynamics of recruiting the state of South Carolina when they arrived in Columbia, and it took some time to adjust. The 2009 class was particularly valuable, as Alshon Jeffery (Rivals’ No. 13 receiver) came from nearby St. Matthews to join Holloman and Gilmore, who was the first of four consecutive South Carolina Mr. Footballs to choose the Gamecocks. Clowney, the No. 1 overall recruit in 2011, attended the same high school as Holloman and Gilmore.
“I think there was a little bit of a disconnect between the high school coaches in the state of South Carolina and the coaches at the University of South Carolina,” says Virginia Tech running backs coach Shane Beamer, who worked at South Carolina from 2007-10 and was recruiting coordinator in his final two seasons in Columbia. “So we just went out of our way to try and reach out to those guys and be very welcoming, go out of our way to get them on our campus. I think the biggest thing was just getting to know people.”
Though Clowney’s decision was huge, perhaps South Carolina’s most important recruit ever, and another South Carolina Mr. Football, arrived in 2010 — Marcus Lattimore, the nation’s No. 1 running back and No. 10 overall recruit.
“When Clowney came down on a (recruiting) visit, Marcus sat with him at a basketball game,” Spurrier says. “Marcus was one of our best recruiters, definitely. Marcus, I think as a player, he’s the most important. His influence around here was just terrific. He was always on time. He was one of the hardest workers in the weight room and in the offseason conditioning.”
Lattimore put up impressive numbers, including a school-record 38 career rushing touchdowns, but South Carolina has won the past two years with defense. The Gamecocks ranked No. 3 nationally in yards allowed per game in 2011 and No. 11 in 2012 — improvements from No. 46 in 2010.
Spurrier has embraced the notion that the foundation to winning the modern SEC is a power running game and stout defense. While he would still love for South Carolina to throw the ball more, like his Florida teams did, it is the winning, above all else, that keeps him coaching at age 68.
He isn’t setting any timetables for retirement, and he believes South Carolina’s progress is sustainable, because of things like a $13 million academic center for athletes that opened in 2010 and a $6.5 million video board at Williams-Brice Stadium that debuted last season. Those are major factors in recruiting.
“You’ve got to do that, but it was the first time we clearly made it an absolute issue: This is what we have to do to compete at the highest level,” Spurrier Jr. says. “And we started doing it. That made a clear difference.”
As Spurrier Jr. searches for the next Gilmore, Holloman, Jeffery, Lattimore or even Clowney, he can be more selective.
“Three years ago, we offered 200 guys,” he says. “Now we’re offering 30, 40, 50. We know we can offer a smaller pool of people. We can offer that top group and know we’re going to get a decent number of them.”
South Carolina offered scholarships to two rising in-state sophomores when they were ninth graders — another sign of how South Carolina’s staff has begun to master in-state recruiting. “We’ve watched them for two years,” Spurrier Jr. says of the sophomores. “We know who our schools are, who the players are. That certainly makes a difference.”
Written by Darryl Slater for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 SEC Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 SEC season.
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