If you happened to tune in to a South Carolina football game this year, you might get the impression that the sport is less a competition between helmet-wearing giants than a traveling exhibition of facial contortions. During the Gamecocks' first three games—all nationally broadcast, for the first time in living memory—the producers cut to the sidelines after nearly every play to see what Carolina's ruddy, 60-year-old coach Steve Spurrier would do next. Fumble: Spurrier grimaces. Touchdown: Spurrier pumps his fist. Incompletion: Spurrier claps wanly.
With Saturday's 37-14 loss to Alabama, Spurrier's record is a not-very-Lombardiesque 1-2. The enfant terrible of college coaches isn't such an enfant anymore: It's been nearly a decade since his national championship with the University of Florida. And after two terrible seasons in the NFL with the Washington Redskins, his genius credentials are in need of a little burnishing. Enter the Gamecocks. Spurrier hopes to make South Carolina his Elba, the beachhead from which he'll once again conquer the college rankings. If history is any guide, though, it's more likely to be his Devil's Island. Coaches go to South Carolina, but they never come back.
Columbia, S.C., the city where I was born and raised, is a pleasant town most notable for being the second-most-notable city to be burned during the Civil War. Perhaps the Union army sowed our football fields with salt so that no decent team would ever grow again. Despite an ample supply of local talent, Gamecocks football has almost always been lousy, a ne'er-do-well cousin to regional powers like Georgia and Florida State. I could quote many statistics to illustrate the team's futility, but one really sums it up: Since World War II, no South Carolina head coach has gone on to another head coaching job after leaving the school. Ever. Anywhere.
For decades, the team lost every bowl game it played, and fans muttered about a "Chicken Curse" that guaranteed any fleeting Gamecocks success would be followed by calamity. In 1984, a squad coached by former New York Giants fullback Joe Morrison—imagine Johnny Cash with a clipboard—started the season with nine straight victories, rising to No. 2 in the rankings. They were then upset by Navy—Navy!—and stumbled to a miserable loss in the Gator Bowl. This nonetheless ranks as the greatest year in school history. Four mediocre seasons later, amid a steroids scandal that led to the indictment of four of his assistant coaches, Morrison dropped dead of a heart attack after a game of racquetball. In a recent online poll conducted by the local newspaper, fans voted him the team's best-ever coach. (Spurrier, before coaching a single game, was running second.)
Other coaches got off easier than Morrison—South Carolina only killed their reputations. Lou Holtz brought the team a pair of midlevel bowl wins but nothing close to dominance. By the end fans had soured on his uninspired offensive schemes and the players' thuggish behavior. Holtz's final game before retirement, against upstate archrival Clemson, was ended by the referees after a wild, helmet-tossing brawl. If that note wasn't sour enough, the team is also now on NCAA probation for three years due to some Holtz-era rule-bending.
You'd think we'd learn not to get our hopes up. But South Carolinians have long been adept at denying the unpleasant aspects of our past—in high school, a guest speaker told my history class that the Civil War wasn't really about slavery. And, disappointments be damned, we love our football. Since Spurrier came to town, South Carolina fans have genuflected to the coach whose strutting, pass-happy style at Florida always had a way of infuriating his opponents. The Gamecocks had been the victim of some of those routs—Spurrier had, in fact, been one of the most hated men in town. But Columbians decided to forget all that past unpleasantness.
When I went home to visit my family before the first game of the year, one of the first things I saw was an airport billboard that boasted, "We got Spurrier!" In the week leading up to his debut, the newspaper ran a series of front-page articles that examined everything from his quarterbacking drills to his habit of tossing his trademark visor when frustrated. (A good Spurrier throw, one article explained, can go "Frisbee-style from the out-of-bounds stripe on the sideline to the team bench.") The Sunday paper included a 104-page insert fronted by a gauzy Spurrier portrait and a single-word headline: "BELIEVE."
The opening game, against Central Florida, was moved to Thursday night for television. By mid-afternoon on the appointed day, all business in Columbia had shut down as thousands of fans skipped work to slug beers, grill piquant mustard barbeque, and talk like contenders. Never mind the analysts' predictions, the tough competition in the Southeastern Conference, or the fact that several players—Holtz's recruits—had been suspended during the offseason for offenses ranging from larceny to drug use. The tailgaters I hung out with bandied about predictions of a bowl game; my sister's boyfriend passed around victory cigars before the season's first snap.
Central Florida, which went winless in 2004, didn't figure to be a tough opponent. On the fifth play of the game, sophomore quarterback Blake Mitchell threw a 49-yard touchdown pass. On the team's second possession, Mitchell drove down the field using the no-huddle offense for a second score. A guy in front of me shouted, "When he was at Florida, I hated him." His friend hollered back, "Now we love 'im!"
In the second half, the Gamecocks offense came to a dead stop. Central Florida scored a touchdown after a couple of South Carolina fumbles. Then a field goal. On the subsequent kickoff, South Carolina fumbled again. The fan in front of me buried his head in his wife's shoulder. It was all happening again. But the Gamecocks stopped the Golden Knights on fourth-and-goal and eventually escaped with a 24-15 victory. The next day's newspaper devoted its entire front page to a huge Spurrier picture. (And it wasn't a slow news day—a headline on Page 3 read, "Anarchy rules in New Orleans.")
Genius or not, Spurrier can't win games all by himself. Against Georgia in Week 2, the Gamecocks nearly pulled off a big upset before losing by two. We savored the familiar taste of a moral victory. Then came Saturday's home-field debacle in which the defense couldn't stop the Alabama running game and the vaunted Spurrier offense didn't do a thing. "It was sad to watch," the coach conceded afterwards. It certainly was torture, at least for those who stuck around. By the fourth quarter, the team was playing in front of thousands of empty seats. So much for belief.