COLUMBIA, SC - by David Cloninger, GamecockCentral.com
Physically, he looks almost the same. Same brown hair with graying edges, same smirk, same golfing stance. About the only thing that's changed is he sometimes has to wear a wrap around a balky knee, triggering the need to ride a golf cart to practice every day instead of walking over with his team.
Entering year seven, Steve Spurrier looks as a 66-year-old coach about like he did as a 59-year-old coach, when he was hired at South Carolina. He's softened a bit with his public verbal jabs but is still as biting as ever in practice, still able to make a quarterback dread the day he ever first learned to grip on the laces and fling it.
The Spurrier swagger that he flaunted during his years on the Florida sideline may never truly return, but there have been glimpses during his tenure with the Gamecocks. He's learned to limit them to few and far between, finding out what many have found out about USC - bragging about the Gamecocks is never good. Just as soon as things seem to be at an all-time high, the proverbial anvil is waiting to fall just around the corner.
Spurrier found that out in 2007, when he boasted in the preseason about how he finally felt he had the talent to win an SEC title. That edition of the Gamecocks soared to a 6-1 record, only to lose at home to Vanderbilt the next week and plummet to five straight losses and no bowl game.
That one taught a lesson, Spurrier later going to SEC Media Days and saying, from 2007 and from his days at Florida, that it didn't pay to stand up there and a make a lot of cute remarks. It's why entering year seven, when he could have his greatest team ever at USC, he's adopting the same approach.
"We're an unknown team," Spurrier said on Tuesday. "We've gotten high expectations. We have to earn it on the field and go from there."
No sniggering comments about the opposition or cracks at the other coach's expense. There are still quite a few snazzy one-liners or crusades that Spurrier might take against whatever's bothering him that week, but otherwise he remains on an even keel. Even as his seventh USC team is expected to do things never before approached (and barely dreamed of) in program history, he's staying on cruise control instead of punching the accelerator.
"I know every time a team is picked fairly high, they say, 'It doesn't affect us,'" Spurrier said. "It doesn't affect some teams. But we're just trying to push on, and we're really not talking about preseason hype, just trying to play our best to win a ballgame this week and improve before the next one."
Spurrier learned the hard way that he couldn't approach the USC job the way he did in his heyday at Florida. With the Gators, immediate success became an invitation for top recruits to keep the success going, and worked. At USC, Spurrier couldn't be as selective with any recruit, since many simply weren't lining up to play for the Gamecocks.
While in Gainesville, Spurrier mostly had to answer the phone and say yes or no, he had to comb the country looking for players for USC. He was able to make inroads into Georgia, North Carolina and Florida and has started to sway the top in-state players in recent years, resulting in big name after big name pledging to the Gamecocks.
The process has multiplied each year. Three seasons ago, Spurrier landed a commitment from one of the top players in the state when Stephon Gilmore cast his lot with USC. The next year, the state's top player and one of the nation's best, Marcus Lattimore, committed.
In February, the top player from the state and country became a Gamecock when Jadeveon Clowney decided to aid the cause. "He was a huge sign for us," Spurrier said. "The number-one guy thinks South Carolina can win big."
The preseason hype has steadily increased, one New York writer even picking the Gamecocks to win the national championship. Spurrier seems to be enjoying it, but not voicing it, as he knows the pitfalls that could await he and his team.
He took the job in November 2004 as a packed house awaited him in the South end zone of Williams-Brice Stadium. While the hire was widely known, it was still a shock to see a man who had morphed into a feared legend in just his first few years at Florida walk through the door with a garnet-and-black tie on, spouting "Why not us?" and promising that brighter days were ahead.
It took him longer than he expected, and softened him a bit. But every now and again, he still changes into the Ol' Ball Coach, throwing sarcasm as well as his quarterbacks used to throw spirals.
It's staying under wraps so far this year, but one gets the feeling it could emerge around January.