Sometimes it’s worth looking at where you’ve come from to appreciate where it is you’re going. For fans of The University of South Carolina, the years may have been fun at times, but certainly not kind. The modern era of Gamecock football (for purposes of this article, 1969-present) has been characterized by long periods of mediocrity puctuated by all-to-brief moments of excellence and glaring instances of soul-crushing agony.
1969 was a year in which the future of Gamecock football looked bright. We had the ACC coach of the year in Paul Dietzel. We had the Conference championship. We had beaten the hated Clemson Tigers. To some, the ACC was beginning to look like an anchor holding USC athletics down, rather than a springboard to greatness, and so the decision to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference was made, and the ramifications of that decision would be felt to this very day.
Life after the ACC looked good. A measure of national prominence was attained by coach Jim Carlen, peaking in the 1980 season, in which beloved running back George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy. The Gamecocks enjoyed an eight win season that year, the highlights of which were wins over Bo Schembechler’s #3 ranked Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. The zenith of Carolina football came in 1984, when coach Joe Morrison led the Gamecocks to a still-best-ever ten win season.
These are moments that the Carolina fan base will remember fondly forever, but remembering these moments requires us to forget much, much more. from 1969-1984 Carolina won zero bowl games. In that same time, our record against Clemson was 5-10. Overall record: 96-83-2. A winning record, but hardly stellar, and certainly not up to the expectations of fans who had believed the program was headed to national recognition.
The bottom really fell out from 1985-1999. Playing as an independant was catching up to the Gamecocks, and the coaching hires of Sparky Woods and Brad Scott during this time was doing little to keep us competitive. The lone bright spot was a win in the Carquest Bowl, the first ever (!) bowl win for the Gamecocks. Overall record during these years: 72-88-6, including a pitiful 4-10-1 against Clemson. The dream of national championship caliber Carolina football seemed dead. Suprisingly, the goundwork for future success had been laid in the waning years of this era, even if the fans weren’t seeing the payoff yet.
The Gamecocks entered the Southeastern Conference in 1992. Playing in the SEC would turn out to be absolutely critical to the re-emergence of the USC football program, but there was a price to be paid: yearly shellackings at the hands of Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, plus assorted other thumpings from well-established SEC teams like Alabama and Auburn. A hire was made that seemd to be in step with USC’s commitment to success: Lou Holtz. Perhaps the phoenix (er, Gamecock) could rise from the ashes after all.
Holtz led the Gamecocks to the oft-mentioned Outback Bowl wins of 2000-2001, universally recognized by Gamecock fans as the highest peak of Carolina Football since the ’84 season, and the winningest two year stretch of Gamecock football EVER. These impressive feats lose a bit of luster when one remembers that Holtz finished a USC with an overall losing record (33-37), a losing record against Clemson (1-5) and losing records against SEC East rivals Florida (0-6), Tennessee (0-6) and Georgia (2-3). It should also be mentioned here that the price for Holtz’ 2000-2001 seasons was staggeringly high. NCAA rules violations resulted in disciplinary action against the university, and we were subjected to perhaps the ugliest moment in Gamecock history: The 2004 brawl in Clemson that cost us a bowl game (self-imposed penalty) and any national respect we had accrued.
This was the scenario facing Steve Spurrier when he took the reigns as head coach in 2005. More than a century of Gamecock football had yielded three bowl wins, one Heisman trophy, one championship season and little else. Things were getting ready to change.
It’s hard to overstate Spurrier’s impact on Carolina football. Since his arrival, the Gamecocks have seen sweeping, game-changing improvements in their program, ranging from facilities to basic contractual obligations. Consider this: since Spurrier arrived, the parking lot at Williams-Brice Stadium is no longer a dustbowl of shame, athletes study in a multi-million dollar academic enrichment center, our radio contract allows us to reach three times as many listeners as the previous one, we have an apparell contract with Under Armor that actually PAYS US rather than vice-versa and have been featured on television more than all the previous years combined. These basic improvements, made thanks to the efforts of Spurrier and Athletics Director Eric Hyman (and with a wink and a nod to our SEC membership) have attracted recruits the likes of which our bedraggled little program has never seen. Alshon Jefferey. Sidney Rice. Stephon Gilmore. Marcus Lattimore. Jadeveon Clowney. These are players around which championship teams are built, and we are getting closer to that promised land. Prior to Spurrier, our program had a two wins over top five teams, and none over top-ranked teams. Spurrier matched those two wins by beating a #4 and a #1 in the following year. We compete with our SEC rivals, no longer a doormat for teams of the east. We own multiple wins over Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. We went to the SEC Championship game, gateway to the National Championship for five years running. More good news: we arent losing to Clemson anymore, having reached a 3-3 mark against the Tigers with consecutive dominant wins. We have been bowl-eligible every single year of Spurrier’s tenure. We have no losing records in that time.
If all of this isn’t enough to get you to admit that the Gamecocks have arrived, then I remind you: 2011 is projected by EVERYONE in the nation to be our Best. Year. Yet.
There is truly no part of Gamecock football that has not been made better during Spurrier’s tenure. You are watching the best teams we’ve ever fielded, who are winning against the toughest competition we’ve ever faced. You are watching players regarded as the nation’s best by the National Media, that have the best coaches and are playing in the best facilities. There’s never been another time like this at Carolina, it is a time of joy for the Gamecock fan, it is a time of excellence for the team. It is our time of elevation.