COLUMBIA — The first time Steve Spurrier crossed paths with Bear Bryant was on Oct. 24, 1964, five games into Spurrier’s first season as Florida’s quarterback. Bryant was in his seventh year as Alabama’s coach. He had already won one national championship, in 1961, and would win five more, including 1964.
Spurrier and Florida played the Crimson Tide close that day in Tuscaloosa. Spurrier, who has a photographic memory for such things, still recalls the score, 17-14, in favor of Alabama. But maybe that’s because there was something else memorable for him about the game.
“I got my teeth knocked out in that game,” Spurrier said. “I’ve had them replaced a couple of times since. Back then, we didn’t wear mouthpieces or anything. I got a helmet right under my helmet. Spit it out and kept on playing. I left a tooth on the field there.”
Spurrier never faced Alabama again in his playing career. As a head coach, he didn’t have a chance to match wits with Bryant, who died in January 1983, about a month after announcing his retirement. Later that year, Spurrier became a head coach for the first time, with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the U.S. Football League.
On Saturday afternoon, when South Carolina hosts Wofford, Spurrier likely will accomplish something previously done only by Bryant — become the winningest coach at two SEC schools. Bryant won 232 games at Alabama and 60 at Kentucky, where he worked from 1946-53. Spurrier won 122 games at Florida from 1990-2001. A victory Saturday, in his eighth year at USC, would give him 64, tying him with Rex Enright for the school record.
Spurrier already is, by any measure, USC’s most successful coach ever. He has the Gamecocks’ only 11-win season, last year, and could equal the feat this season. His .636 winning percentage (63-37) is by far the best in school history among coaches who spent at least three seasons in Columbia.
Shortly after arriving at USC, Spurrier said his goal was to pass Enright. Presuming he beats Wofford, he will need to win either next week’s game at Clemson or USC’s bowl game to do it.
“When I got the job here, I just sort of checked out the history,” he said. “The only reason I said that was a goal of mine was because I wanted people to know I would be here eight to 10 years and go from there. We hoped in eight years that we might have a chance (to get the record). Of course, three years ago, it looked like it might take 10 or 12 years to get to 64.”
In Spurrier’s first five seasons, USC went 7-5, 8-5, 6-6, 7-6 and 7-6, for 35 wins. After that, the Gamecocks went 9-5, 11-2 and are 8-2 this season, for 28 wins.
Spurrier loves telling the story about how, when he took the USC job in 2005, “I had a few buddies say, ‘You can’t win there. Nobody else has. Why do you think you can?’ ”
He considered that question this week. Why did he think he could?
“Nowhere to go but up,” he said. “I like those situations. It is a big state university with excellent high school talent in the state. I thought, like some people thought, that here was a place that has not reached its potential yet — very similar to Florida in 1990.”
Spurrier said a big factor in getting the talent he needed to win at USC was the school’s athletic facilities upgrades — the type of big-money spending that can often lead to wins, and has.
“I was lucky to be there at the right time and the right place,” Spurrier said. “That is what coaching is all about — get somewhere at the right time, at the right place with some good players. It took a few years to get real good players here, but we’ve got a lot better players now than those first few years.”