COLUMBIA — Steve Spurrier remembers the first coaching trip to his home state cathedral. Every detail is etched in his memory — remarkable, since it happened more than 30 years ago.
Spurrier vs. Tennessee at Neyland Stadium
1988: Duke 31, Tennessee 26
1989: Tennessee 28, Duke 6
1990: Tennessee 45, Florida 3
1992: Tennessee 31, Florida 14
1994: Florida 31, Tennessee 0
1996: Florida 35, Tennessee 29
1998: Tennessee 20, Florida 17
2000: Florida 27, Tennessee 23
2005: USC 16, Tennessee 15
2007: Tennessee 27, USC 24
2009: Tennessee 31, USC 13
2011: USC 14, Tennessee 3
Spurrier was Duke’s offensive coordinator in 1982. The Blue Devils opened their season with a game inside Neyland Stadium, less than two hours from Spurrier’s childhood home in Johnson City, Tenn. Spurrier’s dad would take him and his brother to Tennessee games when they were young, anytime he could come across free tickets. They would sit in the end-zone bleachers, high up in the stadium.
Years later, as a Duke assistant, he looked across the field at future NFL stars Reggie White and Willie Gault, trying to beat the same team.
“Reggie had a bad ankle that night and was not that effective against us,” Spurrier remembered.
“It was one of the most fun games I’ve ever coached. Duke, we won the game, 25-24. We ran out the last 9:30 from our 1-yard line to their 1-yard line, quarterback took a knee to end the game. When they took their last timeout, I told (quarterback) Ben Bennett, ‘Don’t you dare take that ball in the end zone. We’re going to kill this game right on this 1-yard line,’ which we were fortunate enough to do.
“So that was my first time to ever coach at Knoxville, Neyland Stadium — and a whole bunch of times since. It’s always a thrill to go there.”
Spurrier’s next trip comes Saturday when No. 11 South Carolina has a noon kickoff against Tennessee on ESPN. He’s searching for his 15th win against Tennessee, with just eight losses. At Duke, Florida and USC, Spurrier teams are 6-6 in Knoxville. The rubber match comes Saturday.
To Spurrier, Neyland Stadium remains a special place, just like it was when he’d sit on the bleachers with his dad and brother. It doesn’t matter that the Volunteers (3-3, 0-2 SEC East) morphed into a shell of their former self, with no resemblance of their rich history. It doesn’t matter that the Gamecocks (5-1, 3-1 SEC East) have replaced them in the SEC East’s upper echelon.
“Always a huge game anytime you play Tennessee,” Spurrier said. “Probably one of our biggest rivals, Georgia and Tennessee, instate Clemson, of course. But it’s always fun for our team when you go to the largest stadium and play a team with the tradition of Tennessee. So that’s what we’re doing this Saturday.”
South Carolina’s first game in Knoxville came in 1916. It lost, 26-0. The Gamecocks wouldn’t win in Knoxville for the next 89 years — until Spurrier became head coach. The 16-15 road win in 2005 opened the floodgates. USC is 2-2 at Neyland Stadium during Spurrier’s tenure, including an overtime loss in 2007.
On Saturday, USC is hoping to get its fourth straight win against Tennessee and its sixth in nine games under Spurrier. It has been a remarkable turn of events in the series. Before Spurrier came to Columbia, USC was just 2-19-2 against Tennessee.
The Gamecocks’ changing fortunes in the series coincided with the Volunteers’ collapse. Since 2000, Tennessee has had at least eight wins in a season just seven times. It had eight wins in every season of the 1990s.
In a different time, it would be absurd to think USC could overlook Tennessee. Sandwiched between a confidence-building blowout at Arkansas and a potentially huge game next week at No. 14 Missouri, the second matchup in a three-game road trip lacks some sizzle. Except, when Spurrier is involved, something interesting usually happens.
“I don’t think you can pay too much attention to that because in the SEC, any kind of day you can lose,” senior quarterback Connor Shaw said. “It doesn’t matter how much Tennessee struggled in recent history. We know that Tennessee had our number before coach Spurrier got here. So it’s going to be an intense game for us.”