COLUMBIA - The date was Nov. 20, 1999, and the result was the same as it had been the previous 20 outings - a defeat. That 31-21 home loss to Clemson would prove the last gasp of an epic 21-game skid that came to define the futility of South Carolina football. This was, after all, a program with an under .500 record for its history, that forever hadn't won a bowl game, that even the great Lou Holtz was having difficulty in turning around.
That was also the last game I covered as a USC beat writer - hey, after seeing every one of those defeats up close, and witnessing the personal toll all those losses exacted on the players and coaches involved, you'd run off to NASCAR for a decade, too. But everything comes full circle eventually, and beginning this week your humble correspondent is once again around the Gamecocks - and let me tell you, this program bears zero resemblance to the one I covered for an Upstate paper in the late 1990s.
During his tenure in Columbia, Holtz often talked about trying to change the culture of South Carolina football, which to those of us who grew up in this state seemed about as realistic as the diminutive coach bench-pressing a Buick. But Steve Spurrier hasn't only changed the culture of the Gamecocks program, he's altered the entire landscape, something that becomes startlingly obvious after 14 years away.
There have been plenty of physical changes over that span, from the needed upgrades to Williams-Brice Stadium, to the overdue transformation of the state farmer's market into the lovely Gamecock Park, to the new practice fields where construction workers are laying sod as we speak. But the shift in collective mindset has been nothing short of revolutionary. Looking around the practice field the other day, I realized there's hardly anyone connected with this program - with the exception of a handful of support personnel - who have firsthand memories of the bad old days. Spurrier has never had a losing season. His assistants know this only as a program relevant on the national scale. His players were in grammar school the last time the Gamecocks finished with more defeats than victories. To them, something like a 21-game losing streak might as well be a fairy tale.
To Palmetto State natives, who knew only years of struggle, who believed in ridiculous things like a Chicken Curse, it seems amazing that it all happened, much less became the expectation. Indeed, there are probably old-timers who shudder at just the idea of reading such words on the page, as if the mere mention of those dark times will bring them all rushing back. The difference between then and now, though, is transformational. The players are better, the roster is deeper, the coaches are confident. You lose the program's winningest quarterback and first No. 1 overall draft pick, and you reload. This is a Southeastern Conference program in every sense of the word, as opposed to a decade ago when it was an SEC team in name only.
Of course, anything can happen, and as we see up at Ohio State these days, even great programs are only one injury away from becoming a question mark. South Carolina suddenly has some injury issues on the offensive line. Dylan Thompson could be the quarterback who handled Clemson, or the one who fell into a hole against Missouri. Conference road games at Auburn, Florida, and even Kentucky - how many narrow escapes do the Gamecocks have in Lexington? - lay in wait. There's every reason to believe the Gamecocks could be playing in Atlanta for the SEC title, and every reason for hand-wringing.
But even so, we've come a very long way from the days when August in Columbia meant airwaves awash in panic. All programs take their cue from their head coach, and to see Spurrier's swagger, even at age 69 - well, no wonder the Gamecocks have come so far. No wonder people believe. The culture change hasn't just happened, it's become entrenched, like the footings of the big stadium overlooking the practice fields. All those losses from all those years ago might as well have occurred on another planet. The players who will emerge from the tunnel Thursday night against Texas A&M are indeed still Gamecocks, just like the ones who lost to Clemson in late 1999. These, though, are of a very different breed.
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