‘Talking season’ kicks off

Former South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier’s address to the print media was always among the highlights of SEC Media Days.

He tossed around one-liners like he once tossed touchdown passes, needled opponents with such folksy finesse it was difficult to tell whether they were being insulted or praised. Steve Spurrier didn’t just speak at SEC Media Days — he held court in a question-and-answer session that was almost always the highlight of the event.

That was undoubtedly the case one year ago, when over the course of his quip-filled address the Head Ball Coach repeatedly parried questions about his potential retirement. “You don’t know what’s going to happen down the road,” the South Carolina coach said then, certainly having no idea of what would unfold just three months later.

SEC Media Days begins again Monday, with 14 coaches, 42 players and several hundred media members converging on the Hyatt Wynfrey for the four-day event. But a notable absence will be Spurrier, who stepped down last season in the middle of what would become a 3-9 campaign. The centerpiece of “talking season” will take place without the coach who coined the term.

At least he left at the top of his game. Last year’s appearance was one of Spurrier’s best — he dinged Tennessee and Arkansas for doing “cartwheels” over the same 7-6 record USC had finished with the season before, needled some media members about whether they should be retired by now, joked about the salaries of Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin, and said oddsmaker Danny Sheridan should release betting lines on whether coaches would last four years.

It was vintage Spurrier, both defiant and self-deprecating at the same time. “Somebody said, ‘Why are you still coaching?’ I said, ‘Well, I forgot to get fired, and I’m not going to cheat.’ That’s about the way you lose your job,” he said. “You get fired for losing or you cheat, and then they get somebody else. So I’ve not done any of those to any extent big time, I guess.”

And yet, looking back over Spurrier’s comments in Hoover last season, his actions of Oct. 12 — after a near-disaster against winless Central Florida and road losses at Missouri and LSU — seem almost telegraphed. Again and again, Spurrier, then 70, was asked about his age. Again and again, he brought it back to winning and losing.

“If we go bad and they need a new coach there,” he said, “then I’d be the first one to say, ‘You need a new coach here.’ ”

When it went bad, that’s just what he did. That day in metro Birmingham, Spurrier said he maintained a regular workout routine, that he perhaps delegated more than other head coaches, that his age was not at issue. He grew so sensitive on the matter that a few weeks later he would hastily call a press conference to denounce “enemies” in the media who he believed were using his age against him.

Losing, though, was another issue. “The big thing is, we’re winning,” Spurrier said last year in Hoover. “That’s the big thing. We’re winning, and it’s fun.”

Once South Carolina ceased winning and coaching ceased being fun, Spurrier wasted no time in telling athletic director Ray Tanner that he needed a new coach, just as he said he’d do. In December, Spurrier was succeeded by Will Muschamp, who will take the stage Thursday for his first SEC Media Days since his final season at Florida in 2014, and isn’t a bad stump-speaker himself.

But he’s no Spurrier. Nobody is. Part elder statesman, part comedian, part roastmaster, the Head Ball Coach filled the room for what was always the most anticipated and tweeted-about session of Media Days. The kickoff to what he used to call “talking season” will not be the same without him.

“We’ve got some goals there that we’ve not hit yet,” Spurrier, still optimistic, said a year ago. “That retirement thing, I don’t think I’d be very good at it. I can go to the beach and stay four or five days, and, ‘Hey, let’s get on out of here. We’ve been here long enough.’ None of us know how long we’re going to be here. None of us know.”