COLUMBIA — Charlie Taaffe can’t help himself.
He still beams with pride and even gets a little emotional when talking about one of his former players, Everette Sands.
Taaffe and Sands spent five years together at The Citadel — Taaffe as the winningest football coach in the school’s history and Sands as a record-setting All-America running back. The bond the two forged over the course of those five seasons at The Citadel is as strong today as it was two decades ago.
“It takes a special kind of person to play at The Citadel, and Everette is a special person,” Taaffe said. “Football is such a small part of who Everette is as a human being. He’s the epitome of class. Everette’s one of a kind.”
That bond, that friendship that Sands and Taaffe established at The Citadel will have to be put on hold Saturday afternoon when South Carolina travels to Orlando to face Central Florida. For the first time in their coaching careers, Sands and Taaffe will be on opposite sidelines — Sands as the Gamecocks’ running backs coach and Taaffe as the Knights’ offensive coordinator.
“Everette and I have always been on the same team with the same goal of winning football games, so this will be different,” Taaffe said. “But I think once the game starts, it’s going to be all business. I’ll shake Everette’s hand before the game, we’ll catch up a little bit, but once the whistle blows, that friendship goes out the window. He’s got a job to do, and so do I.”
Said Sands: “It’ll be different. But it’s going to be special because of who Coach Taaffe is and what he’s meant to me during my football career.”
Taaffe first heard about Sands in 1988 when Conway High School coach Chuck Jordan told him about a running back on the school’s marching band.
“I think Everette was a tuba player,” Taaffe said with a chuckle. “I don’t think he quit the band until his senior season.”
For the record, Sands points out that he was drummer in the band and not a tuba player.
“If Coach is going to tell that story, he needs to get the right instrument,” Sands said, laughing. “Hey, I was a good drummer.”
Sands finished his Citadel career as the school’s second-leading rusher with 3,926 yards and 34 touchdowns. He had 1,449 yards and 12 TDs during his junior season in 1992 when he helped lead the Bulldogs to the Southern Conference title.
Along the way, the 6-1, 230-pound Sands earned the nickname “Sandman” for his punishing running style and his penchant for seeking out contact rather than avoiding it.
“Everette put more than one linebacker to sleep with the way he ran,” Taaffe said. “He was a great, great football player. He was a leader, too. He didn’t say a lot, but if he gave you that stare, trust me, his teammates responded.”
It was during his years at The Citadel that Sands began to think about becoming a coach. When his playing days were over, Sands was still taking advice from his former coach.
“Coach Taaffe was my first real mentor in football,” Sands said. “I respected him and his opinion.”
With 16 years in the profession and stints at Elon, Ohio, The Citadel, North Carolina State and now South Carolina, Sands has called Taaffe each time before making a move.
“He’s someone I trust, whose opinion I seek out when I’m making a decision,” Sands said. “He’s been in the business for 40 years and he’s won everywhere he’s been.”
Taaffe thinks Sands’ career path will eventually lead to a head coaching position.
“There’s no question in my mind that Everette will get that opportunity,” Taaffe said. “You just don’t find many candidates as qualified as Everette.”
Every week, USC’s assistant coaches are expected to give a scouting report on the Gamecocks’ upcoming opponent.
Last week, it was Sands who briefed USC’s staff on Central Florida’s offense.
“I told them to expect a very well-coached team, very fundamentally sound offense that’s going to take care of the ball,” Sands said. “They are going to come after us on every play. I told them to expect a war for 60 minutes.”
Taaffe, Sands said, is very comfortable being the underdog and will use that to motivate his team.
Sands played a major role in two of the biggest victories in Citadel history — the 38-35 upset of USC in 1990 and the 10-3 upset of Arkansas in 1992. Sands rushed for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns in the victory over the Gamecocks.
“I know exactly what coach Taaffe is going to say because I’ve been in that locker room before,” Sands said. “A lot of coaches will tell you that you can beat a certain team, but deep down they don’t believe it. Well, coach Taaffe believes it and he makes you believe it too. You can’t fake something like that. He’ll make a believer out of everyone in their locker room.”
It won’t take much for the Knights to believe they can knock off the 12th-ranked Gamecocks (2-1). Central Florida (3-0) has already beaten Penn State, 34-31, this season.
“I think (Central Florida) beating Penn State actually will help us,” Sands said. “When we talk about how good they are, it won’t be just talk. That win proves that Central Florida is for real.”