Spur of the Moment: What was really behind Spurrier’s ‘enemies’ rant?

Steve Spurrier's 11th season at South Carolina opens Sept. 3 against North Carolina in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)

COLUMBIA — Was it really all over one comment in the Columbia newspaper?

Was that all it took for Steve Spurrier to summon the media on an hour and 15 minutes’ notice, stoke speculation over what this hastily-called news conference portended for his future as South Carolina’s head football coach, and spit fire interspersed with quotes from Attila the Hun? All because the local paper printed one comment from an out-of-town columnist that rubbed the Head Ball Coach the wrong way?

That was certainly what we were led to believe Wednesday, when Spurrier hosted his impromptu gaggle over at USC’s athletic department headquarters, and ranted about “enemies” trying to bring both him and the Gamecocks down. It was an odd 30 minutes or so, given that he had been asked all the usual questions about age and retirement the previous week at SEC Media Days outside Birmingham, and responded with a virtuoso performance that won over the room.

This time, reviews were not as positive. “He found a way to make himself look a whole lot older,” USA Today’s Dan Wolken wrote of the 70-year-old coach, effectively summarizing much of the national opinion. Spurrier has feuded with media members before, including a cold war with a former Columbia columnist that does not rank among his finest moments. But even by that standard, this seemed like an overreaction, particularly given the comment which supposedly prompted it.

Which, taken on face value, doesn’t seem all that inflammatory. Here’s what Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley told the Columbia paper, as part of a series of media opinions on the upcoming USC football season:

“I think they are a program on the descent, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see how long the coach stays. There are some guys you think, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be coaching when he’s 70.’ Steve Spurrier was never one of those guys for me, and it’s hard for me to envision him coaching much beyond this if he doesn’t think he has a chance to win, and I’m not sure he’s going to have a chance to win the next few years the way he’s had it the last few years.”

While that’s far from the most optimistic opinion, it hardly seems to merit putting someone on an “enemies” list. Using the media to attack the media isn’t the soundest of strategies, and it’s short-sighted to assume that the Columbia paper should be pro-Gamecocks all the time. Bradley responded later Wednesday with a column for the Atlanta paper which bore the headline, “Dear Coach Spurrier: What the heck was that about?”

Bradley stood by his comments, and added: “How can a man of such accomplishment not know that a certain amount of criticism comes with his high-profile (and high-salaried) job? How can he not have learned that such criticism is best ignored? How can a guy who has spent his adult life tweaking others, from Ray Goff to Can’t-Spell-Citrus-Without-U-T to Free Shoes U. to Dabo Swinney, feel he’s above the fray?”

Spurrier, bless him, is a dedicated reader of the local newspaper, often chiding the Columbia guys about things they’ve written (sometimes even months later). It’s also understandable that a fit, spry 70-year-old man — who’s as healthy as a 55-year-old, the team doctor tells him — would take a certain amount of pride in still being able to do the things he’s long been successful at. No question, there are people out there, some of them columnists, who are ready to write the guy off. It’s easier to gauge the situation up close. If you saw him call plays in the Auburn game, saw his glee after the Independence Bowl, and saw how engaged he was in spring practice, it’s pretty easy to surmise that he’s not done yet.

So this has all likely eaten away at Spurrier over time, like drops of water eroding a rock, and finding Bradley’s comment in his driveway one morning set him looking to put an end to it all. Is this really about the words of one Atlanta columnist who maybe writes about Spurrier three or four times a year? Probably not. It’s more likely tied to the negative recruiting tactics of other schools, to recruits wondering how long he’s going to be around, to a football program which Spurrier doesn’t want to see suffer because of questions related to his age.

We perhaps saw a hint of that toward the end of his comments Wednesday, when he referenced the major recruiting weekend the Gamecocks have on tap. “We’ve got a bunch of recruits coming in this weekend, we think some of them are going to commit to us, and they need to know who the coaches are. I certainly plan to be here with them,” he said. After all, it was recruiting which led Spurrier to amend his original “two- to three-year” plan to “four or five.” The timing of his comments Wednesday likely wasn’t accidental.

Spurrier has so much to be proud of, including his unprecedented run at South Carolina, which has one Board of Trustees member wanting to name the Williams-Brice Stadium playing field for him. It’s easy to see why all the focus on age and retirement has worn thin to one of the greatest coaches in SEC history. He wants to call his ball plays and step down when he feels the time is right, and not a moment sooner. USC, where he remains a beloved figure, will unquestionably allow him to do just that.

Which is why Wednesday’s rant seemed so unnecessary. Sure, it certainly fired up the Gamecocks faithful and served as a source of motivation for his players, which might have been part of the plan. But it also appeared somewhat fraught, particularly when compared to his performance from the dais a week earlier in Birmingham — when the Head Ball Coach seemed commanding, timeless, and in no need of addressing the subject in any other way.