HOOVER, Ala. — Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina football program reached its peak at SEC Media Days last year. The Gamecocks, coming off three straight 11-2 seasons, were picked to win the SEC East.
Then came the first kickoff, a lopsided season-opening home loss to Texas A&M. Paper expectations gradually eroded into the reality of 7-6.
But a “rejuvenated” Head Ball Coach was sharp and sassy as ever Tuesday. He made the most of mediocrity. He stole the week, continuing a Steve Spurrier Show tradition that’s been an SEC Media Days hit since his glory days as Florida head coach.
“There’s a lot of buzz with Arkansas and Tennessee, and rightfully so,” Spurrier said at the Wynfrey Hotel. “They had good years last year. Guess what? They had the same year we had: 7-6 and won the bowl game. So some 7-6 records are better than others.”
South Carolina will be picked to finish fourth or fifth in their division when the SEC Media Days poll is released Thursday.
That won’t rattle Spurrier, who seems to have added an emotional adjustment routine to a daily workout schedule that keeps a 70-year-old man famously fit. He went on about the joy of edging Miami at the Duck Commander Independence Bowl. After letting games against Missouri, Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee slip away and after a 35-17 loss at Clemson, that dreary afternoon in Shreveport looks better and better.
“There are people in Knoxville and Fayetteville doing cartwheels for going 7-6,” Spurrier said. “And we were doing cartwheels, too. We were very happy to be 7-6 the way our season turned out.”
Like fat to muscle, humility has been turned into inspiration.
Which is good, because South Carolina needs all the energy it can get. Connor Mitch and other unproven quarterbacks are still battling for the starting spot and there’s a large leadership void on the roster. Spurrier’s problem isn’t his age, but the real possibility of a continued slide in the standings.
But Spurrier thinks a defense that gave up more yards than everyone else in the SEC except Texas A&M last year will improve with the addition of co-coordinator Jon Hoke, a longtime NFL coach who once ran the defense for Spurrier at Florida.
“We were overhyped last year,” Spurrier said. “The media boys here in the SEC picked us to win the East and when they picked the all-conference team on defense we had one third-team guy, (defensive back) Brison Williams. So I mean, how are we supposed to stop people? Well, we didn’t stop anybody too much.”
That didn’t stop Spurrier from coming through with an annual zinger for Alabama head coach Nick Saban (and his salary). Asked about retirement, Spurrier went on the offensive.
“We’ve got some coaches in our league who may go to the NFL someday,” he said. “There’s no guarantee they’re going to be at this school the way some of those NFL teams can offer $15 million, $20 million a year to coach. If one of them offered Coach Saban, it would make that $7.2 million look paltry to him probably.”
Spurrier was asked if he’s “comfortable” with low expectations that come with the 2015 season.
“Comfortable?” he responded.
Uh, no. Always better to worry about 11-2 standards and first-place predictions.
Spurrier, utterly conscientious of perception in Hoover or back home, brought up the South Carolina bottom line.
“I think the fans still like me there,” he said. “I think all the records and so forth that we have there are still pretty good.”
Before Spurrier found himself in the shadow of his own success, South Carolina fans would have celebrated a 7-6 season that included wins over Georgia, Florida and a bowl game foe.
First-place expectations are so 2014. But if the Gamecocks can have another winning record and win the last game — better yet, the second-to-last game — a happy 71-year-old coach will hold court at SEC Media Days 2016.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff