Guest Columnist Trey Gunnels brings us another look in to the gamecock program.
1998: by Trey Gunnels
Take a poll of events in the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry and it’s almost impossible to find a consensus. However, November 21,1998, is one. No one, in either fan base, would ever want to return to that dreadful night.
Tommy West and his 2-8 Tigers were set to host Brad Scott and his 1-9 Gamecocks. Both coaches were coaching their final games and the rivalry had hit an historical low point. Clemson won the game 28-19 in Death Valley (or as Todd Ellis calls it, “Memorial Stadium.”), but it really didn’t matter. Both programs were in desperate need of a face lift.
Clemson’s rise to prominence is easy to explain. Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips was the greatest judge of character in the history of the world in 2008. How else can you explain deciding to hitch your wagon to a young, unproven assistant coach (who had never even been a coordinator) in Dabo Swinney? What makes that decision even more remarkable, is the fact that Swinney was named interim coach during a turbulent season when Tommy Bowden stepped down. Normally, those situations don’t lead to the interim coach being retained.
Ten years and two National titles later, and you have the perfect formula. It doesn’t seem like it can be duplicated (unless you’re Clemson. See Danny Ford) but I don’t think any Clemson fan cares. It has worked phenomenally well for the Tigers.
Carolina’s road to “success” is a lot more complicated and incomplete. Since Scott’s departure, the Gamecocks have made three head football coaching hires. Two older legends and one former young prodigy. The opinions of all three vary greatly. I will now give you mine.
Lou Holtz. As a Gamecocks fan, I will unequivocally say the Lou Holtz hire was the single most important football hire for the Gamecocks since joining the SEC.
Holtz’ overall record at USC was 33-37. His SEC record was 19-29. On the surface, that sounds pathetic. However, his accomplishments were a lot greater than the record. For one thing, he was the first coach to give the program viability. Carolina joined the SEC in 1992. Prior to Holtz, the Gamecocks conference record was 18-37-1. Brad Scott’s last team was literally quitting on the field. When Holtz went 0-11 in 1999, the team was competing hard. Any person with knowledge of football could see that positive results were on the verge of becoming reality. Carolina’s conference record, under Holtz, was 19-21 after that first season. The next year they went 7-4 and soundly defeated Ohio State in their first of two consecutive Outback Bowl victories against the Buckeyes.
I’ll never forget the 2000 Carolina-Clemson game.
The two years removed from the 1998 debacle seemed like a lifetime. The 7-3 Gamecocks and 8-2 Tigers were both ranked and the game had all the makings of a classic. Carolina was leading 14-13 in the waning seconds. Clemson faced a third down and “forever.” QB Woody Dantzler threw a desperation bomb to Rod Gardner. Gardner clearly shoved Gamecock DB Andre Goodman and hauled in the 50-yard reception. A 25-yard chip shot FG at the gun gave Clemson the controversial 16-14 victory. Carolina fans call it, “The Push-Off Game.” Clemson fans remember it as the “Catch II” (Jerry Butler 1977). I remember the fights among the fans afterwards. And I don’t mean arguments. Good old fashioned fist fights. It was the perfect formula for fighting. The two programs were both good for the first time in forever, game ended in controversial fashion and it was night.
In 2001, Carolina finished 8-3 and defeated Ohio State in the Outback Bowl again. This was probably Holtz’ best team. Victories over Ohio State, Georgia on the road, Clemson, and Alabama. For the first time ever, Gamecock fans felt like we belonged in the SEC. But unfortunately, it was short lived.
The shuttlebutt is that Holtz wanted to retire after 2001 and turn the reigns over to his son, Skip. I’ve often wondered how that would have played out. Being the son of a famous father can be extremely difficult. Even cruel. But it’s my belief that Skip would have fared well in Columbia. He was a successful head coach in 1998 at then Division Two UConn. He left the Huskies to be his father’s offensive coordinator at South Carolina. He took the position in Columbia as a favor to his father. Not the other way around.
Athletic Director Mike McGee was able to convince Lou to stay. Two mediocre seasons (concluded with the 2004 Brawl) later, and Holtz retired. However, it is my belief that this tenure had to happen in order to lure one Steven Orr Spurrier to Columbia.
Not that Spurrier was afraid of a challenge. He embraces them. He won the ACC at Duke and Florida was not Florida before Spurrier. However, he wouldn’t have taken a program in the condition of the 1998 Gamecocks. At that time, Florida and Tennessee were national powers (Florida 1996 National Champion/ Tennessee 1998) and Georgia wasn’t the program of today but they were still Georgia. In my opinion, Holtz had to build the program up to the level he did or Spurrier wouldn’t have arrived on campus in Dec 2004 and left eleven years later as the winningest coach in South Carolina history.
In didn’t happen overnight. The Gamecocks, under Spurrier, had their share of positive moments the first 4-5 years but the program didn’t appear to be progressing at the rate many expected. In fact, after starting the 2007 season 6-1 (Top 10 ranking), Carolina lost a home shocker to Vanderbilt 17-6. They wouldn’t win another game. They finished the season 6-6 and didn’t qualify for a bowl. Many thought that Spurrier might just take his ball and go home. South Carolina was never going to fire Spurrier, but as we now know, he could always quit on South Carolina.
Ironically, the 2008 mid season coaching change at Clemson would serve as the catalyst for an in state recruiting bonanza for the Gamecocks. Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman were Clemson commitments who de-committed after Bowden stepped down (or was fired). Both of those players ended up in Columbia along with a bevy of talent from the Palmetto State. Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore, DJ Swearinger, and of course Jadeveon Clowney.
Spurrier now had the Jimmy’s and Joe's to go along with his strongest coaching staff. If would lead to a four season (2010-13) stretch of unparalleled success in Columbia. Carolina’s first, and only, SEC East title in 2010. Followed by three consecutive 11-2 marks. During that four season run, the Gamecocks were a combined 13-3 against Clemson, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. It was a great time to be a Carolina fan but it was also incomplete.
During those seasons, South Carolina was clearly the best overall team in the SEC East. It’s not even close. However, they only have the one title. All three of the other years, Carolina beat the East winner (Georgia 2011/12 and Missouri 2013) but lost two conference games and the division title. Two games in particular will always haunt me as a fan.
2011: Auburn at South Carolina. I often joke that Carolina never beats Auburn at anything. I once attended a basketball game when an Auburn team that was pathetic mopped the floor against a very good Carolina team. The season prior, Auburn beat the Gamecocks in a great regular season tilt on the Plains and of course they demolished the Cocks in Atlanta. That was the Cam Newton lead National Champion Auburn Tigers. This 2011 Auburn team was a shell. Carolina was undefeated and had already defeated Georgia in Athens. They were a 12 point favorite and I was attending the game with my son Austin on his 12th birthday. There was NO way Carolina loses that game. But they did. QB Stephen Garcia was horrible. For whatever reason, Spurrier never went to Connor Shaw (who never lost a game as a starter in Williams-Brice stadium) and Carolina lost 16-13. Win that game and the 12-1 Gamecocks would have played LSU in Atlanta. If they beat the Tigers in Atlanta (and anyone whose laughing, please Google these South Carolina teams), they play Alabama for the BCS National Championship. Side note: Garcia was kicked off team three days later for a failed drug test. He never played for Carolina again.
2013: South Carolina at Tennessee. That’s the game where the photo of my two young sons was taken. Butch Jones’ first season in Tennessee. I was just enjoying the weekend with my sons. We had attended the fair in Aiken on Friday night, drove to within 90 miles of Knoxville and got a cheap motel for a few hours sleep. The noon game was an afterthought. “We ain’t losing to Tennessee.” But “we” did. Play that game 100 times and Carolina wins 80. But not that day. A freshman Vol receiver named North makes an unbelievable left handed catch around the back of the Gamecock defender. Because Spurrier had previously burned two time outs on a fourth and two (and then punted anyway), Carolina was out of time outs. All they could do at the end was helplessly watch the Vols run the clock down before sending the kicker in to win the game 23-21 with a nineteen yard gimme. Before the kick, my five year old son Colt said (as only a five year old can say), “Don’t worry Daddy. Clowney’s going to block it.” My response, “I don’t think so buddy.” Wish he had been right.
I would have never imagined the fall would come so fast. The Gamecocks defeated Wisconsin on New Years Day 2014. Their final ranking was #4 nationally.
Only 21 months later, Spurrier quit mid season and the team went 3-9. Highlighted by a home loss to The Citadel with Paul Finebaum working the sideline for the SEC Network.
I will always be grateful for the overall job that coach Spurrier did in Columbia. I’ll never forget the 2011 game in Athens (45-42 Carolina), when a Bulldog fan said to a group of us Garnet and Blacks, “Y’all are so arrogant.” It was definitely uncharted territory. The playcalling of Spurrier, when he was clicking, was a thing of beauty. See the 2010 Alabama game and even the 49-42 loss in 2014 to, yes, Auburn. Love Spurrier. Miss his press conferences. Everything.
But the way he left the program in disarray is totally unacceptable. It’s why I have a lot more patience for Will Muschamp than most.
At one time, Muschamp was the young, hot thing. He was a 32 year old defensive coordinator for Nick Saban’s 2003 National Champion LSU Tiger squad. He followed Saban to the NFL and was the Assistant Head Coach of the Miami Dolphins. It was in the NFL where Muschamp learned how to truly evaluate talent. He still has an uncanny ability to judge talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. He was the Defensive Coordinator under Mack Brown at Texas and was the “head coach in waiting.” Then he got the opportunity to become the head coach at Florida before his 40th birthday. I guess he didn’t know how long Brown was going to stay at Texas and wanted to strike while the iron was hot.
Florida was a struggle for Muschamp. He built a solid defensive and did make the 2012 Sugar Bowl but his record couldn’t compare to the likes of Florida Spurrier and Urban Meyer. He never was able to find his QB and stepped down after four seasons. Ironically, it was a gut wrenching 23-20 OT loss to Spurrier and the Gamecocks in 2014 that sealed Muschamp’s fate in Gainesville.
By the time Ray Tanner offered Muschamp the head coaching position in Columbia in December 2015, Muschamp was no longer the hot young prospect. In fact, he was now a 44 year old, previously fired head coach. Many wondered how could he win at South Carolina when he couldn’t succeed at Florida in the same division of the same conference. Furthermore, he wasn’t Tanner’s first choice. Tom Herman and Kirby Smart were clearly coveted by Tanner over Muschamp. Some would argue that Justin Fuente and god forbid, Rich Rodriguez (I’m not buying that one) were ahead of Muschamp on the list.
I don’t know if Muschamp will be the long term solution but I do think Tanner made the right hire for the situation in 2015. Not that it was skill, Herman said no and Georgia fired Mark Richt and welcomed Kirby “home.” And that’s the point, Smart would have left Carolina for Georgia later, anyway. Fuente is struggling at Virginia Tech. Outside of his time at Texas, Muschamp has lived in the SEC. He’s worked for five of the programs. He hasn’t forgotten football. He just needs to prove that he can win at a consistent level at a Power 5 program.
He inherited a mess. I still believe that Spurrier left the program in a better place than he found it. I base that on facilities and proving that the Gamecocks can win at an elite level. However, the actual football team that Spurrier left was a mess. Unlike the team that Holtz left Spurrier (that was bowl eligible Holtz’ last season and Spurrier’s first season), Spurrier left Muschamp a three win team without a QB of note.
Highlighted by a huge night win over Tennessee, the Gamecocks doubled their win total in 2016 to six. The following season, they defeated Michigan on New Years Day to cap a nine win season. Team definitely regressed some last year (7-6) but Muschamp appears to be doing a solid job. His biggest hurdle is the success of their two biggest rivals, in state foe Clemson and border state conference opponent Georgia.
Clemson has won two of the last three National Titles and Georgia should have won the other. Their coaches are in the same age bracket as Muschamp and can recruit as well as anyone in the country. All of the attributes that Muschamp would have over a Spurrier (recruiting energy, keeping a solid coaching staff), go out the window when compared to Swinney and Smart. He’s going to just have to be even better than they are at these things and that isn’t the case right now. His six game record against Clemson and Georgia, in Columbia, is 0-6. Even more alarming is the combined score of those games (239-93, ouch).
In closing, I do hope Gamecock supporters will have patience with Muschamp. He will recruit at an upper end level and he will build a solid, maybe elite, defense. He’ll never win at the level that Carolina fans want without a better than adequate offense. It was his downfall at Florida and has been a struggle in Columbia too. This year, Carolina returns a four year starter at QB (Jake Bentley). Bentley has NFL potential but has been the victim of too many red zone turnovers and needs to play with a more even keel. The record will not prove whether Muschamp can succeed this year. Gamecocks face the preseason #1,2 and 3 teams in the country. But it will be fun to see how far they have progressed, if at all, against that level of competition. Jury is still out on Coach Muschamp.