He’s disappointed but not despondent; guarded, yet full of hope; enthusiastic but careful enough not to set himself up for another crash.
For Coach Steve Spurrier, bringing South Carolina from the middle of the pack to the top of the Southeastern Conference has been as much about balancing emotions as finding an offense that clicks the way he wants.
“Historically around here, we beat ourselves a lot,” Spurrier said. “And I haven’t changed it yet. I’m going to try and do my best to change it this year.”
That seems harder to accomplish than it did a summer ago.
Then, the Gamecocks were coming off three straight victories, including Spurrier’s first win over state rival Clemson. They’d won a bowl game and Spurrier crowed loudly and often about South Carolina finally competing with the SEC’s big boys: Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
For half the ensuing season, Spurrier looked like the “evil genius” of old, and the Gamecocks rose to No. 6 in the country with a 6-1 record.
How cocky was Spurrier? He joked to media that the usual celebrations held when the team qualified for a bowl game were being postponed for a bigger achievement.
Spurrier shouldn’t have smirked so soon.
One game later, the Gamecocks inexplicably lost at home to Vanderbilt — a team Spurrier was 14-0 against — to start a five-game slide and a 6-6 finish. Gone was the bowl bid and Spurrier’s talk of the top.
“We started off hot last year, and people jumped on the bandwagon,” said Kenny McKinley, South Carolina’s record-setting receiver. “We let them down.”
The losing streak had some wondering if a frustrated Spurrier might wave goodbye to South Carolina the way he left the NFL’s Washington Redskins after two disappointing seasons.
That’s not what Ellis Johnson heard when Spurrier was shopping for a new coach to head the defense.
“I thought there was disappointment,” said Johnson, now South Carolina’s first-year coordinator. “I thought there was determination, and I thought there was enthusiasm.”
“He’s been a winner all his life,” Johnson said. “Guys like that don’t accept mediocrity. Nowhere in our discussions have I sensed any resignation or any kind of doubt. He’s fully determined.”
Spurrier knew his three-year program wouldn’t move forward without change. Johnson replaced Tyrone Nix on defense (after a five-week appearance by coaching nomad Brian VanGorder), and brought energetic Ray Rychleski in from Maryland to shore up special teams.