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July 30, 2011

State of USC Athletics: Gridiron glee



This is Part 3 of a 5-part series examining the State of USC Athletics

- Part 1: The facility frenzy
- Part 2: The big money

Steve Spurrier was in a giddy mood shortly after noon on Thursday.

Maybe it was because his team had won the South Carolina media golf tournament at Cobblestone Park in Blythewood for the first time in his seven years as coach of the South Carolina football team.

But you could also maintain his upbeat demeanor was a sign of the enhanced expectations surrounding the Gamecocks this season.

Either way, much is expected from fans, media and administrators alike in 2011.

"No question there is a high level of interest," USC athletic director Eric Hyman told Gamecock Central recently. "I don't think we're there yet, but we've narrowed the gap with some of the SEC East teams. Let's face it, it's the toughest conference in the country. It's brutal."

Spurrier has accomplished a lot of firsts in his six-year tenure at USC - ironically, many college football analysts thought he would coach only three or four years in Columbia before leaving - and last week in Hoover, Ala., brought another new milestone: the Gamecocks were the media's choice to win the SEC East for the first time since the school joined the powerful conference in 1992.

Even though USC wasn't picked by the media to win the SEC East last year, one prominent member of the USC Board of Trustees wasn't surprised by the football team's division crown in 2010.

"Right now, we're contenders," said Chuck Allen, a member of the USC football team in the 1970s-80s. "Personally, I expected to win the division last year. I didn't know if we could win the title. Gamecock fans typically have always had sky-high expectations going into a season but what's different this year is I think they're justified. The quality of the program is established to the point that expectations or winning are justified. In years past, a long time ago, there would be years when Carolina supporters would have the same kind of expectations, but there wasn't a basis for it. Expectations are OK. Everybody hopes to win, but winners expect to win. I think there is a basis for having some high expectations this year."

With a 44-33 mark at USC, Spurrier has guided the Gamecocks to a school-record 29 wins over the last four years. For the first time in school history, three consecutive senior classes left with at least 28 victories during their four-year careers.

Moreover, for the first time in school history, USC has won seven or more games in three straight seasons and been bowl-eligible for seven straight years. The Gamecocks are 12-2 at home over the past two seasons, turning Williams-Brice Stadium into one of the loudest venues anywhere.

With 2011 home contests against Auburn, Florida and Clemson, any advantage USC might enjoy playing in Columbia will be needed.

Spurrier, the first coach to lead the Gamecocks to more than three bowl games (granted, more bowl games exist today) welcomed the news of the media's vote, embracing the high goals that pundits have set for his team in 2011. The upcoming season could produce USC's first conference championship since the 1969 team captured the ACC title.

"Quoting coach Spurrier, I think we have a chance," William Hubbard, chairman of the Board of Trustee's Intercollegiate Athletics Committee, told Gamecock Central recently. "It has been a combination of facilities, coaches and recruiting. We have those things in place or we're moving to upgrade in all three of those areas."

With many analysts picking USC to repeat as SEC East champions, and some even bold enough to tab the Gamecocks as SEC East champions, has "next year" finally arrived?

"I don't think there is a game we play that we can't win," Hubbard said. "Sometimes it comes to breaks and things you can't predict. But I don't see a team on our schedule we're not capable of beating. We couldn't say that before. That's been the big change. This year, we should beat them. We have the capability."

The extreme optimism heading into 2011 has turned the dark days of December 2008 and January 2009 into a distant memory. Back then, Gamecock nation fell into a deep depression following the lackluster losses to rival Clemson in late November and Iowa in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Days.

The wolves were howling at Spurrier's door, and even he admitted later he thought once or twice about leaving out of frustration. But something funny happened on the way to football oblivion - National Signing Day in February 2009.

Even though that 27-member class had its typical percentage of prospects that whiffed (Nick Allison, Ben Axon, DeMario Bennett, Ronald Byrd, Duane Chisolm, Charles Holmes, Leon Mackey, Chris Payne and Steven Singleton), the home runs were, well, home runs.

Four signees from the 2009 signing class became, in particular, some of the key stalwarts of USC's rapid rise up the steep SEC escalator: Stephon Gilmore, DeVonte Holloman, Alshon Jeffery and Damario Jeffery. Another signee? A little-known wide receiver from Kingsland, Ga. named DeAngelo Smith, the biggest surprise of spring practice and the player being eyed as possibly Alshon Jeffery's successor.

A year later, running back Marcus Lattimore signed with USC and the Gamecocks have become an overnight national media darling. Even The Los Angeles Times opined recently that 2011 could be a magical season for USC.

Of course, a few bumps in the road still exist. Quarterback Stephen Garcia has become the poster child nationally of what happens when you're supposedly too lenient with a player, while his position coach G.A. Mangus sits at home suspended following his arrest in Greenville last week on the misdemeanor charge of nuisance conduct.

Garcia, though, is expected to be fully reinstated on Aug. 1, while Mangus should return to his coaching duties soon.

Hubbard, who says he senses the football team is adopting the philosophy of USC baseball coach Ray Tanner (no matter the circumstances, win anyway), credits the current coaching staff for USC's football revival over the last two years.

"This is the best coaching staff we've ever had from top to bottom," Hubbard said. "The players are getting better. When they come in, they're better and they don't stagnate in our program. We're going head-to-head with all the big programs and getting our fair share of them."

Friday's verbal commitment by four-star linebacker Kaiwan Lewis of Hammonton, N.J., is another example of USC's success on the recruiting trail. Lewis turned aside offers from Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Arkansas and Florida State to pledge to the Gamecocks.

A few years ago, a scenario where the Gamecocks out-dueled more than one traditional football power for an elite prospect was unfathomable.

Not anymore. Now it's becoming commonplace. The main recruiter for Lewis? Mangus. Lewis' pledge will likely put to rest fears USC's recruiting would be affected by his legal troubles.

"Ten or 15 years ago, we were beating out Southern Conference schools for a player. This coaching staff is excellent judges of talent. They're less concerned about stars (ratings) and more concerned about evaluating players personally to see if they can execute."

The by-product of all this quality recruiting? Possibly the deepest and most talented roster in school history. In years past, USC typically had one good player at each position. Now there are two or three, which leads to increased competition for jobs. In the end, everyone benefits because of the sense of urgency to get better.

"We're had great players like George Rogers sporadically, but not like we have now," Hubbard said. "A football guy told me 30 years ago that if you can get four or five of those players in every signing class and then fill in with good-character, hard-working players, you can be successful."

Like most coaches, Spurrier is concentrating on the short-term - getting his team ready for the season opener against East Carolina - but his long-term future with USC is more of a question mark. Spurrier turned down an extension in April, keeping the length of his current contract at three years. Right now, his deal expires after the 2013 season.

"I certainly hope he stays long term," Allen said. "But everybody retires at some point. When that time comes, the athletic director and the university will do what they need to do."

While some have expressed concern Spurrier might leave after 2013 when his contract expires, Hubbard is more optimistic.

"That's what he asked for and that's what he got," Hubbard said. "Coach Spurrier has said many times that he might coach another three, four or five years. I think he loves where things stand right now and he's having fun. He likes the ways are going. The recruiting is going well and he likes his staff. We have great fan support. Coach Spurrier is a football guy and it would be hard to imagine him not having football in his life. How many people his age look as good as he looks in terms of physical health? I wouldn't suggest there is any limit on how long he stays."

Because of that, top USC officials haven't devoted a lot of time towards planning for the post-Spurrier transition period.

"There is no planning like that," Hubbard said. "We're counting on him being here for a while. Probably even beyond his current contract. In fact, I think he will be here beyond that. It's his decision. But I think he knows he can be here as long as he wants to. He's fun to have around."

Some establishments in the Five Points area would tell one that Garcia has been fun to have around as well. But that has changed, apparently. Spurrier reiterated Thursday that the fifth-year senior has "changed his lifestyle almost completely," and taken his role as a starting quarterback in the SEC more seriously.

If he continues on the same path, he could be headed for a monster season.

"I don't want to minimize the reasons for his suspensions, but on each occasion he didn't really hurt anybody other than that one incident where he keyed the car," Hubbard said. "Other than that, it's all been a question of self-discipline issues. There's a big difference between the kinds of things he's done and when someone harms somebody else or steals money from somebody else or assaults somebody. They are different kinds of actions.

"The suspensions of Stephen Garcia were largely an effort to get his attention to allow him to be the best player he can be. I have confidence he is going to have a great senior season. He is getting a lot of support from his family and the athletics department."

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