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January 30, 2012

Hood: The curious case of Jeep Hunter



The handwriting was on the wall for Jeep Hunter.

Sure, he had lasted three seasons as an assistant coach with South Carolina, but his 2012 assignment (spurs) would have been his third different position since joining the program in 2009.

Typically, when an assistant is quickly shifted from position to position on the same staff, it's a worrisome sign he is having trouble fitting in.

So, from that perspective, Friday's announcement that Hunter had been fired was hardly a surprise.

However, the timing and the circumstances of his dismissal are curious at best.

The official word from USC head coach Steve Spurrier was "he felt the team needed a more experienced secondary coach and has decided to go in that direction."

I believe what Spurrier says, but I'm convinced there is more to the story than just a one sentence quote in a press release explaining why an assistant coach was terminated 25 days following the final game and five days before National Signing Day.

Even if Spurrier's basis for the firing is accepted at face value, why did it take nearly a month after the Capital One Bowl for the move to be made?

Remember, Lorenzo Ward was officially promoted to chief defensive coordinator on Dec. 27 shortly after USC's arrival in Orlando and Kirk Botkin was officially hired as linebackers coach on Jan. 13.

Thus, we should believe it took Spurrier two weeks to decide Hunter wasn't capable of adequately helping Ward coach the secondary? And we're supposed to believe Spurrier reached the decision last Friday morning in his office and couldn't wait for Hunter to return to Columbia to inform him of the decision in a face-to-face conversation? That's a stretch.

Another intriguing angle: despite Spurrier's quote in the press release, Hunter wasn't going to coach one of the secondary positions in 2012. Spurs is a different animal, and plays on the second level of the USC defense rather than the third level.

The abrupt nature of the firing supports the theory that something happened on the recruiting trail late last week that persuaded Spurrier that he had to act quickly.

Hunter's firing could be closely connected to the number zero. As in, the number of 2012 prospects attributed to Hunter. According to the Rivals database, not a single 2012 commitment (24 in all) is attributed to the former assistant. Even former special teams coordinator John Butler is credited with one commitment (T.J. Gurley).

But Spurrier's dissatisfaction with Hunter probably extends back to 2011. As you recall, three-star cornerback Thomas Finnie committed to USC during the summer of 2010. He kept his pledge to the Gamecocks until early January of 2011 when he was supposed to enroll early at USC.

Literally hours before he was supposed to arrive at USC to begin classes, he switched his commitment to hometown Miami (Fla.). Why? Finnie contended he had never met Spurrier, who purportedly cancelled a home visit several days earlier.

What followed was a surge of bad publicity for the Gamecocks in south Florida. The Miami media reveled in Finnie's change of heart. One newspaper boasted that new Miami head coach Al Golden "deserves props for swooping up a Rocket player from the clutches of Steve Spurrier."

Who was Finnie's recruiter of record at USC? Hunter.

The Finnie fiasco, together with the fact he has been shut out in 2012 and possibly additional problems relating to his coaching skills, apparently soured Spurrier on Hunter.

Spurrier might have given Hunter one final opportunity last week to redeem (salvage?) himself, but when it didn't happen, the head coach decided it was time to cut ties.

So, what happened now? Spurrier's press release quote suggest he is steadfast in hiring a secondary coach to help Ward. But spurs need a position coach, as well.

Most likely, Spurrier will go in one of two directions - hire someone to coach the entire secondary and let Ward handle spurs or appoint a new coach for the safeties and spurs, allowing Ward to continue handling cornerbacks.

No matter what, I expect the hiring decision will be made soon. In fact, I doubt Spurrier fired Hunter without having someone ready to take his place. All that's left is making the announcement, which could come today or Tuesday.

Preferably, you want a full staff in place on national signing day to minimize the amount of conjecture commitments must engage in with regards to their position coach. It's not fair to keep them guessing, even after they have signed their letters of intent.

So, who will take Hunter's place on the staff? Among the names I've debated with people on Twitter and elsewhere are former North Carolina assistant Troy Douglas, rising star James Colzie, former Carolina Panthers assistant Mike Gillhamer and Southern Miss cornerbacks coach Grady Brown, the only coach retained by Ellis Johnson from the previous staff.

Based on my review of the resumes of the aforementioned coaches, Douglas would seem to be the best choice. He has almost a quarter century of experience coaching defensive backs, so he clearly passes the "experience" test set articulated by Spurrier. Since 2001, Douglas has coached defensive backs at Michigan State (2001-02), S.C. State (2003), Indiana (2004-05), South Florida (2006-08) and North Carolina (2009-11).

Obviously, he coached alongside USC's special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Joe Robinson on the UNC staff this past season, and I'm sure Robinson has given Spurrier his thoughts on Douglas. Douglas also coached with USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing at Michigan State in 2001-02, and has experience recruiting in the Carolinas.

Gillhamer served as safeties coach for the Panthers from 2004-2010 and was part of the Illinois staff under former head coach Ron Zook in 2011. Since 1990, he has also coached defensive backs in the college ranks at San Jose State (1990-93), Nevada (1994; defensive coordinator in 1995), Rutgers (1996), Oregon (2001-02) and served as defensive coordinator/safeties coach at Louisville in 2003.

Colzie is currently coaching at West Georgia, and formerly played (early 1990s) and coached (2004-2006 as graduate assistant) at Florida State. However, his full-time coaching experience has primarily been on the Division II level at WGU and Valdosta State.

As a result, he might need more experience at the Division I level before taking on the challenge of a SEC job.

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D. McCallum


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