When assistant coach Jeep Hunter awoke on Friday, he thought he would be a part of the South Carolina staff for the 2012 season.
Then he got a phone call from Steve Spurrier, and his world turned upside down.
Told "they wanted to bring in another guy," Hunter was fired Friday after three seasons, meaning the Gamecocks will enter the 2012 season with four new assistant coaches from a staff that led USC to a school-record 11 wins, along with a new strength and conditioning coach.
"It caught me by surprise," Hunter told GamecockCentral.com. "But, hey, life goes on. I have to be concerned about taking care of me and my family."
Asked if he would have preferred being dismissed sooner in order to improve his chances of landing another job, Hunter replied, "That's exactly right."
Hunter's firing on Friday marks another step towards a complete assistant coach overhaul. A source close to Hunter confirmed his firing to GamecockCentral.com just after noon on Friday, and when Hunter was contacted later on, he said that he was told that the staff "wanted to do something different."
In a press release issued by USC shortly after 4 p.m., Spurrier "indicated that he felt the team needed a more experienced secondary coach and has decided to go in that direction."
"We wish Coach Hunter and his family the very best," Spurrier was quoted as saying in the release.
Hunter had just finished his third year on staff. He coached safeties in 2011 after spending his first two years (2009-10) at USC on the offensive side of the ball coaching tight ends and serving as assistant special teams coordinator under Shane Beamer.
Officially hired on Feb. 3, 2009, Hunter and newly anointed chief defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward shared coaching responsibilities in the secondary this past season.
USC finished second nationally in pass defense behind Alabama with an average of 131.7 yards per game. In 2010, Hunter oversaw Patrick DiMarco's transition from fullback to tight end, where he was a key blocker for a much-improved Gamecock rushing attack.
In 2009, Hunter coached tight end Weslye Saunders in his final season with the Gamecocks, and the current Pittsburgh Steeler had 32 receptions for 353 yards.
Prior to his arrival at USC, Hunter spent two seasons (2006-07) as the tight ends coach at Georgia Tech.
Including strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, who left for the same job at Penn State, Hunter became the fifth coach to depart the Gamecocks' staff, following their most successful season in history.
While others left for better opportunities (Ellis Johnson to become head coach at Southern Miss) or to go back home (John Butler and Craig Fitzgerald to their native Pennsylvania and Penn State, Jay Graham to his alma mater Tennessee), Hunter was the first to be let go.
Saying the move was surprising would be an understatement. Hunter was on the road recruiting as recently as two days ago.
With a new opening on staff, Ward may try to fill the spot with a defensive backs coach. Ward was going to take over coaching the defensive backs while Hunter was going to be shifted to coaching the spurs. The hybrid position, a mix of a linebacker and a defensive back, has usually had its own position coach. New hire Kirk Botkin is set to coach linebackers.
The staff was thought to be finalized. Ward, defensive line coach Brad Lawing, offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus and head coach Steve Spurrier remain from the original staff.
Spring practice is tentatively set to begin March 12. USC will have to go before the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Feb. 17 in Los Angeles to address the NCAA's investigation of the football program and USC's response to it.
National Signing Day is also on the horizon, on Wednesday. Hunter was not listed as the attributed recruiter for any of USC's committed prospects. Hunter was credited with recruiting Mike Matulis and Deon Green last season as well as Ronald Patrick in the 2010 recruiting cycle.
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