Spurrier's return to college football a TV event

Posted: Wednesday, August 31, 2005

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Cue the TV cameras and dig out the new visors. Steve Spurrier is back.

Spurrier begins his South Carolina coaching career Thursday night against Central Florida. And befitting the return of one of college football's most charismatic personalities, a joyous party is planned for sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium.

ESPN is basing its College GameDay show in town, along with profiling the Palmetto State in the network's continuing feature highlighting all 50 states. The country band Big & Rich will perform before the game.

The main attraction, though, comes before kickoff when the 60-year-old Spurrier steps onto the field after three years away from the college game where his Florida teams once consistently contended for the national title.

''We realize we have not done anything to earn the spotlight, but we'll take it,'' Spurrier said. ''Hopefully, our play will prove that maybe we deserve it. So that's what we'll try and do Thursday night.''

Spurrier was involved the last time South Carolina enjoyed this sort of attention. Then, he was a bitter rival as Florida came to town and, with a 54-17 victory, ended the Gamecocks' bid for an SEC Eastern Division title in 2001.

He left in true Spurrier style, poking fun at South Carolina's efforts to ''Black Out Florida'' — fans dressed in black to show unity — when he said one of his receivers mentioned it was ''nice of them to wear all black so we can pick the ball out of the sky.''

Those same Gamecock supporters who angrily crumpled up Spurrier's jabs after reading the next day's newspaper have turned out in record numbers to support their newest star. The stadium has been sold out for weeks, fans came by the hundreds to watch routine summer practices and Spurrier has been cheered at every appearance.

His new players are eating it up. Defensive end Orus Lambert says Spurrier's legacy in the SEC is the excitement and passion he generates. ''We love it and we can't wait to play,'' he says.

Spurrier has increased the school's exposure as well. He has been a one-man publicity machine for South Carolina this offseason, putting a happy face on the team's numerous problems — including criminal charges against several players and NCAA probation for violations during predecessor Lou Holtz's tenure.

He has discussed losing desire near the end of his disappointing two years as Washington Redskins coach, of growing tired of golf during his year off and surprising many in college football by choosing to lead one of his favorite patsies from his Florida days. Spurrier's Gators were 10-0 against the Gamecocks.

Through it all, Spurrier has grinned and vowed the Gamecocks indeed have what it takes to win a Southeastern Conference title — but maybe not right away.

''I do think that we have a team that has a chance to do some good things this year,'' Spurrier said. ''Now, whether or not we achieve that, we will just have to wait and see.''

Central Florida enters the game with a 15-game losing streak. The Golden Knights have lost their season opener on ESPN each of the past three seasons. UCF coach George O'Leary, who resigned five days after taking the coaching job at Notre Dame because he lied on his resume, has had his share of experience with media attention. He has tried to put the focus on South Carolina's team, not its superstar coach.

''The game's about South Carolina and UCF football players,'' O'Leary said. ''The players are only thinking about who they'll look across from, they're not concerned about Steve or myself.''

But Spurrier knows he'll get a lot of TV attention Thursday.

''We're trying to make it a positive,'' Spurrier said. ''We're trying to tell them just a little bit it's a big game for us. This is not just another game. This is a big game because we're in the national spotlight. ... Let's take advantage of it.''

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