In eight years, Steve Spurrier has taken South Carolina from an afterthought in the SEC to one of the nation's elite, ranked No. 3 in this week's AP college football poll and carrying an undefeated record.
While you might expect the focus to be on the rise of the Gamecocks, these days Spurrier is getting just as much national attention for his ongoing feud with Columbia, S.C., sports columnist Ron Morris of the State newspaper over coverage the Old Ball Coach has deemed unfair.
It's completely in character. Spurrier's feuds with writers, some larger than others, during his 12 years at Florida are well known among longtime beat writers.
Spurrier and Morris have a long-standing relationship, but Morris' column questioning Spurrier's decision to start quarterback Connor Shaw soon after Shaw suffered a bone bruise, then his radio comment comparing Spurrier's growing ego and power at the school to that of former Penn State coach Joe Paterno, escalated the most recent fallout.
"This," Morris said on the radio, "is how things like Penn State happen."
Spurrier took serious exception.
"I'm not taking it anymore," Spurrier said during his weekly radio show. "If that's part of the job, I can head to the beach. That's not part of the job, and we're going to get it straightened out."
Many national columnists were quick to come to Morris' defense, but the reality is that this isn't anything new.
"He usually gets himself in trouble, when he's successful and he's winning," retired longtime Orlando Sentinel sports columnist Larry Guest said. "They've got a great team right now and that's usually when he's at his worst, because I guess he has the clout and leverage to strike back at anybody who refuses to kiss his toenails."
Spurrier had a longstanding feud with Guest that has spanned nearly two decades, prompted, Guest said, by "a couple of lines in a notes column."
Guest wrote about an appearance at a Jacksonville Gator Club function in which Spurrier was said to have been booed after he offered public support to the Jacksonville mayor who that day had pulled out of the race for an NFL expansion franchise. Guest wrote about it, but Spurrier said he was never booed and demanded a retraction and an apology. Guest promised to check his sources. When he did, he said, he was told by several more reliable sources that Spurrier indeed had been booed. And he refused to take it back.
"He said, 'I'm never speaking to you again,' " Guest recalled Tuesday.
That was 16 years ago. And Spurrier has held true to his word. He never returned a call or spoke with Guest in a news conference again.
"I wrote lots of nice things about him when he deserved it and kicked him in the butt when I thought he needed it. But that one line got to him,'' Guest said. "The guy's a gifted coach, a gifted offensive mind. He has lots of pluses, but he just lets his ego get in his way too much."
Former Florida sports information director Norm Carlson has been a part of Spurrier's interactions with the media since the mid 1960s. Carlson oversaw the media campaign during Spurrier's Heisman Trophy winning season in 1966, basically introducing him to the national media. The two remain close, and Carlson said Spurrier is the same guy today he has always been: honest and expressing his true feelings no matter what.
"He's an up front guy," said Carlson, now a historian for the University Athletic Association. "He doesn't shy away from controversy, and he'll let you know if he disagrees with you. He's going to say what he thinks, and he doesn't care if you don't like it. And he'll say it to your face, he's not a backstabber."
This isn't the first public feud between Spurrier and Morris, who has been fired from his part-time job doing sports segments for a local ABC affiliate based on "recent friction between Ron and other parties," according to a statement.
Longtime Gainesville Sun Gator beat writer Robbie Andreu angered Spurrier in 1995 when he gave the coaching edge to the Auburn staff in a story, and later quoted Spurrier from a quote sheet provided by Auburn sports information that Spurrier said was incorrect.
Spurrier left a message on Andreu's home phone the following morning and later sent a letter to the paper's publisher, saying he couldn't believe they had allowed "someone as dumb and stupid as Robbie to cover the team." He wanted Andreu fired. The Sun didn't oblige, but did offer a letter of apology. Spurrier later posted the letter on a corked bulletin board for other writers to view.
Andreu recalls what happened a week later: "Someone said, 'Are you still mad at Robbie Andreu?' Spurrier replied, 'Mad at Robbie Andreu? I love Robbie Andreu.' "
"We had a relationship with him that was never boring," said Andreu, who added the two now have an amicable relationship.
Those who have covered him at length say that with Spurrier, you always know where you stand.
"I have always had a good relationship with him," said Matt Hayes, national college writer for the Sporting News who has covered Spurrier since 1995. "He respects those who work at it — a lot like the way he coaches. He'll try to rib you, try to get at you — but that's part of the package. That doesn't bother me at all. I just give it right back to him. And you know what? I think he kind of enjoys the game.
"He never gets personal, and I think when he feels someone has gotten personal, that's where he has a problem. I've written critical things about him numerous times, and he understands that's part of the job."
The Gamecocks play at No. 9 LSU this Saturday, then play the No. 4 Gators in Gainesville on Oct. 20. For now, Spurrier's bigger concerns should be the next two weeks.
"I think he should move on," Hayes said. "He made his point. If he doesn't want to talk to Morris, he doesn't have to. He shouldn't let it impact what he is doing and what he has accomplished there."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]