Long-suffering South Carolina football fans have probably heard the jokes before.
Like this one: “Why did the veteran football coach move to Columbia? He wanted to get as far away from big-time college football as he could.”
Or this one: “Will the lady who left her 11 children at Williams-Brice Stadium please pick them up,” the public address announcer said. “They are beating the Gamecocks.”
These days, thanks to success in recruiting and a commitment to improve facilities, the Gamecocks are no longer a punch line.
Steve Spurrier enters his eighth season as head coach with tonight’s game at Vanderbilt, and he’s achieved plenty of firsts during his tenure.
Last season, the Gamecocks won 11 games and finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll for the first time in school history.
In fact, the inside cover of the team’s media guide includes a lengthy list of Spurrier’s accomplishments.
So why is a program that has struggled for decades now enjoying consistent success?
“Spurrier,” said Chris Fulmer, a South Carolina fan who annually goes to all football games home and away. “It all comes down to Spurrier bringing good coaches and bringing players.”
Spurrier has won the recruiting battles in the Palmetto State and also has pulled in talent from throughout the Southeast.
“The last several years we’ve made some improvements, for a lot of reasons,” Spurrier told fans in May when he visited Augusta. “The main reason is we’ve got better football players than we’ve ever had. Players with a better commitment.
“Let me give you a good reason why we’re winning: Melvin Ingram. He was a first-round (NFL) draft pick and he was asked what his biggest thrill as a football player was. Melvin was most valuable lineman the week we beat Georgia 45-42 – remember that? – and he only scored two touchdowns that game, and he was national defensive player another week.
“He said when the clock went zero and we beat Nebraska (in the Capital One Bowl) and we had 11 wins, the most in school history, and I was on that team. So that’s the kind of guys we’ve got.”
While rival Clemson has won the recruiting wars for in-state talent more often than not, and top programs regularly plucked the best talent, South Carolina is on a four-year roll of landing the state’s top football player. Those players include Stephon Gilmore, who was a first-round draft pick in the NFL; Marcus Lattimore, who is now one of the nation’s leading running backs; and defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney, who was the nation’s top recruit for 2011. Wide receiver Shaq Roland is the most recent Mr. Football to land in Columbia.
Ted Girardeau, a longtime Aiken resident who played at South Carolina in the 1950s, points to the team’s depth under Spurrier.
“Not only does he recruit good players, but he recruits good players in numbers,” Girardeau said. “So he has not only quality but quantity. This year could be the best we’ve ever had, and it all boils down to recruiting.”
The school’s athletic department slogan – “It’s great to be a Gamecock” – has never been truer, according to Gamecock Club director Patrick McFarland.
“They’re doing a heck of a job recruiting,” McFarland said. “Any time the football team does good it really sets the tone for how the Gamecock Club performs. It’s helped us tremendously.”
While support for the football team has rarely wavered, the school announced this week that membership in the Gamecock Club was at an all-time high.
The 14,100 members surpasses last year’s high of 13,896.
With two College World Series titles in baseball and success in other sports, South Carolina fans have a lot to be proud of. Now, McFarland said, they can also take pride in state-of-the-art facilities.
“The way we’ve improved our facilities is a huge deal to attract recruits,” he said. “You have to have top-notch facilities in this league. Our fans and university and athletic department made a commitment to do it, and our coaches. That makes a huge difference to recruit kids. If you don’t you’re going to get left behind, quickly.”
Spurrier, who tormented the Southeastern Conference during his tenure at Florida, knows what it takes to win.
“Appreciate all of you Gamecocks for giving your money,” Spurrier told the Augusta crowd. “As you know, winning costs a little bit for tickets, for facilities and all of that. Winning costs a little bit. It’s a lot better than losing. We sort of had a cheap organization a few years back, but we’ve got to get things in place. We appreciate that.”
South Carolina’s newest upgrade will be unveiled at the Sept. 8 home opener against East Carolina. A $6.5 million state-of-the-art videoboard, which measures 36 feet by 124 feet, will stand guard over the north end zone.
Still, Spurrier isn’t satisfied with all of the milestones he’s achieved. And he’s hinted that this year’s squad could challenge for even more firsts.
“Last year we won our state championship again, and won a bowl championship,” he said. “We sort of messed up the division, didn’t win it, but our goal every year is to win the division and win the SEC Championship. We haven’t won the SEC yet, so that’s still out there.”
Now, instead of being the butt of jokes, Gamecock fans are part of the conversation about the nation’s best teams.
“I listen to a lot of Sirius radio and it’s fun listening to the talk shows,” Fulmer said. “I was listening a couple of days ago and this guy called in and was giving this Tennessee guy some grief. He said in the SEC you’ve got Alabama, you’ve got LSU, and you’ve got Arkansas, and then he said you’ve got to throw in South Carolina.
“I said, ‘Wow, how about being thrown in with those guys?’ That makes it fun.”