ATHENS — Greg McGarity has a soft spot for Steve Spurrier. That puts him in the decided minority among those who claim to live in the “Bulldog Nation.”
Georgia’s athletic director was, of course, at Florida for 18 years. A lifelong Athens resident and a UGA graduate, coach and administrator, his career path took an unexpected turn through Gainesville, Fla., in 1992. It ran headlong into the man not yet known as the “Evil Genius.”
And McGarity’s first encounter was not what he expected. He said he was fumbling around in the athletic department dining hall on his first day on the job that August, not knowing where anything was or who anybody was.
“I’m going through the chow line and turn to go find a place to sit, and I see Steve and (his wife) Jerri and (his son) Scotty in the back, and he’s waving to me,” McGarity recalled this week. “I didn’t know he was waving to me, so I’m pointing to myself like, ‘Me?’ He motions for me to join them, so I do.
“He says, ‘You’re the guy from Georgia, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re a Gator now. So if you need a place to wash your clothes or do anything, our house is always open. We’re excited to have you, and you’re one of us now.’ That was about as disarming and welcoming as I could’ve expected on Day 1.”
That’s one side of Steve Spurrier. There’s another one.
There’s the side that referred to FSU as “Free Shoes University.” There’s the one that said, “You can’t spell Citrus without UT.” The Bulldogs will never forget his crack, “Georgia recruits all these great players. What happens to them?”
That’s Spurrier’s competitive side, and it’s alive and well at South Carolina. To the amazement of pretty much everyone living outside of Columbia, S.C., he has managed to get himself back into position to goad his rivals with Gamecocks.
“I sort of always liked playing (Georgia) that second game,” he said just a year ago, “because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended.”
Spurrier has earned the right to crow as a Gamecock. Before he arrived in 2005, South Carolina had never beaten Georgia more than two times in a row. Now the No. 6-ranked Gamecocks (1-0) will be going for their fourth victory in a row against the Bulldogs (0-1) on Saturday in Athens.
And the Bulldogs are not alone. In the past three seasons, Spurrier is 11-1 against South Carolina’s main rivals, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Clemson.
“Part of the intrigue for him taking that job was the opportunity to do things for the first time that had never been done at South Carolina,” said ESPN college football analyst Jesse Palmer, who played quarterback for Spurrier at Florida. “Right away, in his first year he gets a win at Tennessee. Never happened at South Carolina. He gets a win at Florida. Never happened in South Carolina history. And that’s kind of continued as they’ve gone along.”
The Gamecocks also beat a No. 1-ranked team (Alabama) for the first time in 2010 and won the SEC East for the first time that same year.
“What motivates him today is finally getting that SEC Championship,” Palmer said.
If that goal is to be achieved this season, the first step begins Saturday in Sanford Stadium. The Gamecocks are coming off a 27-10 win at against North Carolina and, as that was a Thursday night game, have had two extra days to prepare. No. 11 Georgia lost a 38-35 heart-breaker to Clemson late Saturday night. One or the other was picked to win the SEC East in virtually every preseason prediction.
“It’s always a huge game for us,” Spurrier said. “It’s always fun to try to beat Georgia, just like it is to try to beat Tennessee. Those were always big games at Florida, and they are here, too. Those games get coaches a little extra juiced up, going against a great program with great tradition.”
Spurrier is 15-5 against Georgia in his career, including 4-4 at South Carolina. The notion that Spurrier simply has it in for Georgia is not true. He has a winning record against every team he has faced regularly over his career except for Florida State (5-9-1). He’s 7-5 against Alabama, 10-8 against Auburn, 11-4 against LSU and 14-8 against Tennessee.
“He’s a good coach like most everybody in our league,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who was offensive coordinator for the Seminoles in the 1990s. “I think everybody in our league is a very good coach.”
Perhaps Spurrier has mellowed just a tad. He hasn’t offered up a zinger for Georgia fans yet this week. And he seems to think they regard him with less disdain than they once did.
“I don’t get near the hate from the Georgia side that I used to get,” Spurrier said this week. “It’s hard for Georgia to really get mad at South Carolina. They’ve got so many teams that they’re mad at or are mad at them that it’s hard to get another rival.”
Beat Georgia a fourth time, and that’s likely to change.