By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Who would have really thought this would happen?
Sure, South Carolina won the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division last season and, yes, James Franklin seemed incredibly impressive at SEC Media Days, but how often do the non-traditional powers really prevail in SEC football?
It’s true that a college football season seems to have more than its fair share of twists and turns, but let’s look at where we are right now. Entering week four of the college football season, the game that will take place this Saturday between South Carolina and Vanderbilt could possibly decide the SEC East.
One of the things that most intrigues me about this match-up is the two men leading these squads. A quick look at the sidelines might make you think that there couldn’t be two coaches more different than Steve Spurrier and James Franklin. But a deeper delve into the lives of those two men reveals some striking similarities.
I’ll definitely be tuning in when these two teams square off at 7 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN2 from Williams Brice Stadium, mainly because of the intrigue between these two coaches, one who is known for his program-building abilities, and another seemingly on that path.
It’s hard to believe that the Florida football program hasn’t always been a power. Rewind to 1989 and the idea of the Gators hoisting trophies each season seemed far from the norm.
Up to that point, the Gators had never won more than nine games in a single season. They had been to just three major bowl games in the program’s history and had been ranked in the nation’s top five just 12 weeks since the program’s inception. Florida had finished first in the SEC just twice in the 56-year history of the league.
The offense was abysmal. Prior to that point, Florida had never thrown for 25 touchdowns in a single season. They had thrown for 300 yards in a single game just 14 times in the 83-year history of the program.
That all changed when the program brought back its biggest hero – 1966 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier – to take the reins.
Anyone who has met Spurrier knows that there is something special about him. In this world of cookie-cutter personalities and political correctness, Spurrier is never afraid to be, well, Spurrier. It’s what makes him genuine and it’s what allows him to make a difference.
Part of his appeal is that Spurrier status is the stuff of legend. With most legends, the line is often blurred between tall tale and reality, but with Spurrier, the stories are all rooted in truth. The most famous of those legendary stories is his 1966 game-winning field goal against Auburn that all but locked up his Heisman Trophy victory.
But as enjoyable as the stories are, they are backed up by an incredible slate of accomplishments. He led Florida to its first national title in 1996, becoming the first Heisman winner to coach a Heisman winner (Danny Wuerffel). Spurrier directed the Gators to seven appearances in the SEC Championship game with five victories. In 12 seasons at the helm, he led his team to nine campaigns of 10 or more wins.
As for the offense? Under Spurrier’s leadership, Florida became the only program since the NCAA started keeping stats in 1937 to score at least 500 points for four consecutive seasons (1993-96).
Sure, there are differences between the two men.
Spurrier was born in 1945; Franklin in 1972. South Carolina’s leader graduated college in 1967, while the new Vanderbilt leader earned his degree in 1995. Spurrier has 189 career victories. Franklin has three.
When Spurrier was hired in to Gainesville, it was the native son returning to his rightful place. Franklin had no ties to Vanderbilt University when he accepted the school’s head coaching position on December 17, 2010. In fact, he had no direct link to the SEC either.
But very similar to Spurrier, Franklin walked onto the Vanderbilt campus determined to change not only the marks in the win-loss column, but to change the entire culture of the program. Yes, that’s what every coach says when he takes a new head coaching job, but these two men have done it.
Every coach who has attempted to turn the tide in Nashville has advocated turning the program into a winner. Franklin has taken a different approach: he simply refuses to lose. His players say he is the most energetic coach they have ever encountered.
It’s easy to see why he has been named a Top 25 recruiter by Rivals.com on four different occasions. It’s quite possible, given his passion, that Franklin could sell anything to anyone.
He may be one of the few college football coaches out there who has become an internet sensation for something positive, when his energy and raw emotion were on display during a video where he announced to his team that they would be taking the afternoon off from practice to instead go bowling.
The results have spoken for themselves so far, Franklin’s squad is 3-0 this week having posted a league-opening win against Ole Miss and having defeated BIG EAST Champion UConn two weeks ago. With the rigors of the SEC season, who knows if Franklin’s record will hold up. But we can only go on what we have seen so far and that has been pretty impressive.
Spurrier is in the middle of yet another rebuilding process. He did it at Duke, he did it at Florida and he is coming close to completing the turnaround at South Carolina.
He has led the Gamecocks to six or more wins since arriving in Columbia in 2005 and this year has been expected to finally be his year there. South Carolina – that’s right, South Carolina – has been favored by many to win the SEC Eastern Division.
When Spurrier arrived in Columbia, it was a South Carolina athletics program that had not experienced a great deal of success in a variety of sports. Sound familiar, James Franklin? But it didn’t deter Spurrier from changing the belief of a fan base that didn’t necessarily expect to win.
Now, these two men, separated in age by more than 25 years, are pursing similar goals. Both have chosen the pass less traveled and, from what it appears, it will pay off for both. The numbers look vastly different, but the motive of each of the two coaches is the same.
It should be a fun one this Saturday in Columbia. Don’t be surprised if you see one of these teams in Atlanta come December.
Quick Note: Coaching staff for both teams will be wearing the Coach to Cure MD patch for the game. Duchenne (pronounced doo-SHINN) Muscular Dystrophy is the most common fatal genetic disorder diagnosed during early childhood. A progressive muscle disorder that causes loss of muscle function and independence, Duchenne affects approximately one out of every 3,500 boys and 20,000 babies born each year worldwide.