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Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010

Spurrier proves he owns The Swamp

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Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina
South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore gets into the endzone for a touchdown.
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- High atop the north bleachers of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Steve Spurrier is the first entry in the Florida Ring of Honor. On the opposite peak of the South stands, Spurrier leads off the Gator Heisman fraternity.

"He's all over this place," said the security guard who showed visitors the way to press elevator.

They won't be erecting any honors for what Spurrier did here Saturday night. But once again the head ball coach left his mark on The Swamp.

Ten years and two days ago on this same field, Spurrier won his last championship when the Gators took down South Carolina. Saturday night he returned to prove he could do it from the other sideline as well.

Spurrier tapped into that brilliance that made him a Hall of Famer and coached up a whale of an SEC East division championship with South Carolina's dominating 36-14 triumph over Florida.

The man who coached up seven division winners at his alma mater even called this one "special."

"This is for South Carolina," he said. "I've been lucky to win a bunch of them, but this was the first one."

This was special enough that Spurrier even smiled when he got the traditional "Gatorade" shower in the final minute (it was actually water). And he let Garrett Chisolm and Kyle Nunn carry him on their shoulders to the center of the field where he gave a quick handshake to Urban Meyer, the coach who supposedly made folks forget about Spurrier around these parts.

But they can never forget the larger-than-life figure who built Florida into the national power it is. Former Gator Erict Rhett was among the many who gave his old coach a bear hug while the Gamecocks fans sang the alma mater.

"We'll celebrate a little bit more than they do here in Florida for winning the division," Spurrier said.

Even spotting the Gators a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown in the first 14 seconds of the game couldn't stop Spurrier and the Gamecocks from drafting the most glorious chapter in the 119-year history of South Carolina football.

From that initial hiccup onward, the Gamecocks completely dominated the Gators. It almost seemed unfair to unleash such an embarrassing lashing in front of the so-called "sea of blue" faithful who gathered for what they assumed was an inevitable 11th division coronation ceremony. By early in the fourth quarter, so many fans had filed for the exits that the bleachers turned into a sea of silver seats.

In an offensive performance that had been missing since the milestone victory over No. 1 Alabama in October, the Gamecocks steadily piled up 375 yards in scoring 29 unanswered points. Simultaneously, South Carolina's defense made the Gators look utterly hapless. Florida had 67 total offensive yards through the first three quarters, still 32 shy of the standard set by that opening kickoff.

"It was very embarrassing," said Gator safety Ahmad Black. "The basically did what they wanted to when they wanted to."

By the fourth quarter it was already over. South Carolina had broken the stranglehold of the East's trinity -- beating Georgia, Tennessee and Florida along the way to make sure that there was no denying the newest pledge its rightful place in the fraternity.

"You can write it down in the history books -- South Carolina beat Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida in the same season," Spurrier said. "It doesn't sound possible. We won't talk about the ones we lost."

Six years ago Spurrier asked the simple question "Why not the South Carolina Gamecocks?" And there were a lot of answers from the status quo in the division's closed shop.

But Spurrier kept on building. And with homegrown Palmetto stars like Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery buying into the program's mission, the culture is officially changed.

Spurrier acknowledged as much to one of the old Florida writers as Lattimore walked into the interview room after his 212-yard, three-touchdown night.

"That's a ballplayer," Spurrier whispered with a nod toward his star freshman. "We won this division the day we signed him."

It's not over yet of course. There are still two more games left in the regular season including the annual blood match with Clemson (whose last-second loss at Florida State later Saturday was the cherry on top of the perfect Gamecocks day). Then there is the SEC Championship to play for in a rematch against national title contender Auburn.

In a way, it's just starting for the Gamecocks. A whole new era in South Carolina football history blossomed out of The Swamp on Saturday.

Why not?

"We do have a chance there now," Spurrier said in his soaked shirt and trousers under the stadium that he helped build. "A lot better chance."

Spurrier doesn't have his name immortalized at the highest points of Williams-Brice Stadium yet. But the head ball coach and his team will bring a championship banner back with them from Florida.

It doesn't sound possible, but it happened.

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