Three Gamecocks on Their Way to a Dance
For the second time in eight years, the most interesting thing at SEC Media Days happened at a nearby Arby's.
Thanks for visiting To Thee, Forever Ago, a newsletter featuring weekly retellings of the weird and wonderful tales of South Carolina athletics, from years long since passed. Interested in having TTFA delivered straight to your inbox?
SEC Media Days, in its current form, is not so much an opportunity for reporters to ask questions as it is an opportunity for reporters to stage a performance of themselves asking questions (often, the same questions, over and over and over), primarily for the benefit of the SEC Network television cameras. Fourteen head coaches take the podium and recite the final draft of their booster circuit speech before tucking it away until next year. Then, the delegation of players shuffle in and sit separately at tables flanking the main stage. A mob of reporters elbow their way to the front of the scrum in an effort to get their tape recorders close enough to the players to pick up their nervous and soft-spoken voices (which are mic’d for the television cameras, not the reporters standing across from them).
If Media Days were ever a chance for reporters to discover new storylines through proximity to the subjects of their coverage, now it is something else altogether: a television-addled simulacrum of its former self. If there is anything at all to recommend about Media Days in the modern era, it’s the chance to network with other media professionals after hours and the surreal experience of glimpsing Dari Nowkhah or Paul Finebaum in the Wynfrey Hotel’s impossibly tiny fitness room. Savvy college football reporters have learned that the real action is at media days for the smaller conferences, where there is greater chance for spontaneous discovery away from the watchful red eye of the TV camera.
As a two-time SEC Media Days attendee, I have cultivated a theory about the event and why it always ends up feeling so dissatisfying: to the extent that anyone still gets excited about Media Days, they’re actually getting excited about a memory of Media Days from 2011 or 2012. Conference realignment and the possibility of a move toward the playoff were the two primary points of interest during the event’s glory days. Whenever then-commissioner Mike Slive took the podium, there was every possibility that he would break major news about the future of the sport. In 2011, for instance, Slive unveiled a “national agenda for change” with objectives such as cost-of-living allowances for players, expanding scholarships from one years to four years, and modernizing recruiting rules.
Whereas Slive positioned himself and his conference at the vanguard of the sport’s great debates and used his address at SEC Media Days to set the terms of his legislative agenda, Greg Sankey has positioned himself as the custodian of a decadent football empire. Whereas Slive played the role of the imperious tycoon, Sankey plays the role of the academic, preferring to go on extended soliloquies about the importance of the Olympic sports rather than speculate on the revenue potential of future TV rights deals. (Admittedly, it would have been an entirely different scene this year if news of Texas and Oklahoma joining the conference had broken earlier in the week.)
But the sizzle to the steak of the Slive Era media days was Steve Spurrier. In the early 2010s, this wasn’t just any old Steve Spurrier. It was Spurrier the White, a one-time SEC villain, back from the dead after taking on the Balrog of the NFL, now in command of a burgeoning national power at South Carolina. Spurrier took his customary light-hearted jabs at Georgia and, in 2011, even stoked the flames of a quarterback controversy on his own team.
“Spurrier’s tone of voice [in discussing Stephen Garcia’s reinstatement to the team] is impossible to replicate here,” wrote Holly Anderson for SB Nation, “but the closest comparison would be a consistently misbehaving pet he can't get rid of because his wife loves the damn thing.”
“Stephen has some guidelines he must follow to be reinstated in August,” but he's been doing everything asked of him and going to his workouts. Oh, and he might not be the starter, of course.
“He and Connor Shaw will battle it out a little bit. He may be our best quarterback, but we're gonna have a little competition this year.”
A reporter: “Can you talk about your unlimited patience with Garcia?”
Spurrier: “Well, I guess we don't wanna kick him out for stupidity.”
Another reporter: “How sure are you Stephen Garcia will--” Spurrier interrupts this sentence with what is either a cough, a snarl, or a harrumph. I'm going with all three.
“--keep his nose clean this time?” Spurrier fires right back, “Well first of all, he may get beat out by Connor Shaw.”
Coach, are you sorry you don't have a clear and undeniable leader on this team?
“Yeah, that would be nice,” like he's ordering fish.
Of course, the dramatic irony thrumming beneath that passage is our knowledge that Spurrier genuinely did suspect that Connor Shaw was the better quarterback. No amount of Spurrier directly saying that it was an open competition seemed to convince anyone of his sincerity. But we would soon learn the hard way that Garcia just wasn’t the same player after the 2010 season.
Spurrier always gave a reasonably candid appraisal of his team’s chances. When he was struggling to get his USC rebuild off the ground, that meant a lot of poor-mouthing his own team. But when things finally started clicking for his South Carolina program in 2010, Spurrier’s Media Days persona grew bolder.
“I always believed in being a little different, as you might know,” Spurrier told The Athletic, “so I didn’t want to sound like the other coaches … They don’t want to put their team out there as if they’ve got a chance to win the championship. And I believed in putting it out there. I said our goal is win the SEC this year.”
Unlike other coaches, Spurrier didn’t issue dry recitations of offseason weightlifting accomplishments or preseason goals — he held court. He’d offer his opinions, solicited and otherwise, on all the major controversies in college football, from playoff expansion to targeting penalties to intimate partner violence. And his quips often had the effect of cutting straight to the core of the issue in an unexpected way, as when he downplayed South Carolina’s chances of winning the SEC in 2012, saying “It’s easier to win the national championship than the SEC. Ask Nick Saban.”
“When Spurrier came [SEC Media Days] really changed,” said Paul Finebaum. “It went from a bunch of guys like Johnny Majors, Vince Dooley and Pat Dye, to I think he was really the first mega-star of media days.”
By the end of his run at South Carolina, Spurrier became, in effect, the event’s keynote speaker. His presence overshadowed the likes of Nick Saban, even as the latter kept racking up SEC and national championship trophies. Spurrier was a rockstar, to fans and reporters alike. “Spurrier’s best quotes from SEC Media Days” became a fixture of every publication’s content calendar — and with good reason.
So when this picture was taken of Spurrier following his appearance at Media Days in 2013, it became the Platonic ideal of his Media Days persona:
Here is a multi-millionaire loosening his tie after a hard day’s work and walking into an Alabama Arby’s, sunglasses still affixed to his face. He is retrieving his own condiments, an act he does not interrupt even as he turns to pose for a photograph. His thumbs-up looks simultaneously casual and labored, a reminder that the body holding together this unlikely combination of atoms is approaching 70 years old. Spurrier’s presence has rendered the be-flip-flopped dad in the background completely dumbstruck while his son reads a picture book, clueless that he is in the presence of an SEC legend.
It’s perfectly in line with the contrasting image of himself Spurrier deliberately cultivated in opposition to Nick Saban. During his final years in Columbia, Spurrier bemoaned the coaches who never took a day off from “grinding football.” The impromptu trip to a local fast food restaurant was the antithesis to Saban’s highly regimented life, whose only concessions to indulgence are The Weather Channel and Little Debbie cakes.
In short, this photo is the perfect distillation of Steve Spurrier, the country bumpkin from the hills of East Tennessee who made it big. He was born to entertain, and much of his power is derived from his capacity to appear effortless while doing so. And here he is, bringing joy to the masses by simply existing within a fast food restaurant.
And yet, much as I enjoy this photo, my relationship to it has changed by what came next.
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance
Despite not being the target demographic for his previous works of fiction, I found myself deeply curious about John Green’s new collection of essays, The Anthropocene Reviewed. One of the essays focuses on a famous picture from 1914, taken by German photographer August Sander. It features three young men — as the title suggests — on their way to a dance in western Germany. There’s a look of optimism in the young men’s eyes as they contemplate what lies ahead for them at this dance. But, as Green observes “there’s also tension in the picture.”
The farmers’ dandy-like poses with cigarettes and jaunty canes are strangely incongruent with the pastoral landscape in the background. Also, their heads are sort of being cut off by the horizon line, which turns out to be tragically resonant, because when the picture was taken, the three farmers could not have known that they were also on their way to World War I. The photograph was made shortly before the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Soon, Germany would be at war, and the same industrialization that made those suits possible would mass-produce weapons far deadlier than any the world had previously seen.
And so, for me, it’s a picture about knowing and not knowing. You know you’re on your way to a dance, but you don’t know you’re on your way to a war. The picture is a reminder that you never now what will happen to you, to your friends, to your nation. Philip Roth called history “the relentless unforeseen.” He said that history is where “everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” In the faces of these young farmers, we glimpse how profoundly unexpected the coming horror was. And that reminds us there is also a horizon we cannot see past.
Though the stakes of SEC football are much lower than the stakes of the Great War, I nevertheless feel a similar sense of foreboding when I look at the picture of Spurrier now, compared to when it was taken in 2013. The next time Spurrier attended media days, it would be at the dawn of a 7-6 season. The year after that, he would step down in the middle of a 3-9 campaign.
In all of the focus on Spurrier’s iconic pose, it’s often forgotten that Jadeveon Clowney was the photographer. What did Clowney say to provoke that reaction from his coach? Did the cordial relationship that produced this photo fray a few months later, when Spurrier created the impression that Clowney wasn’t sufficiently motivated to play?
In the darkest days of the Muschamp era, the Spurrier photo served as a reminder of how much fun being a Gamecock fan used to be. As other South Carolina fans felt the need to rationalize their continued emotional investment in Muschamp’s foundering program, it became increasingly fashionable to blame Spurrier for the current condition of the team. As a result, I began to feel as though my cherished memories of the Spurrier era were under assault. I felt a growing distance between myself and a team that once comprised such a large share of my personal identity.
I think that explains part of the reason why I (and many others) had such an enthusiastic reaction to seeing Shane Beamer, Nick Muse, and J.J. Enagbare reenacting the famous Spurrier photo after their appearance at SEC Media Days.
As a sign of how far South Carolina’s social media operation has come in the past eight years, they did not even acknowledge the existence of the Spurrier photo in 2013. But here, they’ve recreated it in stunning detail, down to Muse and Enagbare playing the roles of father and son and Steve Fink’s partially obscured head reprising the role of Steve Fink’s partially obscured head.
When people ask me what I think about the Shane Beamer hire, I say I genuinely do not know. I have grown weary of trying to predict the future, which is one of the reasons I started a newsletter about the past. I have been so befuddled in recent years by hires that seemed like slam dunks instead bricking against the rim, and vice versa. With Muschamp, I let myself believe that he could change; as it turned out, he either wouldn’t change or couldn’t change. With Beamer, I am worried about his lack of head coaching experience, but then again he is a Beamer and he seems very excited — and, hell I don’t know, maybe that’s enough.
I do not know what awaits us in the relentless unforeseen. But for now I see a young head coach on his way to a dance, making a conscious effort to build a bridge to the past. A past where being a Gamecock meant winning lots of football games or, at the very least, having fun in the attempt. And, for now, that’ll do.