Seven seasons have passed since Steve Spurrier created and presided over the glory years of South Carolina football.
At times, it feels as though all of the positive energy from those days has been lost, frittered away while the Gamecocks’ top two rivals — Georgia and Clemson — simultaneously ascended into the sport’s elite. But the spoils from the 42 victories accumulated between 2010 and 2013 are there if you look.
There’s a $50 million football operations building that was put into motion during those years and finally opened in 2019. There’s the 650 Lincoln student living center that opened downtown in 2015 and houses most of the school’s on-campus athletes. There is a spruced-up Williams-Brice Stadium and a bulked-up recruiting staff.
Where once there was a program without the infrastructure to compete in the conference that it joined in 1992, there is now a serious football outfit that is equipped to win in the SEC. But as the bones of South Carolina football were getting better and better, the flesh kept melting away.
The Gamecocks have won a total of six games in the past two years, and that led to the firing of head coach Will Muschamp with three games remaining in the 2020 season. Muschamp’s hiring fit a pattern at South Carolina, a veteran head coach who was a known commodity. This is the program of Spurrier and Lou Holtz and Paul Dietzel, coaches who were hired after winning national championships at other schools. It was a program trying to replicate the success of others in part because it lacked the confidence to produce its own.
Only twice between 1956 and 2020 did South Carolina strike out on its own and hire a first-time head coach, and it struck out both times. Brad Scott and Richard Bell were fired with a combined .410 winning percentage.
Twenty-seven years after Scott’s hiring, the Gamecocks are again taking a chance on a first-time head coach. This time, it’s 44-year-old Shane Beamer, the son of Frank Beamer and a former assistant at five Power 5 schools, including South Carolina, before getting his shot at the top job in Columbia.
Beamer, an assistant coach for the Gamecocks under Spurrier from 2007 through 2010, brings no experience to the job but offers loads of enthusiasm. The program’s strengths are not lost on him. Its weaknesses, if he sees them at all, are not mentioned. He does not bring preconceived ideas of what the program can’t do. In his final year at South Carolina, the Gamecocks won their division and played in the SEC Championship Game. In his memory, anything is possible in Columbia.
“To me, you have every resource you need here to win championships, and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “It’s a great recruiting base. It’s an unbelievable fan base. It’s an elite academic institution. It’s a fantastic place to live and go to school. We’ve got as good a football facility as anywhere in the country that our players and staff work out of every single day. Williams-Brice Stadium and what it’s like every single Saturday … I’ve said it before and it’s the truth: Tell me what we’re missing because I haven’t found it yet.”
Beamer’s belief now will be pitted against history in a program where long valleys have obscured the occasional peaks. In the seven years since the school’s last 11-win season in 2013, the Gamecocks’ average finish in the SEC East is fifth, and no one will be predicting them to finish any higher in 2021.