Senior Writer

Garcia gets another chance, Spurrier gets another pass


HOOVER, Ala. -- There is no outrage. You should know that because if Nick Saban -- or God-help-us, John Calipari -- had pulled what Steve Spurrier has orchestrated at South Carolina, there would be outrage.

For starters.

But when you're the Head Ball Coach with all the quips, wins and goodwill built up over a couple of decades, nobody touches you. Nobody criticizes you. Nobody wants to criticize you. You're the HBC, the comic relief, the best damn coach Florida or South Carolina has ever seen. Nobody rips you, not even when your knucklehead quarterback is in the middle of his fifth suspension.

And you know what? That's OK.

It's hard to dump on Spurrier for keeping Stephen Garcia around because ... it's hard to rip Spurrier. That's for starters. Even if he had never won a Heisman as a player or made Florida football matter or gotten South Carolina damn close to the same position, whatever he says is worth it. To listen to, to admire, to laugh at. He is wise while being a wise ass.

This is the coach who brought the modern forward passing game to the SEC. This is the stand-up guy who stood up to Lane Kiffin a couple of years ago at the SEC spring meetings. This is the man who turned what is otherwise known as an NCAA violation into a legitimate talking point this year during those same meetings. Remember how Spurrier wanted to pay players $300 a game, out of his own pocket?

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You gotta love the guy. That's why you won't read criticism of Spurrier here, either, for giving Garcia more chances than he deserves. Read between the lines Wednesday at the SEC media days and there is a life to be saved here.

"I guess we don't want to kick him out for stupidity ... " Spurrier told a record crowd of 1,000 credentialed media here. "Basically we do believe he's a good kid, good person."

Now Garcia has to prove it, or at least stay out of trouble for an entire semester. He started out his reign of error by being arrested twice during his first two months at the school in 2008. One of those was for "keying" a professor's car. A year later, he was suspended a third time and was separated from the team for four months. That time, it was for underage drinking.

In March, he was suspended for having girls in his room at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. In April, Garcia was suspended again, this time indefinitely -- less than two weeks after telling the world he would never step out of line again.

That last one might have been the most troubling. Garcia became boisterous at a mandatory leadership seminar. Reports stated that alcohol could be smelled on his breath. Garcia later admitted to Spurrier he had been drinking.

"There's actually some reasons he's done those things that we're trying to figure out to help him out," Spurrier said, "help him out so he won't do that anymore."

That hints at a larger problem. You'll notice that several of the suspensions had to do with alcohol. Any other speculation ends here. We don't know for sure. From the outside, it looks like the kid should be kicked into the street. From the inside?

"He's really made some lifestyle changes," Spurrier said. "We just felt like he was worth giving another opportunity."

Let's just say it's another reason to cut Spurrier a break on this one. As bad as he has been, Garcia already has graduated. Spurrier gave him the option of transferring. He stayed.

We can only hope that keeping Garcia in the football family keeps the player on the straight and narrow. So far, it hasn't worked. It certainly didn't work for Tom Osborne and his enabling of Lawrence Phillips.

In fact, in the history of college football, it hasn't worked that well. Coaches, it can be argued, should be taken out of the player-discipline loop.

If this crashes and burns around him, Spurrier won't be the only one to be blamed. The media as a whole has been a friend of Spurrier. He's worth it. He's engaging, he gets our job. It's easy to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

We also know that if this had been the likes of Saban or Calipari, we would most likely be on a righteous crusade. Spurrier also has a boss, AD Eric Hyman, who could have stepped in.

Are we all hypocrites? Spurrier even looks like he's going against his own instincts. This is a guy who used to pull Heisman candidate quarterbacks at Florida for fumbling. (Terry Dean got the hook in '94 in a huge game against Auburn.) This is a guy who didn't trust his quarterback from one snap to the next. Remember how Spurrier used to shuttle his signal callers?

And yet Garcia gets a pass.

The immediate thought is: Would Spurrier go to the wall for his backup tight end? To his credit, the coach did say Wednesday, "If he'd been a tight end, yeah, we'd probably try to save him."

Save him? There's another indicator that there is a more noble purpose for Spurrier's (in)action. And it's not like Garcia is South Carolina's savior. Spurrier says his senior quarterback, if he is fully reinstated, still has to win a quarterback battle against sophomore Connor Shaw. Considering the talent surrounding him, Shaw is fully capable of leading the Gamecocks to a second successive SEC East title.

"He's going to be our quarterback," tailback Marcus Lattimore said on Wednesday.

He was talking about Garcia, whom Lattimore says has lost weight, been working on his skills and has a new outlook.

If that's the case, the most significant battle at South Carolina right now is one going on in Stephen Garcia's head.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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