|Spurrier has a history of going after local columnists who have been critical of him. (Getty Images)|
The Penn State comparison is what set off South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, and Spurrier was right to be upset at local sports writer Ron Morris for making it. It's too soon to use the tragedy at Penn State as a point of reference, as a warning sign, about another coach at another school who could be growing too powerful for his own good.
That's how Morris, a columnist for the Columbia State, used the Penn State comparison last week on a local radio show -- noting that Spurrier is so angry at Morris' critiques that he isn't taking questions from anyone in the media. And that the administration at South Carolina was letting Spurrier get away with it.
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"This," Morris said on the radio, "is how things like Penn State happen."
Morris wasn't saying a pedophile will strike South Carolina, or that Spurrier would allow a pedophile to run unchecked. Morris was saying, quite clearly, that it's a bad idea for a coach to become too powerful at his school, just as Joe Paterno grew to be too powerful at Penn State. That's what Morris meant.
But it was a bad analogy -- wrong time, wrong situation -- and Spurrier flipped.
And in the process, Spurrier is confirming Morris' overall point.
In the days since Morris made that comment on the radio, Spurrier has made comments of his own, ominous comments about the career of Ron Morris, petulant comments about the career of Steve Spurrier, scary comments about the control of the media in a setting as provincial as Columbia, S.C., home of the South Carolina Gamecocks, who have found the best coach in program history and aren't about to let a sports writer scare that coach away.
That's what Spurrier has threatened, by the way. This incredible coach -- this man who won at Duke and who won the 1996 national championship at Florida and who coached the Washington Redskins and who has turned longtime doormat South Carolina into an SEC powerhouse -- has implied that he will take his ball and go home if Ron Morris is allowed to keep writing about his football program.
"If that's part of the job, I can head to the beach," Spurrier said. "That's not part of the job, so we're going to get it straightened out."
Spurrier made those comments Thursday on his own radio show. He made those comments in different ways, even saying -- had he known Ron Morris would be such a thorn in his side -- he wouldn't have taken the job in 2005.
Said Spurrier: "If [then-USC athletics director) Mike McGee, when he hired me, he would have said, 'Steve, we're gonna give you a chance to run the football program at South Carolina, you hire your coaches, do your thing, but there's one thing you gotta put up with -- the local media will try to trash you, they'll try to ruin your reputation, they'll try to portray you as a mean, evil, self-serving person.' And I would have said, 'Well, you give that job to somebody else. I'll wait for the North Carolina job to open.' Which was opening the next year. But I'm glad it worked out."
Along with threatening to quit twice if Morris isn't removed -- now and in 2005, if he could just go back in time -- Spurrier made other comments, scary comments that suggested the leaders at the University of South Carolina were talking to the leaders of the State newspaper to neuter Ron Morris, if not remove him outright from the Gamecocks' sports scene.
"We need to make some changes and I really believe between [South Carolina] president [Harris] Pastides and the guy that runs the newspaper, that some good changes are coming forth," Spurrier said. "And I encourage the people that cancelled their subscriptions last year, when some of this crap started last year, to give the newspaper and our university a chance. I believe that our city is going to be better off. ...
"The city of Columbia and the University of South Carolina, our newspaper, we're all going to get along better, which is what it's all about and, hopefully, that can come from this week 'cause we've had some serious discussions about things."
What happens next is anyone's guess. By telling fans who cancelled their subscription to the newspaper that help is on the way -- by suggesting Morris will be removed from coverage of South Carolina athletics, if not from the newspaper entirely -- Spurrier has made it clear what he wants to happen, and what he thinks will happen. Because if it doesn't happen?
"I can head to the beach," Spurrier said.
So I could wait until something else happens, wait until the State announces that Morris has been removed from his position, has been reassigned, has even retired. I could wait for the other shoe to drop, whatever that shoe is, but if the shoe fits what Spurrier said last week on the radio -- "some good changes are coming forth" -- that would be too late. You don't speak up after a monstrosity has been allowed to happen; you speak up before it does. Before it's too late.
And it would be a monstrosity for Spurrier to have any say in the career of a sports writer who writes about his team.
Before we go further, look, I've already addressed the Penn State analogy. Morris made a mistake, which he conceded and apologized for in a column in his newspaper. If the people who run the State decide such a poorly chosen analogy cannot be made without repercussions, fine. I'm not telling the newspaper how to run its business, as long as it's thinking for itself.
But if the State lets Steve Spurrier think for it? That's a problem.
At this point, Spurrier looks worse than Morris. Spurrier is the parody of the thin-skinned football coach, the guy who's so mad at a writer that he won't talk to the writer -- or to anyone else. Silly.
This isn't the first time Spurrier has reacted so strongly to a critical columnist. He gave Orlando Sentinel columnist Larry Guest a similar cold shoulder in the 1990s. When it happens once, that says something about the coach and the columnist. When it happens twice, at two different schools in two different states?
It says something about Steve Spurrier.
Now we wait to see what the State says about its newspaper. Does it let the big-time football coach at the big-time university in town dictate who can and cannot write about South Carolina football? What an embarrassment to journalism that would be.
What a scary step that would be, too. Not to get all preachy about the freedom of the press, but it is sort of important, you know? It matters. It's one of many things -- and one of the most important things -- that separates the United States from some of the scary governments in other countries that allow no dissent. The Spurrier vs. Morris situation isn't a threat to national security, obviously, but it would be a step in the wrong direction for a newspaper to let a powerful figure dictate coverage.
And it would be a downright frightening message to send to the tens of thousands of South Carolina fans who want this to happen. If they get the head of Ron Morris today, whose head will they want to have -- will they expect to have -- tomorrow? A political writer, someone trying to be a watchdog over the school board or the mayor or the governor?
Remember, this is what Spurrier said: "The University of South Carolina, our newspaper, we're all going to get along better, which is what it's all about."
No, Steve. That's not what it's all about. Getting along? The media isn't supposed to "get along" with the people and powers they writes about. The media are supposed to write what they (reporters) know and what they (columnists) think, and readers are supposed to decide what to believe, and people like Steve Spurrier are supposed to coach their football teams.
This can't happen, whatever is about to happen in South Carolina. Not if whatever happens is Steve Spurrier's idea. He's a hell of a football coach, one of the best I've ever seen. But he's power-drunk if he thinks he can decide who does and does not write about his team.
What kind of coach thinks his power extends beyond the football field, beyond campus, all the way into the newsroom of the local newspaper?
One who has way too damn much power already.