According to a report from Sports Illustrated late Monday night, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier has decided to step down and retire immediately after the Gamecocks’ 2-4 (0-4 SEC) start in 2015.
Spurrier leaves a legacy that includes a national championship, the second-most wins in SEC history behind Paul “Bear” Bryant and the revitalization of South Carolina’s football program.
While many fans spent Monday evening sharing their favorite Spurrier soundbites and memories, others began speculating who will replace the Head Ball Coach this offseason.
It won’t be easy to replace a man many consider to be one of the conference’s best and most polarizing coaches in history, but it’s something that will need to be addressed by the Gamecocks this offseason.
Like most cases, the South Carolina vacancy drew several big names purely out of fan speculation including Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart — who is annually linked to just about every major head coaching position (especially in the SEC), Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury — a young, brash coach who attracts a similar media attention to Spurrier and Chip Kelly who has yet to be fired by the Philadelphia Eagles.
But the best candidate for the Gamecocks’ coaching vacancy is Memphis’ Justin Fuente. Fuente is the reigning American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year and led the Tigers to a 10-3 (7-1) record, an AAC Championship and a Top 25 ranking.
Fuente inherited a program that had previously finished 2-10 and was one of the worst teams in the FBS. He has since improved Memphis’ record in back-t0-back seasons and, at 5-0, is on pace to clinch his second consecutive bowl game appearance (not to mention a potential outright conference title).
The 39-year-old managed to keep Memphis competitive in each of its three losses in 2014, including a 42-35 defeat by then-No. 11 UCLA and a 24-3 loss to then-No. 10 Ole Miss that was 7-3 prior to the fourth quarter.
Fuente ranked No. 15 overall on NFL.com’s 15 for ’15 list of the coaches most responsible for wins and losses at college football programs — one spot behind Spurrier. He is also credited for TCU’s offensive success as the team’s former coordinator (2009-11). The Horned Frogs saw a decline in the season following his departure, according to NFL.com’s Bryan Fisher.
Sports Illustrated’s Zac Ellis also credited Fuente as “college football’s next hot coach,” in a piece published in January.
“People around here always ask me if they’re going be overwhelmed by all of this, because they just haven’t had much success,” Fuente told Sports Illustrated. “My answer is that our kids have always been very good listeners. They’ve listened to our message week-in and week-out, and as a whole throughout the season. The things that we’ve tried to teach, they’ve really tried to do.”
Fuente is young and has proven he’s capable of recruiting talent to a small program while competing within state lines of SEC programs. This would be a home run hire for South Carolina who not only needs to compete with its conference foes, but also in-state rival Clemson for top recruits.
The program should have its choice of candidates as it boasts the prestige and facilities of an SEC program. However, the dilemma for South Carolina is that Spurrier’s decision comes on the same day another USC parted ways with a coach named Steve. Southern Cal fired Steve Sarkisian after taking a leave of absence on Sunday due to alcoholism.
Obviously, the Trojans are in far better shape than the Gamecocks and historically are a much better landing spot for coaches. But USC AD Pat Haden will likely go for the biggest name available.
Fuente could be that by season’s end, but might be more of an upside candidate to USC, while others — such as Kelly — will seem to be the news ticker hire. If South Carolina is fortunate enough to gain Fuente’s interest it could have one of the nation’s best young coaches and the perfect replacement for Spurrier.