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Spurrier, Dabo took rivalry ribbing to another level. A mutual admiration remains

·5 min read

Urban Meyer was in disbelief.

During an awards ceremony in Atlanta almost a decade ago, the then-Ohio State football coach turned to Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.

“You lost five in a row to South Carolina?” Meyer asked him.

Swinney responded, “Yeah, we beat everybody else though.”

While Steve Spurrier was at South Carolina, he posted a 6-4 record over Clemson. That included the five straight victories (2009-13) that Meyer, now coaching former Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence on the Jacksonville Jaguars, was referencing.

Spurrier, who returned to Florida to be an ambassador and consultant for the program in 2016, said there wasn’t a secret formula for success against Clemson. The Gamecocks just played well on those nights against their in-state rival, outscoring the Tigers 155-71 during that time span.

“We scored touchdowns, didn’t have to kick a bunch of field goals, made a bunch of third downs, seems like, a bunch of games,” he said. “Just played really well. Some games you play well, some games you don’t. We played very well during those five wins.”

As Swinney recalled Tuesday, it was “turnovers. That five game losing streak, we turned it over 15 times. They turned it over three.”

Swinney broke the streak in 2014 when Clemson took a 35-17 win over the Gamecocks in Death Valley, which would be the last time he would coach against Spurrier. The Tennessee native retired midway through the 2015 season. Since 2014, the Tigers have won the last six meetings.

Clemson will try for a seventh-straight Palmetto Bowl victory in the regular season finale at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Columbia.

Before either arrived at their respective programs, Spurrier and Swinney had known each other from when Swinney played at Alabama and Spurrier was the Gators’ head coach. Including Swinney’s time as a graduate assistant and wide receivers coach with the Crimson Tide, he saw Spurrier and Florida in the SEC championship game in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1999. The Gators won three of the five and totaled five conference titles during the 1990s. The Tide won in 1992 and 1999.

During the course of the Clemson-Carolina rivalry in the 2000s, Spurrier and Swinney exchanged comments back and forth publicly, which the former said was “for funsies.”

On one occasion in 2012, Spurrier said his players had never been to Death Valley, discrediting Memorial Stadium’s designated nickname, to which Swinney responded that the real USC is in California.

The fanbases always took it a step further, though. One year at a booster club meeting, Spurrier, who’s originally from Tennessee, recalled having a conversation with a fan about the Clemson-Carolina rivalry. She told the former Gamecocks head coach she didn’t care if the team lost all of its games as long as it beat Clemson.

“I said, ‘I’d rather win them all and lose to Clemson. Man, we’d have a heckuva season if we could do that.’ She looked at me funny-like,” Spurrier said.

For as much as they participated in the rivalry, the two coaches have an admiration and respect for one another to this day. When Spurrier was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2017, he invited Swinney and his wife, Kathleen, to the ceremony. One of the Florida media members brought it to Spurrier’s attention that Swinney never left.

“The other coaches sort of came and left, but Dabo was there the whole time,” Spurrier said. “Florida people were expressing their appreciation for Dabo and his wife for staying the entire time.”

They’ve even shared a call or two to lament losses. During fall camp prior to Clemson’s season opener against Georgia this season, Swinney talked about getting a call from Spurrier after the Tigers lost to the Bulldogs in 2014. South Carolina had just been routed by Texas A&M a couple days before.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know why we schedule these games. If we play East Carolina and y’all go play Furman or somebody, everybody’s happy to get a win,’ ” Swinney said imitating Spurrier in August, continuing, “ ‘We got our butts kicked for four quarters. Yeah, looks like y’all just got yours kicked for one quarter, but hey, you know. We bounce back, go get them next week.’ ”

Old habits die hard, it seems, as Spurrier gave Swinney a call following the Tigers’ 10-3 loss to Georgia this year as well.

“I must have kidded him,” Spurrier went on, “I said, ‘Looked like you were calling the plays that game.’ Yeah, they got stymied in that one.”

Spurrier added that he doesn’t pester Swinney often, just when he’s bored. He’s no longer part of the rivalry, which hasn’t changed much about their relationship other than seeing less of one another. Since Spurrier left South Carolina, Swinney’s teams have won two national championships and six ACC titles in addition to every Palmetto Bowl meeting.

“There’s a fact of life a lot of people don’t know,” Spurrier explains. “This guy wrote a book on winners and losers, and one of the quotes in there says, ‘A winner admires and respects other winners.’ So, if a guy wins a lot in life and there’s another guy over there, they sort of admire and respect each other. I think that’s the way Dabo and I sort of look at each other.”