Things have come to this: The other night, Mr. Darcy asked me whether Ron Morris had been fired by The State.
OK, so it wasn’t actually Mr. Darcy, who after all is a fictional character (don’t tell Bridget Jones that!), who in any case would be long dead had he ever lived. No, it was local actor Gene Aimone, who will portray Mr. Darcy in the SC Shakespeare Company’s production of “Pride and Prejudice,” which opens at Saluda Shoals Friday night. See, I can get a plug into anything.
I told him I had no idea. I wondered why he asked. He said hostilities had resumed between Coach Steve Spurrier and Ron, and that the coach had said something mysterious on the radio, or on TV, or on one of those newfangled gadgets that Mr. Darcy has no business listening to, suggesting that there would be developments forthcoming that would pleasing, at least to him.
I said I ran into Ron at Barnes and Noble several months ago and we chatted pleasantly for a time, and he appeared alive and well, and that’s the last I knew of him.
And I thought no more of it, until Neil McLean mentioned it over breakfast at Cap City this morning. Neil is the new executive director of New Carolina (replacing the retiring George Fletcher), and the son of Tom, my old boss at The State. Neil and I were talking economic development and world travel and all sorts of things, when suddenly he, too, got on the subject of Morris and Spurrier.
And I realized that I was probably the only person in South Carolina not fully briefed on this burning issue. So I went and read up on it. The State itself did not have anything on the controversy, beyond this self-effacing column by Ron (the message, in a nutshell: It was business, not personal).
Then I found this column by Dan Cook at the Free Times:
For a man who seemingly has everything — a multimillion-dollar salary and one of the most successful teams in college football, for starters, not to mention a Heisman trophy — Steve Spurrier is no doubt lacking at least one thing: a thick skin.
How else to explain Spurrier’s repeated tantrums about the writings and comments of a sports columnist, Ron Morris at The State?
At first glance — and second, third and fourth — the situation seems utterly absurd. How can the mighty Spurrier, a legendary coach revered by literally millions of college football fans, even care what a lowly local sports columnist says?
And yet, he does — apparently a lot.
Last week, it was a comparison Morris made between Penn State and the University of South Carolina that set Spurrier off.
Speaking off the cuff on Bill King’s XM radio show in response to a question about whether Spurrier would take questions at an upcoming press conference (Spurrier had recently instituted a policy of refusing questions), Morris said, “I think it’s a real test of the [USC] administration. This is how things like Penn State happen — when the administration won’t step up and confront the football coach, and he becomes all-powerful. When the football coach begins to dictate company policy, I think you’re asking for trouble.”
Spurrier responded in a later radio appearance by implying that if he had to put up with Morris any longer, he might as well retire and “head to the beach” instead. “That’s not part of the job, so we’re going to get it straightened out,” Spurrier said…
So now I see what it was about. And as I see the actual words Ron spoke, I see the matter quite differently from the Gamecock fans who have gotten so upset over it. I understand how a fan (to the extent that I can understand a sports fan, a breed not unlike political partisans, who often mystify me) would get upset if he heard, “Hey, that Ron Morris compared the Gamecock football program to the Penn State mess.” But of course, that would be a grossly unfair characterization of what he said.
To a dispassionate observer, it’s obvious that he was saying this situation was like that other in that you had a popular, successful coach, and if that popular coach becomes beyond reproach in your community, and becomes the tail that wags the dog that is your state’s flagship university, that’s a problem.
While the statement can be defended on rational grounds, there’s no question that Ron stepped in it, and that all this emotion could have been avoided if he’d just found a better way to express himself.
Of course, if he’d simply said, “Steve Spurrier’s getting too big for his breeches,” and not mentioned Penn State, he’d still be in trouble, because, well, Mr. Spurrier actually does happen to be a coach who has become beyond reproach in his community. A lot of people are fine with that state of affairs. As a skeptical journalist, Ron seems to have a problem with it. And therein lies the conflict.