The Ron Morris/Steve Spurrier brouhaha

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.

21 thoughts on “The Ron Morris/Steve Spurrier brouhaha

  1. Doug Ross

    The Spurrier side of the story is that Morris TWICE has made very damning accusations about Spurrier that don’t appear to be true.

    First, Morris made claims that implied Spurrier had put pressure on the basketball program to get WR Bruce Ellington to play both football and baseball. That started the rift last year.

    Then recently Morris wrote a column implying that Spurrier had played Conner Shaw despite Shaw being injured. That set Spurrier off as it questions his character as coach. Not a good thing.

    I’m not a huge Spurrier fan. His teams too often play undisciplined ball – too many penalties, too many dumb plays called… but Morris (like many sportswriters) have the misguided notion that they are somehow peers to the coaches they cover. Ron Morris hasn’t got the resume to think he’s at that level.

  2. Brad

    Ron Morris is probably the most qualified writer in the country to make such judgments. Read his column, and tell me: Who has more experience covering the Spurrier beat?

  3. Stan Dubinsky

    I have to agree with the sentiment that Spurrier is paid far too much money not to allow the jibes of a newspaper sports columnist to roll off his back.
    But of course we all know (or at least the knowledgeable among us do know) that South Carolina has a rich and storied tradition of the rich and powerful attacking the press, if the press should dare give them affront.
    I am therefore grateful to live in an era in which Spurrier is unlikely to shoot Morris, as Lt. Gov. Tilman did to Narciso Gonzales in 1903.
    Yes, I think that Spurrier should get over himself, suck it up, shake off any insults (true or otherwise, and do what he does so well … coach the football team.

  4. Steven Davis II

    So I take it he wasn’t called Ron Moron like he is everywhere else around Columbia.

    Steve Spurrier has always acted like a spoiled brat if he didn’t get his way. This is just another example of him taking his ball and going home.

  5. Phillip

    I thought Dan’s column was brilliant. The problem is two-sided, both of which have to do with Columbia being a small market, media-wise. Morris doesn’t have enough competition, because most other sports “journalists” in town (radio especially) are sycophants when it comes to the almighty Spurrier. Meanwhile, Spurrier (like many college coaches) lacks the thick skin that many coaches in pro sports (and larger urban markets with multiple media outlets) develop about taking criticism.

    While I often disagree with Morris, Spurrier’s obsession with what Morris writes (which, let’s face it, in this culture really has nearly ZERO negative impact on Spurrier’s standing in the community) says volumes more about Spurrier than it does about Morris. Dan Cook is right on. It reflects far more poorly on Spurrier than it does on Morris.

    Incidentally, I believe Morris stands by the Ellington story, at least based on the sources he had. Ellington denied the pressure, but what’s he going to say, really? In any case, a journalist has the right to be wrong. And as far as being Spurrier’s “peer”, Doug—are only journalists who have careers as lengthy and lofty as the coaches they cover allowed to report honestly or ask tough questions about a school’s athletic program?

  6. Rose

    I am a Gamecock fan.
    Dan Cook’s column really hits the nail on the head.
    I wish Ron had made his point differently and not brought in the Penn State specter, but the hysterical reaction by Spurrier and the fans completely proves his point about the dangers of coaches being idolized.
    Spurrier needs to man up and shut up.

  7. joanneh

    @Brad, Morris needs to watch using words like “poach” in referring to the Ellington situation (when Bruce, Coach Spurrier, AND Coach Horn all said what Morris implied wasn’t true) and using a reference to the Penn State situation when the team doctors had cleared Connor.

    If he’s so “qualified,” he should be more circumspect.

    Whether or not you like Spurrier, are you aware of any times he has endangered a player by putting him into a game that he was not able to do his best?

    Even Shaw said he was ready.

  8. Doug Ross

    “Ron Morris is probably the most qualified writer in the country to make such judgments. Read his column, and tell me: Who has more experience covering the Spurrier beat?”

    1000+ bloggers around the country? What does Morris bring to the table that differentiates him from any number of sports bloggers? I think there is a misguided sense of “I write for the largest newspaper in Columbia
    thus my status in the sports community is on a level with the head football coach”.

    What Morris doesn’t get is that his writing on Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks has become a commodity product. The age of the newspaper sports columnist has long passed by. A couple columns a week aren’t going to cut it when fans can get more in depth coverage 24 hours a day.

    So Morris tries to be controversial to maintain relevance. Throw a few wild accusations out there without providing any supporting evidence.

    Should Spurrier punish all of the media for Morris’ actions? Probably not. But do you think it’s anything more than a minor distraction for him? Head football coaches have a different mindset. They are not the types who negotiate, placate, or empathize. They are dictators.

  9. Brad

    “The age of the newspaper sports columnist has long passed by.”

    Come on, Doug. Your assessment doesn’t fit the facts before you. No one, including this pezzovovante coach, is getting upset with what these 1,000-plus sports bloggers you speak of write.

  10. Doug Ross

    But those bloggers aren’t allowed in the press conferences after the practices and games are they?

    Give me a number. How many actual readers do you think Ron Morris has?
    A couple thousand, maybe?

  11. Brad

    By the way, there’s a serious issue here for the management of The State. The decision-makers there need to become a LOT more comfortable with communicating with readers about what’s going on when the paper itself is at the center of a story.

    In this social media age, waiting an hour to answer a burning question can seem like an eternity to readers. We saw this with Nikki Haley’s blowup over her daughter’s job at the gift shop. Readers shouldn’t have had to wait even 24 hours to learn, in the paper, precisely what she was castigating the paper about on Facebook.

    Instead, readers had to wait a week, an excruciating week in which all sorts of conspiracy theories were encouraged to pop up and flourish.

    People are very, very interested in what’s going on at The State during this Morris thing — and the only acknowledgement of it that I have seen (admittedly, I might have missed something) is that column by Ron. There’s the implication, of course, that his management is standing behind him. But no one has said it.

    The newspaper is topic A right now — I heard the round table of regulars at the Cap City Club buzzing about it this morning — which is actually a wonderful thing right now for a newspaper. It’s not wise to let that buzz go to waste. Don’t just let the wave wash over you; ride it.

  12. Mark Stewart

    Prima donnas are prima donnas. Here, we seem to have two.

    Still, USC has had plenty of negative experience with what happens when the best interests of one of its leaders is put before the best interests of the institution. Spurrier should keep that in mind when he takes offense to a reference comparing two institutional responses.

  13. kc

    I have a problem with Spurrier, a highly paid public servant, having a big baby temper tantrum and getting a reporter fired.

    And I’m a Gamecock.

  14. bud

    I think there is a real risk of a football coach becoming too powerful in the college and the community. That’s apparently what happened with Paterno. But Morris well intended point was lost by his clumsy mention of Penn State. (I guess that means I agree with Brad). What we’re seeing with this whole kurflufel is a manifestation of winning is equal to everything. Spurrier won 11 games last year therefore he is all good and powerful. Give him an 11 loss season and all of a sudden he’s the devil incarnate.

  15. Steven Davis II

    @bud – People still loved Lou Holtz after 21 straight losses. The feeling would be the same for Spurrier… because he’s Spurrier.

  16. Ralph Hightower

    There are differences between Steve Spurrier’s job description and SC Governot Nikki Haley’s job description.

    SC Governot Nikki Haley was elected, barely, by the citizens of South Carolina; there may have been some zombies that even voted for her. She is the public face of South Carolina and as such, she should answer reporters questions, from Gina Smith and Renee Dudley. Posting stuff on her Facebook page, where she mizes politics and family, is not being a responsible public figurehead.

    Steve Spurrier, on the other hand, was hired by USC’s Board of Trustees.

    I agree with most of Don Cooks column in the Free Times. I am a Gamecock fan; I graduated from the university. I agree with Morris that Spurrier should have let Shaw rest another week instead of opening against UAB. However, I do think that Morris should have picked a better analogy instead of tying an all powerful coach to the Penn State debacle of child molestation.

  17. Ralph Hightower

    PS: Columnists give their opinions, journalists report the facts.

    At least, that’s how I think it was.

  18. Brad

    Earlier, I missed Bryan Caskey’s comments on the subject over on his blog. Here’s the link. Bryan says in part:

    “It’s fine for the newspaper to criticize the coach when he deserves it, give him praise when he deserves it, and offer insight into the sports program. I would welcome that. But that’s not what we have. Our local newspaper seems to perpetually criticize the football program, and doesn’t offer any great insight.

    “Heck, I don’t even go to The State for sports coverage anymore. It’s just not that good. In any event, there should be some sort of shake-up with either how USC Football is covered by The State. Maybe the end result could be some good journalism.”


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