This is a story about a sportswriter and a football coach and the debatable definitions of each man’s job.

Ron Morris has written for newspapers in Chapel Hill, Durham and Tallahassee before becoming the lead sports columnist for The State in Columbia, S.C. He has known Steve Spurrier since The Visor was at Duke – as the Blue Devils’ offensive coordinator in the early 1980s and their head coach in the late ‘80s before going to Florida and winning a national championship.

morris billboardMorris is a controversial columnist whose points of view often push the envelope. He has endured various forms of public humiliation over his feud with Spurrier, the 68-year-old legendary South Carolina football coach, from callous billboards to constant calls for his firing.

In his nine years at Chief Gamecock, Spurrier has amassed the kind of power Bear Bryant had at Alabama (and Nick Saban has now), the late Joe Paterno had at Penn State, Dean Smith had at UNC and Mike Krzyzewski has at Duke. While all of those men wielded behind-the-scenes influence, some of them occasionally wound up in civic squabbles.

Smith once took on the entire Consolidated University of North Carolina over what he believed was an unfair report about (some of his) student athletes. Early in Krzyzewski’s tenure, he ripped the Duke Chronicle sports staff in private and, after seeing the account in the next day’s edition, learned that one of the student reporters had tape-recorded his tirade.

Paterno, of course, was lionized throughout his Hall of Fame career at Penn State, only to be fired in disgrace over his alleged negligence in the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal. Paterno died shortly after from cancer.

In an ongoing controversy, Spurrier got Morris removed from the South Carolina football beat by complaining that Morris had written and opined inaccuracies about him. Spurrier began his campaign by refusing to answer questions in any press conference Morris attended during the 2011 season. He then held a secret meeting with The State’s Publisher and Executive Editor, after which Morris was ordered not to ask Spurrier any more questions and eventually told that he could no longer write anything about South Carolina football.

Morris had infuriated Spurrier during a radio interview by likening his power at South Carolina to the fiefdom Paterno established and said none of that could be good for any university or athletic department. When the Gamecocks played in the Outback Bowl after last season and when they opened the current season at home against UNC, Morris and his wife went to the movies.

The dispute had found its way into various media columns and became fodder for talk shows, but when Morris wrote stories about the South Carolina basketball and baseball teams the spat was considered old news. In the background, Spurrier had influenced The State to hire a noted “homer” to cover the Gamecocks on the paper’s website and later lobbied for him to get a raise.

Not until national media blogger Jim Romenesko published his well-researched piece in early September did Morris’ plight become a national story. USA Today chimed in and, after Romenesko’s blog went viral, The State reversed field and allowed its lead sports columnist to again cover the most popular subject in the newspaper’s circulation area.

As imagined, the debate goes on thanks to the interactive nature of today’s media. Every Internet article on the subject is followed by a comments section and the Pro-Spurrier and Pro-First Amendment sides continue to go after each other with a blurry line between supposed fact and off-the-wall opinion.

Morris was back in the Williams-Brice Stadium press box for Saturday night’s game against Vanderbilt. And, with the credibility and motives of his managers at The State being called into question, he will continue to be a lightning rod for both sides of the story.

If you are interested in the sordid details, here are inks to the column that most angered Spurrier, Romenesko’s blog that created the national backlash and the recanting of Morris’ position by The State.

Google Ron Morris-Steve Spurrier to find even more.

All make fascinating reading, no matter where you stand.

feature image by nsdis via flickr