COLUMBIA -- Without realizing it, Shane Beamer spent the past four years making his life more difficult in the future.

A South Carolina assistant football coach since 2007, and who spent the past three years as USC's recruiting coordinator, Beamer left earlier this month to take a job at Virginia Tech.

Beamer and the Gamecocks coaching staff focused on keeping the state's best recruits at home. It worked, for the most part. Now Beamer's trying to figure out how he's going to get back in with the Hokies.

"If you come in here," Beamer said of recruiting inside the Palmetto State, "you're going to have a battle."

It's no coincidence and there's no denying it: With

South Carolina's best high school football players the University of South Carolina has built and become the state's best college football program. Dwarfed by Clemson for so long, USC is now in the lead. And it's happened quickly.

The Gamecocks started the process three years ago with the addition of a class that included Rock Hill's Stephon Gilmore and St. Matthews' Alshon Jeffery. It continued a year ago with a class highlighted by Duncan's Marcus Lattimore.

Even with those triumphs considered, South Carolina's recruiting efforts reached the pinnacle Feb. 14.

"Five or six years ago," USC athletic director Eric Hyman said last week on a Columbia radio station, "you could not have imagined South Carolina signing the top-ranked player in the country."

No need to imagine it; it is reality in 2011. Jadeveon Clowney, Gilmore's high school teammate at South Pointe High School, chose South Carolina on Valentine's Day.

"I think it was huge, just for the program," Beamer said. "I think it was great for the state, from a pride standpoint. We've been trying to tell guys they don't have to leave the state to win championships."

Clowney went with USC over Alabama and Clemson, which closed strong with the 6-6 defensive end prospect.

USC has gone toe to toe with the Tide and Tigers the past two years for South Carolina prospects, and the Gamecocks have won most of the battles.

Alabama took Manning defensive back John Fulton last year, but Fulton has told friends he regrets his decision. Clemson signed Marlboro County linebacker Lateek Townsend in this class. There's been some rumbling that Townsend is wishing he had selected the Gamecocks (the Tigers signed a couple of highly rated linebackers after Townsend).

Alabama came to the state this year seeking Goose Creek offensive lineman Brandon Shell, Manning defensive lineman Phillip Dukes and Clowney. Nick Saban and the Tide left with none of those players. Clemson was in on Shell and Dukes, too.

There's no doubting that things have changed by this point. The question is why?

Beamer is a good place to start. A lot of relationships with the state's high school coaches were damaged or non-existent when he took over as recruiting coordinator in December 2008. Beamer mended the fences, beginning to seal off the state in the process.

His goal was to keep recent prospects such as Carlos Dunlap (Florida), A.J. Green (Georgia) and Robert Quinn (North Carolina) -- players who have been or are expected to be first-round NFL picks -- in the state.

"I think we just really, really made a commitment to attack this state," Beamer said.

Beamer had help.

Ellis Johnson grew up in Winnsboro, a half-hour north of Columbia. He played at The Citadel, where he was later the head coach. He coached high school ball in the Upstate. He coached at Clemson in the mid-1990s.

Johnson knows the state. And he arrived at USC in 2008, just as the Gamecocks started to take off with in-state recruits, particularly those in Johnson's Rock Hill territory.

Johnson reeled in Gilmore and Holloman, and he was the first to begin recruiting Clowney, when he was a sophomore.

Another assistant with ties to the state, offensive line coach and Camden native Shawn Elliott, was hired a year ago.

In addition to recruiters, Beamer credited Hyman's diligence in building and improving USC's facilities. In particular, the school's new academic learning center for athletes, the Dodie, has been a hit.

There's one other undeniable factor in South Carolina's recruiting surge: winning.

The recruiting dominoes are continuing to topple as the Gamecocks do more on the field. Making it to the SEC championship game Atlanta in 2010, winning the first SEC East title in the program's history, was a major step. And recruits noticed.

Beamer and the coaches were able to sell high school kids on the idea of pushing USC over the hump.

"In the past, the best players didn't always stay here," Beamer said. "These are guys that could have gone anywhere in the country and played. But they're staying home and they're Gamecocks.

"As I leave, I can say that's something I'm proud of, something we're all proud of."

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com.