COLUMBIA -- The job was there. It was his if he wanted it. But did he?
Why would Steve Spurrier want to come to South Carolina, risking his reputation -- already damaged by the failed Washington Redskins experiment -- to coach one of the Southeastern Conference's more middling programs?
Spurrier has talked in the past week about the twinkle in some of his players' eyes. He can identify, because, nearly six years ago to the day, he got that look about the South Carolina gig.
Spurrier turned to his wife, Jerri, and said he was going to be a Gamecock in late 2004. Can you imagine that moment? A Gator for life, essentially, Spurrier wanted something altogether different -- because of the challenge.
"Let's go to South Carolina," Spurrier told his wife, "see if we can do some things that have never been done before."
Spurrier arrived presenting a similar message to South Carolinians. "Why not us?" he rhetorically asked those listening and watching his news conference at Williams-Brice Stadium.
For the next several years, Spurrier had the answer to his question: The Gamecocks weren't ready.
The school was behind in terms of facilities and resources. Talent, depth and attitudes were all issues that had to be addressed, sometimes awkwardly and painfully. Florida and Georgia had a strangehold on the Eastern Division.
Welcome to 2010, though. This is the "Next Year" generations of Gamecocks had pointed to, for decades, wondering if it ever would actually arrive.
South Carolina, at 9-3 and ranked 18th, will represent the East on Saturday against 12-0 and top-ranked Auburn in the SEC championship in Atlanta.
"It's all the motivation in the world," USC sophomore receiver Tori Gurley said. "They won the ACC championship back in the day (1969), but now we have the opportunity to open up doors for Carolina football and this program.
"Saturday, we're going to do everything that we can to win."
Spurrier said Tuesday that the national title game is only "a little tiny bit bigger" than the SEC's title game. (Often, as it is with Auburn this year, one potentially leads to another.)
"For us in the SEC," Spurrier said, "this is as big as it gets."
Since he's been at South Carolina, Spurrier has been selling the vision of winning big for the first time at USC. It's the same vision he had to sell himself on, after all.
Gradually, kids started to listen. That's really gone into gear the past two or three seasons, with the addition of in-state prep standouts such as Rock Hill's Stephon Gilmore, St. Matthews' Alshon Jeffery and Duncan's Marcus Lattimore.
South Carolina is winning with South Carolina players. But others, too.
Spurrier's message reached into North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and other areas.
"I wanted to be part of something that had never happened before," said Gamecocks senior defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye, who is from the Atlanta area. "Coach Spurrier came to the school and told us he wanted to change this program and get an SEC title. I loved it."
It took nearly all of Ajiboye's eligibility to get to this point.
"It's been an experience," said Ajiboye, part of a 2007 recruiting class that was a consensus top-10 group. "Dreams do come true. We're witness to that, man. I'm just enjoying the moment."
When Florida wins a division title, no Gators talk about dreams coming true. Florida talks about continuing success, not starting it.
This week -- and Saturday's game -- takes on a different meaning in Columbia than Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, etc.
After Saturday, there will be only three teams that haven't played in Atlanta (Kentucky, Mississippi and Vanderbilt).
"We've never had it before," Ajiboye said. "It's our first time. … We want this bad."
Those who informed Spurrier -- the seven-time SEC winner at Florida -- he couldn't win at South Carolina were in full-blown I-told-you-so mode as he wobbled through six- and seven-win seasons.
The feeling in 2007 was unparalleled. Starting 6-1 and rising to No. 6 in the BCS, the Gamecocks were closing in on Spurrier's promise that year of competing for the SEC title.
But South Carolina didn't win again, finishing 6-6 in a bowl-less season.
Spurrier still had work to do.
"I don't think people understood where the program was when Steve came in," said USC athletic director Eric Hyman, who arrived shortly after Spurrier. "Steve's gotten better and the program has gotten better. He's chipped away and chipped away -- and now look at where he is."
He's back, is where he is. Back in Atlanta. Back on top.
Well, close. That would really be the case if South Carolina were to pull the mild upset Saturday.
Spurrier is aware -- because of the past six years.
"I had a friend of mine telling me how big it would be if we were to win and I said, 'Now listen, you don't think I don't know that?' " Spurrier said, sending the room into laughter. "We didn't arrive yesterday. We've been here for a while. We know our history."
But the history, in most every sense, is now just that at South Carolina.
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