COLUMBIA - There were bold proclamations and happy backslaps when South Carolina's athletics department held its staff meeting last month.
Understandably, athletics director Ray Tanner beamed with pride. He stood before his coaches, assistants and aides. Compliments flowed. Applause was warranted.
The boss inside South Carolina's Rice Athletics Center has a lot to smile about these days.
The Gamecocks women's basketball team won its first SEC title. The baseball team swept Clemson for the first time in three decades. The men's basketball team upset nationally ranked Kentucky.
And that was only the past week.
Those highlights are merely a sample of what may be the greatest stretch in South Carolina athletics history. It goes beyond the football program, still basking in its golden years. The Gamecocks have blended their teams into a winning concoction, some mixture of success and pride - two things that haven't always been present in Columbia.
South Carolina has four teams ranked in the top five of their respective sport, including a group of equestrians ranked No. 1 for 14 straight weeks. The Gamecocks are the only school in the country with a football, basketball and baseball team ranked in the top five. They've held that distinction three straight weeks.
Tanner even wondered if that had ever happened before.
"There was a lot of debate," Tanner said. "I was making some bold comments about, 'Nobody does that.' They said, 'Well, not officially.' I'm sure that it might have happened, but it doesn't happen very often. That's for sure."
Historic or not, South Carolina's sweeping success is remarkable. Five years ago, the Gamecocks had never won a national championship in a major sport. Now, they've won two in baseball, and are knocking on the door in football and women's basketball.
Expectations have risen in increments. It isn't by accident.
'Winning is contagious'
Steve Spurrier returned from Omaha, Neb., an inspired coach four years ago. He had just seen a national championship unfold firsthand, something he once experienced.
When South Carolina's baseball team made its run to the 2010 College World Series title, the excitement reached all corners of the athletics department. Spurrier, who watched the games in Omaha, thought of ways to ride the wave of momentum. His first idea carried him to the nearest printer.
Spurrier posted copies of South Carolina's celebratory dog pile on the mound in Omaha throughout the football locker room. He wanted his players to see what a championship looked like. Here was visual proof a title could be won in South Carolina.
Not coincidentally, the Gamecocks football team captured the SEC East championship later that fall.
"I think it's somewhat contagious when one sport does well, then another one does well, and it just keeps going through," Spurrier said. "We all pull for each other around here. There's no jealousies or anything like that. I really believe winning is contagious at a university."
Spurrier has seen schools have similar stretches, where success flowed through multiple sports. He was at Duke in 1989, when the men's basketball team reached the Final Four a few months before the football team won a share of the ACC championship.
At Florida in the 1990s, Spurrier led the Gators to a national championship the same year their baseball team reached the College World Series. It was only two years after the men's basketball team reached the Final Four.
Still, South Carolina's success - evenly dispersed among major and non-revenue sports - is rare. Neither Duke nor Florida boasted four teams in the top five at the same time. Spurrier credits Tanner, a former coach who connects with employees in a unique way.
"He makes it fun," Spurrier said. "As a former coach, and now an athletics director, I think he's been in our shoes. He knows exactly what it's all about."
'Our elder statesman'
Tanner quickly returns the compliment. He knows how important the football team is to an athletics department, university and fan base.
If South Carolina's baseball titles were the spark, its football success the past four seasons kept the momentum going. The Gamecocks followed their 2010 division title with three straight 11-win seasons, tying the program record for victories each fall.
Tanner appreciates more than the victories.
"He is our elder statesman," Tanner said of Spurrier. "I don't mean age-wise, but he's the most experienced. He's a longtime football coach and a Heisman Trophy winner, and he has a great relationship with our coaches. He goes to all the events, he's visible. He enjoys it."
Unlike some high-profile coaches, Spurrier doesn't duck into his office and hide. He mingles with colleagues, attends games. Tanner said Spurrier sits in the front row during staff meetings.
Don't tell Spurrier the Gamecocks have the only athletics department in the country with a football, basketball and baseball team ranked in the top five. Sure, in the meritocracy that is college athletics, the factoid brings a lot of pride. It also slightly misses the mark.
"Don't forget equestrian," Spurrier said, not missing a beat. "Did you know they're No. 1?"
Spurrier not only pays attention, he helps fellow South Carolina coaches however possible.
When women's basketball coach Dawn Staley brings a recruit on campus, they meet with Tanner and university president Harris Pastides. If Spurrier is in town, Staley said he'll also speak with her recruits.
"I do have to give credit to coach Spurrier for kind of giving us the blueprint of getting the best South Carolina kids to stay at home," Staley said. "He built the football program that way. We're able to build our basketball program that way. Hopefully we can continue to get the best South Carolina kids to represent their state.
"We all feel like we're a part of winning. You win when you're able to have the support that you need, and it doesn't always have to come from the top. It can come from our peers."
Four of Staley's top six scorers come from South Carolina, including Goose Creek native Aleighsa Welch. They've carried the Gamecocks to their first SEC title. And they'll return next season.
To Spurrier, that should be the standard.
National championships are rare, even for the elite in college athletics. The best teams are always in the hunt for a conference title. Noticing the current landscape at South Carolina, Spurrier believes the Gamecocks fit in that group.
"It doesn't always happen. It doesn't always go together," Spurrier said. "I think winning, again, tells all the other sports, 'We need to do what they're doing.' I think the athletics director has to tell his coach, 'We know you're not going to win the conference championship every year, but we should be up there competing for it. We should be in the hunt for it.' That's the expectation that you have to have."
South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles hoists the Hardee's Trophy after defeating Clemson 31-17 Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 at Williams-Brice Stadium. Paul Zoeller/Staff×
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