Steve Spurrier resigned as Florida's football coach two days after the Gators capped their 2001 season with an Orange Bowl shellacking of Maryland.
He wanted to try the National Football League, and within two weeks he was hired by the Washington Redskins and given a record contract. He had made seven appearances in the Southeastern Conference title game during his 12 seasons in Gainesville, and the last thing on his mind as he exited the college landscape was making an eighth trip.
"I thought I would coach in the NFL five or six years and then hang it up," Spurrier said. "Sometimes your plans as a coach don't always follow through the way you imagined. After a couple of years in the NFL, the situation I was in was not a very good one."
Spurrier is back in the SEC championship game for the first time in a decade after leading his sixth South Carolina team to the school's inaugural venture to the Georgia Dome. The Gamecocks finished the regular season with a 9-3 mark, including 22-point November road routs of Florida and Clemson, and this afternoon will face Auburn, which is 12-0 and No. 1 in the BCS standings.
Nick Saban became the first to take two programs to the SEC title game, guiding Alabama the previous two seasons after making trips with LSU in 2001 and '03. Spurrier, now 65, had a 122-27-1 record with Florida and took over the Gamecocks in 2005 following a year off from football.
"He's one of the coaches who will be considered one of the great ones of all time, and I don't think there is any question about that," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "He's won a lot of championships. He does a great job, and it's obvious that's why South Carolina is in the position they're in right now."
Spurrier arrived at Florida two years before the SEC instituted a championship game, and the two instantly became synonymous. The Gators won the first five SEC East titles and won four of the first five league championship games, his 1996 team capturing a national championship as well.
Taking the Gamecocks, who had an all-time record of 499-508-44 when he accepted the job, would be an entirely different matter. A successful season in Columbia usually meant finishing third in the East, and when Spurrier arrived and mentioned the goal of winning division and league titles, a healthy supply of naysayers began their ridicule.
"That was probably a fair assessment when you look at the history of South Carolina football, but that was one of the reasons I was really excited about the opportunity to coach here," he said. "It has been a struggle, although we have been bowl-eligible every year. In reality we've done OK, but obviously this year is the best we've done thus far, and hopefully we can finish it off."
He entered this season with a 35-28 record at South Carolina, which followed the final three years of Lou Holtz that yielded a 16-19 record and an 0-12 mark against rivals Clemson, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Spurrier's Gamecocks defeated Florida and Tennessee in his first year, Clemson in his second and Georgia in his third, and they won all four of those matchups this season by double digits.
South Carolina notched its first win ever against a No. 1 team on Oct. 9, when the Gamecocks stunned Alabama 35-21 at Williams-Brice Stadium, but the more monumental triumph occurred Nov. 13. Needing its first win ever in the Swamp to capture that elusive East crown, South Carolina allowed a touchdown on the opening kickoff before roaring back to trounce Florida 36-14.
"The happiest I've seen Coach Spurrier in my career was when we beat Florida," Gamecocks kicker and punter Spencer Lanning said. "Usually in the locker room after a game, he has some positive points and some negative points, like giving up stupid penalties and stuff like that. After that game, he said we needed to get ready for Troy and then Clemson and then we're headed to Atlanta. Everybody just erupted."
If the Gamecocks could pull the upset today, then the win over the Gators would be the second-biggest in program history.
"That was our goal here at South Carolina, to be here and to win the game here," Spurrier said. "It's obviously still our goal, and we didn't think we had the team until maybe this year."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.