Steve Spurrier seemed to be a shell of himself his first few years at South Carolina, unable to rekindle the kind of success he had at Florida.
This year looked like it might be another tease when the Gamecocks again followed a big win against Alabama with a disappointing loss to Kentucky. Spurrier was shaken, but not down.
At 65, the South Carolina head ball coach is back in the Southeastern Conference title game.
His No. 18 Gamecocks take on second-ranked Auburn Saturday.
After five largely so-so seasons, Spurrier can bring a winner to South Carolina in the game he loves the most. It's a second-act few thought Spurrier would pull off with the also-ran Gamecocks.
"The important thing is that our players really set some lofty goals this year," he said. "They set some goals that a lot of people maybe would've laughed at at the beginning of the season."
Plenty of people around college football laughed six years ago when Spurrier — citing the Boston Red Sox slogan "Why not us?"— said his goal was to win an SEC crown at South Carolina
No one, not even Spurrier, critics said, could move South Carolina ahead of the East's divisional power trio of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
"I was a little surprised because I thought there were better options where he could be more immediately successful," said Chris Doering, a receiver on three SEC champions from 1993-95 for Spurrier at Florida.
But after several false starts, Spurrier's got the Gamecocks (9-3) set to ruin the league's chance at a fifth straight national title.
"Oh, we don't worry about that," Spurrier said Tuesday. "We worry about South Carolina, our school, our state, our team. And we're trying to win our first conference championship."
Not that Eastern Division success came easily.
The Gamecocks were the talk of the nation in October when they toppled then-No. 1 Alabama, 35-21. Then South Carolina's old ways kicked in with a second-half collapse, turning a 28-10 lead against Kentucky into a 31-28 loss. A lopsided 41-20 defeat at home against Arkansas three weeks later looked like it would doom their chances as South Carolina headed for showdown at The Swamp for the title.
Behind freshman runner Marcus Lattimore and a defense that rattled the Gators, South Carolina broke its 0 for 12 mark in Gainesville with a 36-14 victory and the Gamecocks were off to Atlanta.
"Steve Spurrier is the same coach that he's been the last four, five, six years," said Lou Holtz, an ESPN analyst and Spurrier's Gamecocks predecessor. "He has some wonderful assistants and finally got the players he needed to compete."
Spurrier was nearly done in by his own expectations. He won six SEC crowns and the 1996 national championship at Florida, his "Fun-'n'-Gun" offense setting a standard for the game from 1990-2001.
But Spurrier struggled early on to attract the same caliber players to South Carolina.
Each time the Gamecocks appeared ready to rise, they ended with a thud. They went 6-1 and were No. 6 in 2007 yet lost their final five game that season. There were similar crash-landings in 2008 and 2009 when bowl losses — 31-10 to Iowa at the Outback Bowl two years ago and 20-7 to Connecticut at the Papajohns.com Bowl last January — left Spurrier questioning if he could achieve league success at South Carolina.
"I think this is a business where you're only as good as your last week," said Gamecocks assistant Shane Beamer, the son of Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. "As good a run as we've had the last few weeks, we need to play well on Saturday."
Auburn coach Gene Chizik says it's an amazing achievement to coach two schools to the SEC's ultimate game. "It certainly says a great deal about him as a football coach," he said.
Win or lose Saturday, Spurrier could have the Gamecocks prepped for year-in and year-out success.
South Carolina returns 1,000-yard rusher Lattimore and single-season receiving yards record-setter Alshon Jeffery back next year. Quarterback Stephen Garcia, who Spurrier has regularly praised after several years of harsh comments, will be a polished senior.
The defense, under the steady hand longtime SEC coordinator Ellis Johnson, held Alabama's running duo of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to 64 yards and limited the Gators to 226 yards.
Doering, the ex-Florida receiver, says that success is what drives Spurrier, not other's opinions. "I don't think he cares about proving people wrong or any of that stuff," he said.
Indeed, Spurrier talks about the Gamecocks instead of himself. He is also not ready for a victory lap just yet.
"We're in about as good a shape as we can expect to be," he said. "We're thrilled with the opportunity to go compete for the SEC championship."