COLUMBIA, S.C. – When Steve Spurrier took over South Carolina football after 2004, he spoke excitedly of winning Southeastern Conference championships.
Spurrier is still chasing the title-winning legacy he established at Florida.
After five seasons at South Carolina, the drought has led to questions of just how long the 65-year-old coach who cherishes winning can bear SEC mediocrity. But his son, Steve Jr., warns not to mistake the sideline grimaces, thrown game notes and disgusted comments for surrender.
"The day he's not frustrated is the day he's lost some of his competitive edge," said Spurrier Jr., South Carolina's receivers coach.
Steve Spurrier has already achieved several milestones at South Carolina.
He has led the Gamecocks to an unprecedented four bowl trips his first five seasons. His 35 victories are sixth all-time among South Carolina coaches — and he could rise to third by season's end with eight wins. But school records aren't why Spurrier came back to college.
"We need to win big at South Carolina," Spurrier said.
So far, that hasn't happened quickly enough to suit Spurrier. He considered packing it in after South Carolina was blasted by Iowa 31-10 at the Outback Bowl two seasons ago. "Who wouldn't have?" he joked.
He was just as ticked off this past January when the Gamecocks again fell flat in the Papajohns.com Bowl with a 20-7 loss to Connecticut. "Don't tell us to forget because we're not going to forget it. We're going to try our best to not ever have a performance like that again," he said.
Spurrier seems to have channeled his anger into preseason preparations. At practice, quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus felt Spurrier had a "youthful enthusiasm that's really neat to be around."
"He knows," Mangus continued, "that some of the pieces are getting in place."
Spurrier attracted top talent recently that hadn't always looked South Carolina's way. Two years ago, the Gamecocks landed the Palmetto State's "Mr. Football" in Stephon Gilmore, who passed up Alabama, Florida and Tennessee to sign with Spurrier. This February, South Carolina beat Auburn and others for the country's top running back prospect in Marcus Lattimore.
"That's what it's about, getting the players," says ESPN college football analyst Jesse Palmer, a former Florida quarterback for Spurrier.
The Gators had a wealth of talent through Spurrier's years, something that helped them to six SEC titles and the 1996 national championship.
Palmer's also convinced Spurrier is every bit the offensive mastermind who turned the game on its ear during the 1990s. He says where Spurrier excels, though, is during games. "That's what he's best at and that hasn't gone away," Palmer said.
Still, Spurrier's so-so mark at South Carolina has drawn smirks of delight from fans of the teams he used to needle during his Florida days.
"That's just part of society," said ESPN's Andre Ware, like Spurrier a Heisman Trophy winner. "But being dominant is not an easy chore."
Spurrier's quick success at South Carolina in 2005 — the Gamecocks beat Tennessee and Florida in the same season for the first time ever — led some to believe a league title was close at hand. Spurrier knew differently.
"We didn't think we were going to just step in there and tear it up at South Carolina," he said.
Now, though, Spurrier's eager to see some results after five years of work. He has brought as much energy as ever into taking that next step, his son says. Not that the Gamecocks don't have concerns as the opener with Southern Miss approaches on Sept. 2.
South Carolina hopes Lattimore can become a focal point for a running attack that was dead last in the SEC the past three seasons. Spurrier has yet to settle publicly on a quarterback between last year's starter Stephen Garcia and freshman Connor Shaw. Plus, there's the ongoing saga of suspended tight end Weslye Saunders, who's talked to the NCAA about attending a South Beach party last May.
Through it all, Spurrier's kept the drive to excel in what may be his best chance yet at a South Carolina breakthrough.
"He's full speed and excited about this year," Spurrier Jr. said. "And he's pushing everybody to make sure we make the most of it."