Steve Spurrier's goals for South Carolina have gone past having a… (Butch Dill / Associated…)
Steve Spurrier walked out of the school cafeteria recently and was asked by a campus worker: "Hey, Coach, are we going to have a winning record this year?"
Spurrier was shocked. South Carolina won a school-record 11 games last season.
"Winning record?" Spurrier responded. "Our goals have gone past 'winning record.'"
Spurrier quickly realized the worker had been around campus longer than he had. For years, South Carolina had been one of college football's dreariest programs, haunted by the "Chicken Curse."
Spurrier started thinking, "that's probably what you used to say around here."
The Gamecocks started football in 1903 and still have only one conference title, the Atlantic Coast crown of 1969, to show for it.
In his eighth season, though, Spurrier has pushed the school to the upper echelons of the mighty Southeastern Conference. His Gamecocks won the SEC East two years ago, only to be crushed in the title game by Auburn, but rebounded with last year's 11-win breakthrough.
"If we go 7-6, that wouldn't be a very good year for us," he said at the school's recent football media day.
Spurrier is 55-35 since arriving in Columbia in 2006. He led Duke to an ACC title in 1989 and turned Florida into a powerhouse in the 1990s, yet he may one day reflect on his time at South Carolina as his most satisfying accomplishment.
Spurrier has changed. He's not the same visor-tossing hothead who stomped the sidelines as he alienated his brethren.
He has adapted from the hands-on, "fun-and-gun" passing game that kept Spurrier — the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner from Florida — connected to the quarterback position.
Now, he's a brick builder. South Carolina's top-10 fortunes are centered on solid defense and the running game.
South Carolina finished 74th last year in total offense and 95th in passing. The Gamecocks' defense, though, was No. 3. The defensive line, led by Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney, might be the nation's best.
South Carolina ran an average of 42.5 times per game last year and passed it only 24.4.
The Gamecocks might lean on this philosophy even more with the return of workhorse tailback Marcus Lattimore from the anterior cruciate knee ligament injury he suffered in Game 7 at Mississippi State.
Lattimore said patience was the toughest part of his recovery.
"I had to wait to run, wait to cut, wait to spin," he said.
With depth at the position, the Gamecocks won't need Lattimore to carry 35 times a game. South Carolina also got 525 bonus rushing yards from Connor Shaw, who stabilized the quarterback position after the turbulent years of Stephen Garcia.
The Gamecocks' only losses last year were to SEC West opponents Auburn and Arkansas. South Carolina happily avoided Alabama and Louisiana State on the schedule but this year must play in Baton Rouge.
Is South Carolina an 11-win team again?
"We've got a pretty good team," Spurrier said. "I don't know if we have a great team."
The campus workers, though, can rest easy. The Gamecocks will win more games than they lose — as strange as that used to sound.
The countdown so far: 25. Notre Dame; 24. Texas Christian; 23. Utah; 22. Kansas State; 21. Louisville; 20. Boise State; 19. Clemson; 18. Stanford; 17. Michigan State; 16. Oklahoma State; 15. Wisconsin; 14. Nebraska; 13. Arkansas; 12. West Virginia; 11 Florida State; 10. South Carolina.