ATLANTA — At the time, Danny Wuerffel didn't give much thought to what his coach was doing.
Wuerffel was a sophomore quarterback at Florida, trying to help the Gators win a second SEC title in a row. His coach, Steve Spurrier, was four years into the Darth Visor reign that would end with six SEC titles.
Needing a touchdown to take the lead with under nine minutes to play, Spurrier brought in a backup quarterback for one play to complete a 25-yard pass. The Gators picked up another 9 yards using a formation with Wuerffel taking the snap in front of three linemen. They got 20 yards with a pass from a wide receiver.
All of this came with a title on the line, and Florida beat Alabama 24-23 for the 1994 SEC championship.
"Here's (a) staple line from Coach Spurrier," Wuerffel said this week. "I can hear him saying," and here he called up his coach's distinctive twang, " 'Danny, gotta be flexible.' "
In January 2002, Spurrier left Florida to coach the NFL's Redskins, convinced his college days were over. Flexible, determined and a little bit lucky, Spurrier is back in his element. The Head Ball Coach has brought South Carolina to the SEC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome, the game he helped establish.
"This is obviously the goal: to win the SEC, not just go to Atlanta," Spurrier said.
That the Gamecocks have reached Atlanta, though, is an improbability. When Spurrier took over the program after the 2004 season, it was only four years removed from the end of its 21-game losing streak, the longest in SEC history. South Carolina has never played in the SEC Championship Game and has only won one league championship of any kind in its history, the 1969 ACC title.
After losing the inaugural title game, to Alabama in 1992, Florida won the next four. By the time Spurrier left Florida after the 2001 season, he had won a fifth championship game and six SEC titles total. With a win over Auburn today, he can break a tie with Georgia's Vince Dooley and John Vaught of Mississippi for all-time SEC titles behind Bear Bryant's 11.
And now that Spurrier is back here, he would prefer to play an opponent at full strength. He's glad Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who had been mired in controversy but reinstated by the NCAA this week, is playing.
"I remember (Penn State coach) Joe Paterno one time said: You want to beat the other team when all their best players are playing," Spurrier said. "… He deserves to play. And we haven't even thought about the other stuff."
Spurrier has elevated the title game like no other coach. Likewise, the format — one game for the crown — has brought out his best, a 5-2 record.
"He has always wanted to get back there," said Tommy Suggs, the South Carolina radio analyst and a former Gamecocks quarterback. "He's always talked about it."
So on Nov. 13, the night that South Carolina beat Florida at the Swamp for the first time in 13 tries, that Spurrier crowed, "We're headed to Atlanta, boys!" in the locker room.
Today, Wuerffel can guess at what the Gamecocks might hear from their coach. For all his big-game prowess, Spurrier has succeeded not by cranking his teams up, but by keeping them steady, according to his former quarterback.
"I've heard him say this a million times: 'At the beginning of the game, if something good happens, keep playing; if something bad happens, keep playing,' " Wuerffel said.
So former Jefferson High standout Stephen Garcia may hear something similar. For all his ups and down with Spurrier, the Gamecocks quarterback has 2,646 yards passing with 18 touchdowns this year.
"My football sense says Auburn's probably going to win," Wuerffel said. "But there's something in my heart which says never bet against Coach Spurrier."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.