From a handshake with an athletics director in a Rhode Island airport to a hug from an athletics director on a soccer field in Alabama, the road to a championship has been long and arduous for Shelley Smith.
In between taking the South Carolina women's soccer coaching job nine years ago and winning the Southeastern Conference title Sunday, Smith also had a meeting with the athletics director about the future of her program and whether she would be part of it.
Let's start in the middle of the journey. Eric Hyman arrived at USC in the summer of 2005 and began evaluating his head coaches. He knew little about Smith other than that she had an unusual relationship with her assistant coach - her husband, Jamie Smith.
All Hyman had to go on in evaluating Smith was her record in four seasons at USC, and that was nothing to boast about. Her teams were 39-31-10, including an 11-20-7 record in SEC play. Two of her teams qualified for the SEC tournament, and both bowed out in the first round.
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"She was struggling." Hyman says. "She had made progress, and she needed to continue to make progress. Sometimes those conversations can be tough. ... As a coach, you've got to create hope in the program. Up to that point, it was real sketchy, at best. I can put up with a lot, but you've got to have hope."
Smith's pitch in her defense centered on the 12-player recruiting class for the 2004 season. Nine of those players started as freshmen, and the team suffered through the growing pains common for such a youthful group.
On the other hand, Smith recognized that the talented class represented the promise of good things to come for the program.
"It was difficult to rely on that many freshmen," Smith says, "but they changed a lot about the culture here and were good players. You could see them building (the program)."
A 2005 season in which the team was beset by injuries slowed the building process, and USC finished 6-12. But Smith also received a commitment that season from a lightly recruited defender from Simpsonville, Blakely Mattern.
Mattern proved to be a difference-maker, a program-changer, a megastar.
"We saw that potential in her, for sure," Smith says. "I think she was overlooked a bit. She's from South Carolina and never really got looks from regional teams. I think she got missed."
Mattern was outstanding from the start, and when USC qualified for the 2006 SEC tournament with a 5-2-4 record in the league, the program was following her lead. It was starting to look like the program former athletics director Mike McGee envisioned when he hired Smith before the 2001 season.
McGee dismissed Sue Kelly, the program's coach for the first six years of its existence, after the 2000 season amid internal turmoil. One of his goals in hiring a new coach was to find someone strong in "family values."
He was intrigued by Smith, not only because of her coaching record at Rhode Island, but because she would bring along her husband as an assistant coach. The two never had coached together.
McGee brought Shelley Smith to Columbia for an interview and was impressed. He thought it was imperative to interview Jamie Smith as well, since the two were a team. So McGee arranged for the Smiths to meet him at the Providence airport on Dec. 23, 2000.
"He needed to meet the guy who would work for his wife, first of all," Shelley Smith says of McGee, "and the guy who was going to be another coach in the program."
The trio met for more than an hour. McGee liked what he saw and heard, and got back on an airplane to return to Columbia. He had his new coach and her chief assistant.
The couple now has two children, Braden and Evan, both of whom were born in Columbia. Beyond their own family, the Smiths have nurtured a family of women's soccer players.
It might have taken longer than they expected to build a championship team, but there is little question about when both believed it could be accomplished. Before the 2007 season, Smith informed her team it would open against 25-time national champion North Carolina.
Smith says half the team reacted by saying, "Oh, no!" The other half, she says, was excited about the challenge. The latter half led USC to a stunning 1-0 victory over No. 1-ranked UNC in Chapel Hill.
"That put South Carolina on the map, because in the past we had been fighting and fighting for respect," Smith says. "When you do that, everyone notices."
With that win, the players, the coaches, the program now believed. NCAA tournament appearances followed in 2007 and 2008. Then came the dramatic victory on Sunday for the SEC championship.
Hyman was one of the first to reach Smith in the post-game celebration. He says he nearly was brought to tears - tears of joy for a coach whose team displayed the kind of fight and determination Hyman says he seeks in all USC teams.
Then, perhaps as a symbol of how uplifting the championship was to the entire USC athletic program, the 6-foot-4 Hyman bear-hugged the diminutive Smith, lifting her off the ground.
Smith and her women's soccer program finally had reached new heights.