Storms In The Southland – Why The University of South Carolina Left The ACC

An excerpt from the upcoming book, “The Wilderness – University of South Carolina Athletics in the Independent Era – 1971-1991”

1972 Gamecock

The Dietzel Era Begins

“A New Era In USC Athletics Begins”, proclaimed the headline of The State newspaper on the morning of April 7, 1966. At 41, Paul Dietzel came to Columbia from the United States Military Academy, where he led his Army team to a 21-18-2 record in four seasons. He was the first non-graduate of the Military Academy to become its head football coach.

Prior to his post in West Point, Dietzel enjoyed a highly successful run of seven seasons in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, leading the LSU Tigers to an overall 46-24-3 record and a national championship to conclude the 1958 season. The ’58 championship team followed a rocky start for Dietzel in the Bayou during which his first three teams all resulted in losing seasons, compiling a three-year record of 11-17-2, and finishing no higher than 7th in the SEC. To address the fatigue of his players in an era when many played both offense and defense, Dietzel developed a platoon system prior to the ’58 campaign, in which he would substitute 11 men at a time. The second platoon defense became known as the “Chinese Bandits”, a rugged, if less talented squad, who played with great effort and became fan favorites and LSU legends.

The platoon system, unconventional though it was, worked. Dietzel’s final four seasons at LSU were all winners, highlighted by the ’58 Championship team, and an 11-1 1961 squad, which won a share of the SEC title and brought home an Orange Bowl win over Colorado in his final season at LSU. (Footnote: LSU defeated Clemson 7-0 in the Sugar Bowl on New Years Day, 1959 to secure its first national championship. Clemson’s only other losses that season were a 13-0 shutout to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and a 26-6 setback to the Gamecocks on Big Thursday in Columbia. The loss to Carolina was the Tigers only ACC loss that season, and they went on to win the ACC Championship. The following season, 1959, would mark the final Big Thursday contest, which was played annually between Carolina and Clemson in Columbia during State Fair week. Beginning in 1960, the rivalry would move to an alternating home and home format which, since 1962 has been the final regular season game for both teams.)

Earlier in Dietzel’s career, as a young assistant coach at Kentucky, he had worked under the great Paul “Bear” Bryant, prior to Bryant’s move to Alabama. The credentials were sterling, and another championship coach had found a home at USC.

It was the opportunity to take on the dual role of head football coach and athletic director, which ultimately lured Dietzel to Carolina. In his opening press conference at the Rex Enright Athletic Center, affectionately known as “The Roundhouse” for its circular design, Dietzel fired a preemptive salvo at the South Carolina General Assembly. “I’ve worked in a state capital with a state university before, and I’ve learned that politicians are wonderful people. Those who aren’t don’t remain politicians very long. But I don’t intend to tell them how to run their business.” The implication was clear. Dietzel put everyone on notice that he was to answer to one man and one man alone – the President of the University, Tom Jones. It was a message that was received well by the press and fans alike. One can imagine that it was an uncomfortable moment for members of the Board of Trustees in attendance, as well as any curious legislators who may have wandered over from the State House.

Dietzel outlined a three-point plan to guide him in his new post. First, everything would be done by the rules. Secondly, “we” (Dietzel and Jones) both wanted a winner. Thirdly, the athletic department would operate in the black. It was a solid strategy. The first point, no doubt, addressed a controversy, which would become Dietzel’s first order of business upon stepping away from the press conference.

Just a few months later, the ACC concluded an investigation into recruiting improprieties within the football program under former head coach, Marvin Bass. Dietzel, as directed by Jones, worked internally to cooperate with the Conference during the later stages of the investigation. On July 30, 1966, the ACC revealed that USC had provided financial aid to three athletes who were ineligible to receive assistance because they did not meet the conference’s minimum College Board score (800 on the SAT) to qualify for a scholarship. The players, two varsity and one freshman, were not named in the investigation by either USC or the ACC.

Reached for comment from his new post in Montreal, Bass took responsibility for the violations, going so far as to say that he had assisted the freshman player, not with University scholarship money, but out of his own pocket. Bass went on to speculate that Dietzel’s role in the investigation and resulting penalties may have been of benefit to Dietzel himself. “If Coach Dietzel wanted to go in with a 1-9 record (rather than 5-5 before the forfeits) so he couldn’t possibly do anything but improve it this season, I wish him luck. I hope he can live in good faith and look people in the eye. If I was going to conduct an investigation, I would have had the courtesy to contact the guy who was there before me.” Bass later expressed regret over the remarks and shouldered all the blame for the violations.

In hindsight, Bass’ comments about Dietzel’s motivations may not have been totally without merit. In his 2008 memoir, “Call Me A Coach”, Dietzel notes that the football program at USC had become “an embarrassment”, further noting about the program, “It had to be rebuilt from scratch. The season prior to my arrival, the Gamecocks’ record was no wins and ten losses. The team had never won a conference championship and had not received a bowl invitation in twenty-five years.” While the program was certainly in need of upgrading upon Dietzel’s arrival, the picture he paints is not completely accurate. There is no mention of Carolina’s share of the 1965 ACC title, though that would be forfeited. He also mentions the team he inherited went 0-10 in 1965, though Bass’ final team actually went 5-5 (4-2 ACC). With the four forfeited ACC games, Carolina’s record became 1-9 in the eyes of the ACC. Though the University does not recognize the ’65 ACC Championship, the USC Football media guide still reflects a 5-5 record for the 1965 season.

The ACC handed down stiff penalties, which included a $2,500 ($20,000 adjusted) fine, and of greater consequence, voided wins over Wake Forest, NC State, Virginia and Clemson from the 1965. Carolina had won a share of the ACC Title in ’65, sharing with Duke. The penalty cost Carolina its first ever ACC title. NC State and Clemson, whose conference records improved to 5-2 by virtue of the forfeitures, now claimed the ACC Championship for ‘65. For reasons unclear, Duke and South Carolina played one fewer conference game that season than did NC State and Clemson (Carolina did not play UNC, and Duke did not play Maryland, while the Wolfpack and Tigers played a full slate). Thus Duke was, by no fault of its own, robbed of a share of the 1965 ACC title.

Even more consequential to Carolina’s long-term affiliation with the ACC was part two of a four-part reprimand released by ACC Commissioner Jim Weaver, on July 25, 1966, which read:

“It is for this flagrant disregard for constitutional authority, that this office… Declares that any student-athlete presently enrolled or incoming at the University of South Carolina whose eligibility is questioned be withheld from participation unless and until it is established to the complete satisfaction of the conference that there has been no violation in each individual case.”  

It was tantamount to “guilty until proven innocent”. It was this mandate, which applied to the University of South Carolina and to no other ACC institution, which would ensnare Frank McGuire’s highest-rated recruit, Mike Grosso, as well as many of Dietzel’s recruits in years to come. 

 

Keeping the “Also-Rans” In Check – The Grosso Controversy 

“also-ran.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2017. 2. a contestant that does not win. 3. One that is of little importance, especially competitively.   

In his excellent and thoroughly-researched 2011 volume, “ACC Basketball”, which chronicles the first two decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference, historian J. Samuel Walker manages to encapsulate the antipathy of the Big Four North Carolina programs toward their conference “step-sisters”. The title of his sixth chapter, which documents the rise of Virginia, Maryland, Clemson and, most notably, South Carolina, to competitiveness within the ACC is titled “The Revolt of the Also-Rans”.

Indeed, the University of South Carolina had not achieved particular distinction on the field or the court during its first 13 years in the ACC. Between 1953, when the conference was founded, and 1965, South Carolina had compiled conference records of 38-41-3 in football, and more dismally, 46-118 in basketball. In short, the Carolina fan base was hungry for a winner. With McGuire and Dietzel now leading their respective programs, visions of championships took hold of coaches, players and fans alike.

McGuire was firmly entrenched, one season under his belt with a fine sophomore class of Frank Standard, Jack Thompson and Skip Harlicka ready to begin varsity play for the 1965-66 season. Three games into the season, McGuire achieved the first of what would be many signature victories at USC in a thrilling 73-71 win against Duke at Carolina Fieldhouse. Although the Gamecocks would end up with a losing tally at 11-13 on the season, the squad was competitive throughout and played with a toughness that was a hallmark of McGuire teams. It would be McGuire’s last losing season at South Carolina.

Meanwhile, on the freshman team Mike Grosso was enjoying a banner season and dominating the competition. He averaged 22.7 points and an unbelievable 26 rebounds per game. The freshman squad often enjoyed sellout crowds, unheard of before, and excitement continued to build around McGuire’s program.

As Grosso led the freshman squad and Gamecock fans salivated over what was to come when he joined the varsity, a controversy unfolded over his eligibility. The ACC had adopted a rule in May, 1964 which set a standard score of 800 on the SAT for incoming athletes to receive a scholarship. In Grosso’s efforts to qualify for admission to South Carolina, his highest SAT score was a 789 – high enough to earn admission into the school but not enough to earn a scholarship. Under ACC rules in place when Grosso enrolled at Carolina, athletes scoring less than 800 on the SAT were permitted to play basketball or football, so long as they were not awarded a scholarship.

Grosso could have gone to any school of his choice outside of the ACC and qualified for a scholarship, but he wanted to play for McGuire. Grosso’s family was of modest means, but his uncles owned a bar and grill in New Jersey where Grosso worked during the summers. The uncles agreed to pay Grosso’s tuition until he could attain eligibility for a scholarship. Meanwhile, Duke’s Athletic Director Eddie Cameron – who also chaired the conference basketball committee – maneuvered behind the scenes to encourage ACC Commissioner Weaver to look deeper into Grosso’s recruitment. Weaver had been uncomfortable with the Grosso situation, but had no choice under the rules then in place but to allow Grosso to participate.

With Cameron’s prompting, the ACC changed eligibility requirements to stipulate that a player must attain a minimum of 800 on the SAT to participate, not just to receive a scholarship. Although the action did not apply retroactively to Grosso, the controversy would not die. During Grosso’s freshman season (’65-’66), Cameron announced that Duke would refuse to play against South Carolina when Grosso moved up to varsity the following year, potentially forfeiting those two games to make a statement. Cameron’s statement, according to him, was about upholding the spirit of the academic standards established by the conference. However, the personal acrimony between Cameron and McGuire, which intensified when Grosso spurned Duke for South Carolina, was glaring.

Meanwhile, as the investigation into violations within Carolina’s football program unfolded, Weaver obtained the means he needed to head off Grosso’s eligibility. In penning the sanctions levied against Carolina for the football team’s violations, which would hold athlete’s ineligible for competition “whose eligibility is questioned” by the conference, Weaver cast a broad net, covering not just football, but any South Carolina athlete. It is not a stretch to presume the ruling was crafted with Grosso in mind.

Jones and McGuire along with assistant athletic director George Terry attended a meeting of the ACC executive committee at the Triangle Motel at Raleigh-Durham Airport on October 28, 1966 to appeal Weaver’s decision on Grosso’s eligibility. After meeting for four hours, executive committee head Dr. Ralph Fadum of North Carolina State advised the USC contingent that they saw no cause to overrule Weaver’s decision on Grosso. Neither Weaver nor Fadum provided an explanation regarding why Grosso was ruled ineligible. A report titled “The Offcourt Uproar In Dixie” which appeared in the November 7, 1966 edition of Sports Illustrated noted that McGuire had to be “physically restrained by Dr. Jones” following the ruling. McGuire saw the ruling as a personal vendetta against him by old ACC enemies. Grosso, McGuire believed, was unfairly caught in the crosshairs with the start of his varsity career just weeks away.

In public appearances during the coming days, McGuire complained bitterly about the Grosso decision, calling ACC officials “skunks” on several occasions and insisting that the investigation and ruling arose from personal vendettas. McGuire’s remarks drew sharp criticism and calls for a reprimand from coaches, athletic directors and presidents of other ACC institutions. North Carolina State chancellor John Caldwell told Jones that he had “some repair work” to do, adding that nothing short of an institutional apology could remedy the situation, insinuating that even that might not be enough.

Indeed, the Grosso affair and McGuire’s subsequent public disparagement of ACC officials had opened a deep chasm between South Carolina and the other member schools. Despite his own misgivings about the ACC’s handling of the Grosso affair, Jones’ mercurial basketball coach had become a loose canon, putting him in the awkward position having to make amends on behalf of the University.

During a meeting of ACC presidents and athletic directors in early December, 1966, Jones offered an apology for McGuire’s comments, which he described as embarrassing, both to the University and the conference. He went on to note that McGuire had been reprimanded; giving his personal guarantee that such behavior would not be repeated. This mea culpa had the intended result of reducing tensions, however ACC officials did not reciprocate Jones’ attempts at reconciliation. Conference officials issued an unprecedented announcement that members could choose to cancel their basketball games with USC during the 1966-67 season without forfeit. Duke was the only school to take advantage of this option. Duke further opted not to play South Carolina during the 1966 football season. The two schools would square off on the baseball diamond during the spring of ’67, resulting in two wins by the Gamecocks.

The Grosso ruling prompted calls from University alumni to withdraw from the ACC. The clamor became boisterous enough that President Jones and McGuire issued a joint statement to address the matter – both supporting continued membership in the ACC. This quelled a growing rebellion for the time being. But irreparable damage had been done, both to the University’s relations with its fellow conference members, and to the perceived value of conference membership among South Carolina alumni and boosters.

Supporters of the University saw the ruling as further evidence of political dominance by the North Carolina schools within the conference. The leaders involved – ACC Commissioner Weaver (Wake Forest), ACC Basketball Committee Chairman Cameron (Duke) and Executive Committee Head Fadum (N.C. State) tend to bear that out. Indeed, the power structure of the ACC was firmly entrenched along Tobacco Road.

It would be naïve to deny that politics were in play in the Grosso affair, given the Big Four-centric governing body and the bitter feuds between McGuire and those same conference leaders. Set against the backdrop of the Gamecocks’ competitive emergence within the conference, elements of politics and spite among ACC leadership cannot be ruled out. However it is helpful to set those elements aside and examine the facts surrounding Grosso’s eligibility.

While a high school senior in New Jersey, Grosso’s SAT scores never reached 750, the minimum for competition in the ACC at the time of his recruitment. Upon his graduation, he took the exams again, this time on the campus of the University of South Carolina. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, New Jersey was the governing body, which prepared and administered the board exam. ETS guidelines dictated that it would accept and recognize one College Board exam taken under university auspices. Grosso’s first attempt at the SAT in Columbia resulted in a 706 score, still leaving him short of qualifying. This score was sent to the ACC offices and was the official score recognized by the ETS.

Grosso took the SAT once more in September of 1965, again on the campus of the University of South Carolina. This time he scored 789, which would qualify him for competition in the ACC. Under the rules of the ETS however, only one exam taken under the auspices of a university was recognized. Thus, Grosso’s second attempt was not recognized by the ETS, and was not sent to the ACC offices. Therein lies the fly in the ointment for South Carolina. While the University contended that Grosso met “our requirements” for admission, the ACC maintained that he was ineligible for competition on the basis of his first, and only official College Board score.

Would the Grosso affair have evolved as it did without the ill will between McGuire and Cameron & Weaver, et al? Likely not. Did the ACC’s Grosso decision hinge on an obscure technicality? Most certainly, it did. But it was enough to keep Grosso out of the lineup for the opening game of his sophomore season against Erskine in early December, 1966. His varsity career at South Carolina now seemed tenuous at best, though he continued to practice with the Gamecocks while the University appealed his status.

The death knell to Grosso’s tenure at USC came on January 8, 1967 when the NCAA announced the results of its own investigation into the football and basketball programs at USC. The investigation had centered on the financial assistance that South Carolina had provided the three football players in Coach Bass’ tenure. The NCAA also voiced support for the ACC’s position on Grosso’s eligibility, citing the irregularities around his second board exam under university auspices. Further, the NCAA determined that Grosso’s expenses had been paid by “a corporation upon which the student-athlete was neither naturally or legally dependent”. The “corporation” was a reference to the bar owned by Grosso’s uncles and the tuition assistance provided by them.

The penalties announced by the NCAA were harsh. The University’s football and basketball teams were barred from postseason tournaments or bowl games and could not appear on NCAA-sanctioned television broadcasts for two years. Further, and most devastating, the NCAA made it clear that if USC did not get its house in order quickly, the University could be suspended from NCAA membership. It was a humiliating ruling for South Carolina and a black mark on the University’s credibility.

President Jones admonished McGuire that he was to refrain from comment on the investigation and was to follow the “letter and spirit” of the ACC and NCAA rulings.

In the aftermath of the NCAA’s announcement, McGuire used his connections to help Grosso transfer to the University of Louisville, where he received a scholarship and played behind the great Wes Unseld during his first season before starting his final two seasons. Grosso averaged 16.2 points and 14.2 rebounds per game during his time at Louisville. The young man whose college career began with such promise never suited up for a varsity game at South Carolina. Rather than leading the Gamecocks to championships, as McGuire boldly predicted, Mike Grosso is a footnote – albeit a significant one – in the athletic history of the University.

In the wake of the Grosso controversy, South Carolina’s new football coach and athletic director would develop his own misgivings about the ACC’s admission standards which would ultimately determine the University’s path toward major independent status.

*****

As the Grosso controversy unfolded, the NCAA instituted a new rule to address minimum academic standards for “student-athletes”, a new term coined by the governing body. In a 1965 study commissioned by the NCAA, a committee determined that it was possible to predict an athlete’s first year college grade point average (GPA) on the basis of high school rank and scores on the College Board Exam. The NCAA set a bar of 1.6 out of a 4.0 system (equivalent to a C-minus) for an incoming student-athlete’s “projected” GPA. Further, the student-athletes would need to maintain a minimum of 1.6 GPA during their college career to maintain eligibility. This 1.6 minimum rule was effective January 1, 1966 and, despite some controversy, was widely supported by member institutions as a step in the right direction in addressing academic standards throughout college sports.

The 1.6 mandate created a sharp divide within the ACC regarding the need to maintain its own 800 standard in light of the NCAA’s new rule. South Carolina’s Paul Dietzel led the charge for those institutions wishing to scrap the 800 standard in lieu of the NCAA’s less stringent 1.6 regulation. Clemson, Maryland and N.C. State, sided with South Carolina, while Duke, UNC, Wake Forest and Virginia remained adamant about maintaining the 800 standard for the ACC.

Upon taking the South Carolina job, Dietzel was alarmed by the ACC’s dismal record of futility against non-conference opponents in football. Indeed, the ACC ranked last among all conferences in terms of non-conference victories. Against the SEC in particular, the ACC had compiled an embarrassing record of 19 wins against 105 losses since 1953. This was particularly distressing to Dietzel as South Carolina’s recruiting footprint overlapped with SEC schools to a greater extent than the other ACC programs, with the exception of Clemson. In a case of politics making strange bedfellows, Clemson’s football coach and athletic director Frank Howard became Dietzel’s most vocal ally in the anti-800 argument.

Dietzel sought to raise the profile and competitiveness of the Gamecock program in scheduling a strong non-conference slate, including likes of Georgia, Florida State, Alabama and Tennessee, among others. All of those programs, which boasted well-established football traditions, were subject only to the NCAA’s 1.6 rule. Dietzel saw a distinct disadvantage for his program, and argued vigorously that the 800 standard hamstrung USC and other ACC programs.

Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement and the integration of public schools and universities throughout the South, there was an important racial element to Dietzel’s argument. Dietzel told USC President Tom Jones in 1970, “It’s going to be very difficult to explain to people around here, that of all the fine black athletes playing in our newly integrated high schools, we cannot find one of them who can attend his state university.” Indeed, Jones went so far as to refer to the 800 minimum as a “racist regulation”, and questioned the morality of the conference.

Jones’ sentiments were echoed by Clemson president Robert Edwards, who lamented that the standard created a major obstacle for black athletes wishing to participate in sports at his school. Citing 1965 data, Edwards reported that 93.4 percent of black high school seniors in the state of South Carolina who took the SAT that year scored below 800.

The irony of South Carolina’s two major universities standing as lonely beacons of hope and justice for black athletes was not lost on observers in the press and throughout the conference. South Carolina had, perhaps to a greater degree than other states within the ACC footprint, fought integration and subjugated African-Americans throughout its history. As the only truly Deep South state in the ACC, South Carolina’s racial and political identity was more closely aligned with fellow Deep South states Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Though South Carolina did not experience the widespread violence that plagued the civil rights era in Alabama and Mississippi, it was not without incident. On February 8, 1968, approximately 200 protesters gathered on the campus of South Carolina State University (SCSU) in Orangeburg to protest racial segregation at a local bowling alley. As police and firefighters attempted to extinguish a bonfire set by the protesters, an object thrown from the crowd injured a police officer. Within minutes, officers from the State Highway Patrol began firing into the crowd, injuring 27 and killing three. Of the three killed, two were students at SCSU and one was a student at local Wilkinson High School. The latter, Delano Middleton, had not been a participant in the protests, but was sitting on the steps of the freshman dormitory, waiting for his mother to finish her work shift. Many of the injured were shot in the back, as they attempted to flee the scene.

The incident, which predated the Kent State shootings by two years, became known as the Orangeburg Massacre. In a press conference the following day, Governor Robert McNair called it “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina.” He placed the blame for the incident on “outside agitators” from the black power movement. The federal government brought charges against nine members of the highway patrol, who claimed in their defense that they felt threatened by the protesters and had heard gunshots coming from the crowd. Though forensic evidence and witness testimony strongly contradicted those statements, the nine officers were acquitted.

The University itself had only integrated five years earlier, when, acting upon the order of a federal court, USC admitted three black students. On the morning of September 11, 1963, Henrie Monteith, Robert Anderson and James Solomon completed registration for fall classes at the Naval Armory on campus. It was 1969 before Carolina’s athletic teams integrated. Casey Manning (basketball) and Jackie Brown (football) were the first African-Americans to letter at USC, while Carlton Hayward was the first African-American to be recruited to play football. Dietzel, realizing the need for a better connection with African-American athletes, hired a black assistant coach, Harold White, in 1971 to assist in recruiting and academics.

 

From Simmer to Boil

By 1970, the situation between USC and its ACC brethren reached a boiling point. After winning the ACC title in 1969, Dietzel’s in-state recruiting was taking off. Of the ten “blue chip” in-state players Dietzel eyed, only two had managed the requisite score of 800 on the SAT. Beyond the 1970 recruiting class, Sumter’s Freddie Solomon promised to be the most celebrated recruit of Dietzel’s tenure in 1971, though the ACC’s 800 standard remained a serious roadblock*. Dietzel vented his frustrations to President Jones, lamenting that he was tired of watching high school players from South Carolina go onto all-American careers at Big Ten and Big Eight schools, only because they were barred from competition within the ACC by the onerous 800 rule.

The NCAA expressed support for Dietzel’s stance, noting that it was against the ACC’s use of a minimum cutoff score. Further, the 800-rule had caught the attention of the federal government, which was investigating colleges and universities across the South for prejudicial admissions standards.

(footnote: Solomon did not score the requisite 800 on his SAT and went on to star at the University of Tampa, from there playing eleven years for the Dolphins and 49ers of the NFL. In the 1982 NFC Championship game, made famous by “The Catch” – Dwight Clark’s iconic leaping touchdown grab, Solomon was the primary target on the play. Quarterback Joe Montana checked off to Clark when Solomon slipped on his route. Solomon figured prominently for the 49ers on the final and deciding drive of that game.)

On October 21, 1970, amid continuing acrimony between member institutions over the 800-rule, ACC presidents met to discuss the matter. They ultimately opted to table the matter and pursue additional studies on the effects of dropping the rule in favor of another predictive model. Two days later, the University of South Carolina’s Board of Trustees took the matter into their own hands, authorizing Gamecock coaches to recruit on the basis of the NCAA’s 1.6 standard. While they pledged that the University would continue to work towards a solution with the ACC, it was a brazen act of institutional defiance.

South Carolina had thrown down the proverbial gauntlet, which forced Clemson into the position of choosing a course of action. Though Clemson’s Edwards and Howard shared Carolina’s stance on the 800 controversy, they were less inclined to bolt the ACC. Despite a popular misconception among Carolina faithful, there was never a “pact” between USC and Clemson officials to leave the conference together. Clemson ultimately chose to remain in the conference, while South Carolina charted its own course. On March 28, 1971 the Board of Trustees announced that the University would withdraw from the conference on August 15 of that year.

In a statement read by Board of Trustees Chairman, T. Eston Marchant following a daylong meeting to discuss the matter, the Board sounded an optimistic tone. Marchant cited national legislation then under review, which would “remove the areas of disagreement which presently exist (between USC and the ACC).” The statement went on to express hopes that the separation would be of a “temporary nature”. Newly elected ACC commissioner Bob James attended a portion of the meeting and expressed similar optimism for reconciliation after returning to his home in Greensboro, North Carolina. “I was really impressed with the sincerity of the South Carolina people… I came away with the feeling that they want and would like to be in the ACC.”

The measured optimism of USC’s Board and the ACC’s new commissioner were balanced by comments from other officials who sounded a tone of resignation, bordering on indifference. Maryland Athletic Director Jim Kehoe, in addressing the scheduling difficulties presented by South Carolina’s withdrawal, noted that “It would seem to be more sensible to compete with teams 150 miles away than one 300 miles away.” He added, “I’m sorry the matter couldn’t be resolved, but realistically, South Carolina had gone too far down the road to remain in the conference.”

And so, just over two weeks after winning the coveted and elusive ACC Basketball Tournament Championship, the University of South Carolina officially announced a parting of the ways with the Atlantic Coast Conference. It was just hours before the basketball team would meet for their annual post-season banquet to celebrate that championship.

Ironically, the 800-rule controversy was resolved shortly after Carolina’s exit when two students at Clemson University filed suit in federal court against Clemson and the ACC. Their attorneys argued that the 800-rule deprived them of their Constitutional rights under the 14th amendment since the rule applied only to athletes. On August 7, 1971, a federal court ruled that the ACC’s 800 standard was “arbitrary and capricious”, and was “not based on valid reasoning”, as it set a standard for athletes that did not apply to other students. On August 18th, 1971, just three days after the University of South Carolina officially relinquished its membership, the ACC dropped the embattled 800-rule.

ACC football and basketball coaches would now recruit on equal footing with other NCAA programs, much to their delight. Moreover, with McGuire’s Gamecocks removed from the equation, the Big Four North Carolina schools would continue to dominate the ACC in basketball, collectively winning ten of the next eleven ACC Championships between 1972 and 1983.*

(footnote: South Carolina’s ’71 squad was only the second non-Big Four school to win the ACC Basketball Championship – the first was Maryland in 1958. In the 62-year history of the conference, there have been only twelve non-Big Four basketball champions (18.75%) with four of those coming in an unprecedented stretch of four straight between 2012 and 2015. That streak marked only the second stretch of consecutive non-Big Four champions, with the first coming from Maryland and Georgia Tech in 1984 and 1985 respectively. Of the original four “non-Big Four” members of the ACC, there are a combined six championships {Maryland 3, Virginia 2, USC 1} Clemson has never won an ACC Basketball title. Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten Conference in July 2014).

The University of South Carolina meanwhile, was now a Major Independent. It joined the likes of Florida State, Notre Dame, Penn State, West Virginia and Virginia Tech in that relatively small world of major universities unaffiliated by conference. August 15, 1971 would mark the beginning of a twenty-year journey – a winding wilderness road that would ultimately end on July 1, 1991, when the University happily accepted an invitation to join the SEC. In the warm afterglow of a quarter century in the SEC, the events of those two decades are often overlooked by the sports world, and even by Gamecock faithful.

But there are stories to tell.

 

 

 

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