Paul Dietzel and the Modernization of South Carolina Athletics

“He’s quite the salesman. Before Paul came we used to have to beg money from the canteen and book shop for athletics.”

-USC Board of Trustees Chairman T. Eston Merchant

 

Of the challenges Paul Dietzel took on upon accepting the job of head football coach and athletic director in 1966, the most significant and pressing, was the need to upgrade facilities. The most glaring inadequacy was the old field house – USC’s basketball facility, with a capacity of 3,200, provided only enough seating for around one third of the student body and a few paying fans. By the time Dietzel took the helm, the University was accepting bids from contractors for construction of what was called “Memorial Coliseum” in conceptual drawings.

Built at a cost of $9.2 million ($62.8 million), the Coliseum more than answered the call for an upgraded basketball facility. In an epic case of “one-upmanship,” McGuire specified the seating capacity should be 12,401 – exactly one more seat than the 12,400-seat Reynolds Coliseum at N.C. State – then the largest arena in the ACC and the entire Southeast. USC’s new building would also house the University’s Journalism and General Studies programs in underground classroom space. It opened in grand fashion on November 30, 1968 with a thrilling 51-49 victory over Auburn in that season’s first game. Sophomore John Roche drilled the deciding jumper in his first varsity game before a raucous, capacity crowd.

The construction timeline of the Coliseum advanced rapidly when a fire destroyed the old field house shortly after the completion of the 1967-68 season, leaving the Gamecocks only one option for home games in 1968-69. The cause of the fire was never determined, and stories have swirled over the years that McGuire, sensing a lack of urgency in construction, may have had a hand in the fire.

On February 22, 1967, USC accepted a bid of $6.88 million from McDevitt & Street Co. of Charlotte. The originally scheduled opening date was December 1, 1968, which was considered wildly optimistic by the contractor. The firm’s contractual obligation was to have the facility completed by March 9, 1969, at the end of the ’68-’69 basketball season.

Despite that, McGuire had recruited an outstanding 1967 signing class which included Roche, Tom Owens, John Ribock and Billy Walsh, promising them all that the new coliseum would be ready for the start of their sophomore season. After a season of playing on the freshman team in the old field house, those rising sophomores were eager to put the antiquated facility in the rear-view mirror.

Carolina Field House was built at the corner of Greene and Sumter Streets, across the street from Longstreet Theater, in 1927 at a cost of $28,000 ($400,000 adjusted). In addition to providing a home court for basketball, it housed coaches’ offices and was a venue for concerts and dances. With a post World War II enrollment boom, USC’s student body surpassed the building’s capacity by the early 1950s.

The facility, obsolescent though it was, provided a compelling home court advantage for Gamecock basketball teams. The playing floor was sunken several feet below ground level and the bleachers created a cantilevered effect, seeming to hang over top of the floor. A three-foot brick wall rimmed the court, topped by a metal railing, which separated fans from players, coaches and officials. Rowdy students would lean over the rails, shouting all manner of “encouragement,” which created a deafening wall of noise. In a 2015 article for The State (Columbia), columnist Ron Morris interviewed former Gamecock great Ronnie Collins about that home court advantage. Collins said that with a packed house, “it sounded like an atomic bomb going off, and it was always full, I don’t care what our record was.”

The conditions were less than pleasant for visiting teams, with opposing coaches characterizing it as a “snake pit,” among other less-than-glowing reviews. The pep band, which was always positioned directly behind the visitor’s bench, wreaked havoc. Playing boisterously during time outs, they often drowned out the instructions of the opposing coach. During a 1963 game between the Gamecocks and Duke, the trombone player kept moving his slide past the head of Duke’s Jay Buckley, which the normally mild-mannered Buckley found so maddening that he grabbed the trombone and tossed it onto the playing floor. Duke coach Vic Bubas asked the officials if he could move his team to mid-court during timeouts, and when he did, the Carolina cheerleaders surrounded the Blue Devils in a raucous “war dance.”

While demand for student tickets was always strong, by the time of McGuire’s arrival it was clear that the Field House had outlived its usefulness. While McGuire’s acceptance of the USC job was based upon a gentleman’s agreement that a modern arena would be built, there was the matter of fund-raising and planning to navigate, which would take several years. The old field house had a few more seasons left, and would see unprecedented excitement in those final campaigns. In 1965, USC beat fifth-ranked Duke – McGuire’s first signature win at Carolina. In 1967, USC handed fourth-ranked UNC an upset. UNC would go on to win the ACC and make it to the Final Four that year. It was evident that McGuire was building a program that could compete for ACC titles. As the basketball program rose to prominence, the cramped confines of the field house became more pronounced.

By the end of the 1967-68 season, what would be the final one in Carolina Field House, it became evident that construction was running weeks behind at the new Coliseum. Poor weather in January of ‘68 added significantly to the delays. McDevitt executives pointed to their contractual obligation of March,1969. McGuire chafed under the delays.

Just before midnight on Sunday, March 24, 1968, Columbia firefighters responded to a fire at the Field House, sending four pumpers and a ladder truck to battle the blaze. Hundreds of students volunteered to work alongside firemen into the night, many of whom formed a human chain, salvaging trophies and furniture from the burning building. Columbia Fire Chief Edward F. Broome said the fire “may have started around a breaker box,” but could not comment conclusively as the investigation by arson experts with the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) was ongoing.

Chief Broome noted the next day that the fire destroyed everything but the roof and walls, and estimated that the damage would approach $200,000 ($1.4 million). Equipment and supply losses were estimated at $15,900 and included two scoreboards, 18 Spalding basketballs, uniforms and 14 cartons of Camel cigarettes from the concession stand. University President Jones noted that despite a $375,000 insurance policy on the building, razing it might make the most sense, as spending $200,000 to rebuild an already inadequate building might not be the wisest option.

The matter was put to rest a few weeks later, when on Saturday, April 13, 1968 a second fire destroyed what remained of the Field House. Fire officials noted that the second blaze was intentionally set, but withheld further comment pending investigation. An unnamed man quoted in an article in The State two days later said he had been walking by the Field House that Saturday when he “saw a ‘poof’ explosion and then saw fire raging at the north end of the building.”

Columbia was in the midst of a weeklong curfew, imposed in response to outbreaks of violence across the nation following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just nine days prior. Due to the curfew, National Guardsmen and State Highway Patrolmen on duty across the city descended upon the site of the fire to provide security. In contrast to the earlier fire, the campus was mostly deserted with many away for Easter, and few onlookers showed to view the spectacle. Three Columbia firefighters were injured by falling debris while fighting the blaze.

While it is tempting to engage in speculation about McGuire’s possible involvement in the Field House fire as a means to advance construction timelines at the new Coliseum, that scenario is doubtful. A June 15, 1968 article in The State reported a fifth suspicious fire at the University within a period of four months. The latest, which fire officials said was intentionally set at the gymnasium behind Longstreet Theater, was the second at that that location within a period of days. Longstreet was just a stone’s throw across Sumter Street from the ruins of Carolina Fieldhouse where the two earlier fires had been set. In April of that year, a fire was set in a classroom near the USC Naval Armory, which did $1,800 ($13,000 adjusted) in damage. Beyond that, USC assistant basketball coach Buck Freeman, who coached the freshman team and had been McGuire’s college coach at St. Johns University, had developed a well-known affection for the Field House, and had become its main caretaker. Lastly, a vigorous arson investigation followed the Field House fires, something a man of McGuire’s intelligence would have foreseen.

Results of the arson investigations were inconclusive, which, no doubt, advanced the urban legend of McGuire’s involvement. However, no credible evidence exists that the coach engaged in arson for hire. The arsons were crimes which resulted in the destruction of a University building, injured several firefighters, and if discovered, would have resulted in criminal charges, public humiliation, and possibly incarceration. Even granting McGuire’s possible motivations in the Field House fires, he would have had no such motivation in the other three campus fires. It is clear that an arsonist was loose at the University in 1968, but his name was most certainly not McGuire.

With the Field House in ruins, all attention turned to the construction of the new Coliseum. McDevitt & Street stepped up its efforts with crews working six days per week, ten hours per day throughout the summer and early fall. USC made no contingency plans for the first game, perhaps adding additional motivation for all involved to ensure the building would be ready for basketball on November 30.

The House That Frank Built

The morning of November 30, 1968 dawned with fair skies, temperatures in the low 50’s and highs forecast in the mid 60’s. Somnolent in the midst of a long Thanksgiving weekend, Columbia residents shuffled out to retrieve their morning papers while construction workers labored feverishly at the Coliseum.

McGuire’s Gamecocks would, in fact, tip off the 1968-69 season in their new home, though what greeted fans arriving before the 8p.m. tip was still an active construction site. Fans walked blocks to get to the new building, as parking facilities had not been completed in time for the game. All energy and focus had gone into completion of the playing arena itself. The arena, in fact, was the only portion of the building anywhere near completion. Surrounding offices and classroom space would not be completed for months.

Fans navigated mounds of clay, kicked at wooden planks forming concrete walkways poured just days before, gawked at construction equipment still warm from use, and stared inquisitively at blocked stairways. Exterior lights high above on the building’s massive soffit only worked on two sides. One scoreboard was not installed; the other did not work. Many of the large garnet double doors leading from the concourse to the arena leaned against walls, unattached. Workers had finished installing the last of the 12,401 seats just hours before tipoff.

Yet, upon entering the playing arena, fans were amazed at the immensity and the luxury of the place. It felt massive, cavernous, in comparison to the more familiar 3,200-seat Carolina Fieldhouse. The chair back theater-style seats were lavishly upholstered in Gamecock garnet, with the exception of black upholstered seats on both sides of the arena arranged to spell out “U S C.”. Ushers were stationed throughout the arena, directing fans to their seats. Those with tickets in the higher rows encountered a vigorous workout as they climbed the steeply ascending steps. The precipitous incline of the seating was designed to keep fans as close to the action as possible. The space-frame roof of the building was held aloft by 44 massive exterior columns, which eliminated the need for interior columns and provided unobstructed views throughout the arena. It was the largest space-frame building in the world, and the largest arena in the Southeast.*

On that opening night, sophomore John Roche would provide the heroics to secure a thrilling, last-second victory over Auburn. It was a brilliant start to a varsity career, which would end three years later with his name atop the all-time scoring list in program history. Roche’s late jumper also provided an apt beginning to the Coliseum’s storied history. Setting off on a torrid start, the Gamecocks played their remaining three seasons as ACC members in the plush new digs, compiling a 29-3 home record, before rollicking, sellout crowds.

* The Omni Coliseum in Atlanta would surpass Carolina’s new arena by several thousand seats when it opened four years later. Meanwhile, as USC opened the Carolina Coliseum, Clemson debuted its own sparkling new arena on the same night, with a 76-72 victory over Georgia Tech in the 11,000-seat Littlejohn Coliseum. A few days later, Clemson would record its first sellout crowd, which witnessed a heartbreaking 86-85 loss for the Tigers against Louisiana State. LSU’s “Pistol” Pete Maravich led all scorers with 36 points in a homecoming of sorts. Maravich’s father, Press Maravich, had coached Clemson for six seasons during Pete’s youth, before moving onto North Carolina State, and ultimately to LSU.

 

Gamecocks Find A New Home At “The Roost”

As the Basketball Gamecocks lavished in their new arena, construction crews were busy in other parts of campus as well. A new five-unit complex at the corner of Heyward and South Marion Streets, set to open in the spring of 1969, included dedicated athletic dorms, a cafeteria and lounge, a varsity tennis complex and a new baseball diamond. The 30-acre complex was named for former football coach and athletic director Rex Enright. The dormitory, cafeteria and lounge areas were were affectionately dubbed “The Roost.”

Coach Dietzel, in his duties as athletic director, was the driving force behind the creation of this new home for Gamecock athletes, and it was a major priority from the outset of his tenure. Deitzel and University business manager Dean H. Brunton visited various athletic facilities at universities across the country, incorporating many of the ideas they gathered into the planning of the new Roost complex. Brunton, in an interview with The State described the “total concept” philosophy of the complex. “The University is heading toward a total housing complex, including a study area, lounge, play and dining facility. Along with this we are trying to produce the home environment.” Dietzel emphasized the importance of having a special facility designed with the college athlete in mind. “The college athlete is on a different schedule from most students. His time is taken up a great deal in the late afternoon with practice and training when other students can study. Academically, the greatest thing we can do is to give the athlete an opportunity to graduate, and we should do everything possible to help his study habits.”

On March 17, 1969, the baseball Gamecocks, under third-year Coach Jack Powers, played the inaugural game at the new diamond. It was a disappointing start to a season which would prove to be Powers’ final one at Carolina. Virginia Tech’s hurlers held Gamecock batters to an anemic five hits on the day en route to handing USC an opening day loss of 6-1. A sparse crowd of 250 spectators took in that first game at the facility. That opening loss set the tone for a frustrating season in which the Gamecocks compiled a 12-21-1* record, and were outscored 111-148.

* The one tie was 4-4 against ACC-leading Clemson on April 16. The game was played a day later than originally scheduled due to rain, and was called after 13 innings due to darkness. The teams met on the campus of the Veterans Hospital in Columbia due to soggy conditions at their new home field. USC played many of its home games at the Veterans Hospital field prior to the opening of their new spring sports complex.

That ’69 season came to an unceremonious ending with a 9-0 thumping at the hands of Virginia in Charlottesville on May 13. That game ushered in the “modern era” of Gamecock baseball, with the hiring of New York Yankee legend Bobby Richardson as its new head coach.

 

Carolina Stadium becomes Williams-Brice

 On the afternoon of Monday, December 8, 1969, University President Jones and Athletic Director Dietzel, along with other department heads held a press conference at the newly completed Capstone Building, an 18-story residence hall on campus. Jones outlined a proposed $112 million expansion and construction program for the University. The program included a new library, a new college of business administration, a new school of nursing, two new residence halls, a parking garage and a central administration building at 901 Sumter St, across from the University’s original campus, the stately and iconic Horseshoe.

Also outlined in the plans was a multi-phase expansion of Carolina Stadium. An article that afternoon in The Columbia Record, included an artist rendering of the proposed expansion, including a first phase addition of an upper west deck, and a second phase addition of an upper east deck. The two phases would expand seating capacity at the stadium from 42,338 to a projected 70,000 seats. All projects would be completed over the course of five years, and would require $97 million in state funds, with the stadium project costing $7.6 million ($48.6 million adjusted).

Carolina Stadium was originally known as Columbia Municipal Stadium and was built as a project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1934. The stadium replaced the wooden grandstands of Melton Field*, where Gamecock teams originally played their home games. The original structure, comprised of east and west grandstands, sat 17,600. The stadium was officially dedicated on October 6, 1934, during a gray, drizzly afternoon, which saw the Gamecocks defeat Virginia Military by a score of 22-6. The City of Columbia deeded the stadium to USC in 1935 and in 1941 it was officially renamed Carolina Stadium.

In 1948, seating was nearly doubled to 33,000 with the addition of south end zone seating, which formed a horseshoe. By 1959, another expansion in the north end zone completed a bowl and brought capacity to 43,212. In 1966, field level seats were replaced by armchair-type seats, which reduced capacity to 42,338, where it remained on the eve of the 1969 expansion proposal.

State funding for the stadium project in particular faced tough sledding in 1969. Governor Robert E. McNair said that the proposal was not number one on the university’s building priority list. State Senator Edgar A. Brown spoke in more definitive terms, stating “…any new building is out of the question.” McNair and Brown, as well as other legislators cited a tough budget year. Also, President Nixon had recently asked state governments to place a hold on new building to combat inflation. McNair intended to honor the President’s request. The university, meanwhile, pledged to fund the project itself, if it had to, with gate receipts and booster funding – a dubious proposal given the scale and cost of the project. However, construction would begin on the new west upper deck in less than a year, at the conclusion of the 1970 football season thanks to a generous gift.

In a January 1971 announcement, attorneys representing the estate of Mrs. Martha Williams Brice announced the intent, outlined in Mrs. Brice’s will, to bequeath a $3.5 million gift to the University ($18 million). The funds were to benefit various building projects on the Columbia campus and at Coastal Carolina – then a USC satellite campus in Conway, South Carolina. On the Columbia campus, funds would go to the College of Nursing as well as the ongoing building project at Carolina Stadium, with $2.75 million of the gift going to the USC Athletic Department. University President Jones noted it was the single largest monetary gift to an institution of higher learning in the history of the state. The University announced plans to place the Williams-Brice name on the new Nursing building and the stadium in accordance with the directives outlined in Mrs. Brice’s will.

Mrs. Brice was the daughter of Sumter furniture magnate O.L. Williams, and the widow of Thomas H. Brice, President of Southern Coatings and Chemical Co. and Williams-Georgia Pacific Furniture Co. Her interest in Carolina athletics went back decades, and her husband had been a football letterman at USC. Mrs. Brice’s will further directed $250,000 gifts each to Trinity United Methodist Church of Sumter and Epworth Children’s Home in Columbia.

By the 1970s the area surrounding USC’s football stadium was a sprawling industrial district. Between Shop Road to the east and Bluff Road to the west, the stadium lay at the northern edge of an industrial corridor, surrounded by warehouses and machine shops. To the north, across Stadium Street (now George Rogers Boulevard) lay the State Fairgrounds, which provided row upon row of ample, if dusty parking for Gamecock Club members. Further north beyond the Fairgrounds was Olympia Mill, the then still-functioning textile mill built in 1899, and the surrounding village. To the west, across Bluff Road lay the State Farmers Market, an assemblage of low-slung cinder block and corrugated metal buildings, bustling with produce vendors from across the state. Still further west beyond that flowed the slowly churning Congaree River. The stadium itself was ringed by asphalt parking areas for big donors. It was a gritty backdrop, particularly in contrast to the stately and verdant heart of campus – the USC Horseshoe, two miles north. But the off-campus location ensured ample parking and easy tailgating, where, since 1934, generations of Gamecock faithfully converged on autumn Saturdays.

The stadium was renamed officially during a brief dedication ceremony on September 9, 1972, during halftime of that season’s opening game. Attending the ceremony were University President Jones, U.S. Sentators Strom Thurmond and Ernest F. Hollings, and Bill and Tom Edwards, nephews of Mrs. Brice, among other dignitaries. The game resulted in a 24-16 Virginia win, putting a damper on the festivities. 

* Melton Field sat roughly at the site of today’s Russell House Student Union building. The field was a former parade ground for General Tecumseh Sherman’s troops during the Union occupation of Columbia in 1865. Davis Field, the former baseball diamond, lay immediately to the west along Greene Street, between Melton Field and Longstreet Theater, roughly at the site of the Thomas Cooper Library reflecting pool. The first recorded baseball games in Columbia took place on Davis Field between Union solders and local teams. 

 

Dietzel’s Legacy

Though it would be 1981 before the matching east-upper deck would be added, the newly christened Williams-Brice Stadium brought USC football into the modern age, and continued an impressive effort to modernize facilities across the Columbia campus. Williams-Brice, along with The Roost athletic dorms, the Rex Enright Spring Sports Complex, and the Carolina Coliseum had all been completed within a span of three years. It was a giant leap forward and brought Carolina to the forefront of national competitiveness and respectability in terms of facilities.

During these years, Dietzel had also changed the school’s fight song and introduced a new logo – the now familiar Gamecock, sans Block-C (this would come later). Dietzel’s Gamecock included a flowing banner with the words “Scholarship-Leadership” clutched in the bird’s lower claw. The banner would disappear in 1975 with the addition of the Block-C, completing the updated logo, which is still in use today.

Dietzel was profoundly more impactful as an athletic director than coach at USC, and resigned under pressure during the 1974 season, leaving at the end of that campaign. In nine seasons, he compiled a total record of 42-53-1 (43%). His 1969 team did provide the University with its first, and to this day, only outright conference football championship. This was the highlight of his coaching tenure at Carolina. But his influence and legacy go well beyond that.

From leading the charge to exit the ACC and desegregating the athletic department; to massive facility upgrades; to penning the new fight song and directing the creation of a new Gamecock logo (both still in use today); to the hiring of baseball coach Bobby Richardson, which vaulted that program into national prominence, the Dietzel era brought revolutionary change to Carolina athletics.

Dietzel, perhaps more than any individual, is responsible for the look and feel of USC athletics over the course of several decades. In many respects, his influence lingers even today.

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