An Evening In The Westfjords

Sunday, August 13, 2017 – Melanes, Iceland

We eased into the cool morning with a camp breakfast of rye bread from the bakery in town, peanut butter, and coffee. After, we packed and were on our way, leaving the charming seaside town of Isafjordur (the capital of the Westfjords) behind and driving south, along the coast on dirt and gravel roads that likely voided the insurance contract on our rental.

Around each bend the views were beyond spectacular. Vistas of mountains and sea more breathtaking than I have ever seen. The Westfjords are unmatched in their ability to inspire awe. The roads at times were downright scary. Hairpin turns at 12 degree slopes on gravel roads makes for some white-knuckle moments. A 4×4 would have been more appropriate, but the van carried us through the day.

We stopped for a soak in one of the many thermal baths of this region, at a town called Talknafjordor. The bath was the least awe-inspiring thing about our day. Man-made, unkempt and lined with algae to the point that walking was a hazard. But the water was hot and felt great after a strenuous hike yesterday and the large lunch we’d just enjoyed at a bistro in town. We left feeling refreshed and recharged.

We drove another 26k to our campsite for the night at a tiny hamlet called Melanes. It was breath-taking – the most beautiful place I’ve ever had the privelege to pitch a tent. Backpacker Magazine-cover-photo-type beautiful.

There was a wide beach stretching out beyond our camp in a hayfield. Ringing the coast east and north of us were dramatic mountains sweeping up from the coast to rocky outcroppings high above. The sun cast an otherworldly light on the ridges, brilliant shades of purple deepening by degree as it began to set.

The hayfield was large – perhaps ten football fields across, and there was no one within 100 yards of us. There was a waterfall high up on the peak behind us. The sound of crashing waves on the distant beach was muted, far off, providing our soundtrack for the night. Cut hay lay in serpentine rows, golden ropes against the green grass of late summer. The evening skies were brilliant blue, with white puffs of cloud rising above the water and ridges.

We cooked a proper dinner of sausage and rice and vegetables over a camp stove and sipped good Scotch. We added a layer against the gathering cold and dimming light. We were in the Westfjords, far away from the busloads of tourists in the south and the relative bustle of Reykjavik. A week in Iceland lay before us like a blank page. It was perfection.

 

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, 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.

 

 

 

Midnight On The Mountain

I knew we were in trouble when they turned on the light bar. The pickup sat there across the small gravel parking lot from our campsite – it’s headlamps ominously aimed at our tents. And now the million-lumen light bar, which lit us up like stadium lights. It was a horrible thing, the truck. Idling like a ravenous beast. It was a full size American-made truck of an indeterminate make in the post mid-night darkness. If Stephen King were Southern, this truck would have been his Christine, except it would be named “Bocephus” or “Delmar”. It had massive, knobby tires and one of those after-market muffler set-ups that made the engine roar at an ear-piercing decibel. A tattered Confederate battle flag hung defiantly from an antenna on the right fender. It was a nightmare. A redneck’s wet dream.

We sat in our tents paralyzed. What the fuck were these guys up to? Melissa tried in vain to get a signal on her cell. Chase, our 13-year old nephew was in his own tent a dozen feet away. Ours were the only two tents around.

The truck had come down the mountain on a jeep road just a few minutes earlier and, seeing our tents, the derelicts decided to have a little fun at our expense. They spun out, doing figure eights and slinging gravel, the howling engine at full octave. We were initially annoyed. But then they backed into the corner of the lot and stopped, headlamps in our direction. When the light bar came on, annoyance evaporated into fear. I was on this mountain with my wife and my nephew. I was responsible for their safety. My mind raced with a hundred different scenarios, none of which were good. I didn’t have a gun. We didn’t have a signal. It was 1am. We were completely vulnerable.

The truck idled in a low growl, menacing and aggrieved. It occurred to me that it was a Friday night (now Saturday morning), and these idiots had been out partying. They were drunk at a minimum, but who knows what else they’d been up to. Meth is rampant in these Appalachian backwaters. They had guns, no doubt. No way they didn’t have guns. What were they doing? Planning? Were they still just fucking with us or had their whiskey-addled brains gone to a darker place? It seemed entirely possible that they could walk down into the campsite and… God knows what.

After a few minutes the truck pulled forward and stopped adjacent to us at the edge of the campsite, only thirty feet away now. One of the two rednecks got out of the passenger side and walked around the truck. He seemed agitated. I could make out enough of him in the waxing moonlight to determine that he looked exactly as I’d expected. Long, stringy hair, cutoff t-shirt – straight out of central casting. There were faint aromas of pine and burnt motor oil and cheep beer.

He reached for something in the bed of the truck and my heart pounded so hard I was afraid they’d hear it. I could hear muffled conversation but couldn’t make anything out. If they walked down into the campsite, I would have to get out of the tent – I would need to address them – try my diplomatic skills – attempt to diffuse the situation. But I knew that if they walked down there, things would turn very ugly very quickly.

I prayed they wouldn’t, and I cursed myself for choosing this campsite, only a few tenths of a mile from the highway and easily accessible. What had begun as such a good day – an excellent day on the trail and at camp had turned into a nightmare. I felt at that moment like we were on the verge of something violent and terrible. Perhaps death. Or worse. It didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility. It felt real and close and almost scripted – as if there were no other way for it to end.

To my immense relief, the redneck got back in the truck after what seemed an eternity. They spun more donuts, the monstrous engine roaring, enraged. And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived they were gone. We heard them tear down the gravel access road and then turn onto the highway, the roar of the engine growing more distant as they lumbered into the dark night.

We’d been given a reprieve, but we knew there would be no return to sleep. What if they came back? What if they were going to get more buddies? We were completely vulnerable at our camp. There was only one thing to do. I called out to Chase to grab his shoes and headlamp. We were going back to the trail. We wouldn’t bother with packing – it was more urgent than that. We needed to find a safe place now.

We accessed the trail at the northwest corner of the Laurel Valley parking lot, climbing a couple dozen steps away from the lot and onto the trail proper. We sat there at the top of the steps for a few minutes, listening and trying to comprehend what had just happened. The surge in adrenaline left my legs rubbery. My lungs burned. I had to make a concerted effort to control my breathing.

We whispered to each other and this was reassuring. Just being back among the trees and away from view made us feel safe. After a few minutes it occurred to me that the trail paralleled the jeep road for quite a way – perhaps a mile back west, and if they did come back we would be vulnerable in our current position. Having accepted the reality that there would be no return to camp until daylight, we began walking back in the direction we had come that day – westward through the inky black of deep night.

The trail looked and felt different in the dark. Our headlamps, set to tactical red, cast shaky beams of muted light, illuminating our next few steps but not much beyond. There was an electric sense of urgency and as we walked through the corridor of hemlocks and pines, we listened in nervous anticipation of the truck’s return. Somehow we sensed that they were not quite done with us.

After about a mile, we came to a spot where the trail intersected with the jeep road again at a sharp curve. We descended steps down to the crossing, cautious, slow, headlamps off, listening for any movement. We quickly climbed back onto the trail on the opposite side of the intersection and ascended another hundred feet or so westward until we felt sufficiently safe.

We sat one in front of the other on some steps along the trail. Chase, in front and below, Melissa in the middle, then me. We could make out the jeep road below us, faint moonlight reflecting off the sandy surface through a thin veil of pine branches. We continued to try 911 intermittently with no success. We were stuck for the night and sat uncomfortably, knowing there would be no sleep. It was now around 2am.

Suddenly we saw headlamps below and to our right, and heard the crunch of tires on gravel. Before we could even comprehend what was happening an SUV was directly below us on the jeep road. We realized with alarm that we were much closer to the road than we’d realized. We sat frozen. The SUV stopped and someone inside began searching the hillside with a spotlight. I hissed to “get down!” We found ourselves in the surreal position of being on our stomachs, faces I the dirt in the middle of the trail, another set of hooligans below us.

These weren’t our rednecks from earlier but who were they? Did they know we were here? Had they seen us? The searchlight switched off and the SUV began to pull forward, away from us and down the road. We were up in a flash and walking again with renewed urgency.

We walked another half mile or so until we came to a spot with some steps that seemed sufficiently far back from the jeep road. I knew the road was still not far away, but we couldn’t see it any longer, which seemed marginally safer. We sat down in the same arrangement as before, front to back. We speculated about what might be happening back at our camp, and what it might look like when we returned at sun-up. We assumed it would be ransacked.

We settled in the best we could, alternately leaning on one another and shifting frequently. The temperature had dropped to the mid 60’s – uncomfortably cool with no jacket. Melissa had thought to bring water, but her bottle was less than a quarter full, so we rationed our sips carefully. We were all parched. We felt safer now, and talked in muted whispers about the events of the night. We tried the cell occasionally and still had no success despite being higher on the mountain.

We marked time and tried to nap. We did our best to get through the night, shivering and battling boredom. The boredom was ironic, given all of the excitement. I realized that I had left my hiking pole at the other set of steps when we had to scramble away. We sat in the dark in the middle of the Foothills Trail and we were completely unafraid of bears or snakes. Sitting exposed in the wee hours, wild animals were not our concern. Only people.

Gradually the hours slipped by and around 6am a faint, early  light began to filter through the trees. We cautiously made our way back toward camp. Despite lingering trepidation, it was invigorating and restorative to be up moving again. We made good time, gaining confidence in proportion to the strengthening light as we walked. We were eager to see what condition our camp might be in, and to pack and be on our way. We were tired but energized all the same.

At the steps leading down to the parking lot I motioned for Melissa and Chase to stop, and I made my way down slowly, the parking lot and campsite revealing themselves by degree with each step. It was perfectly still. The gravel under my feet and birds, full in their morning song, were the only sounds. I motioned for them to come on down.

Walking across the parking lot, the crazed tire tracks obvious in figure-eight gouges of the surface dirt. It was evidence that last night was real and not some shared horror dream. We got to camp and everything was intact. We were relieved and quickly set about breaking down tents and loading packs. Within twenty minutes we were loaded and walking.

We decided to walk down to the highway where we could pump water from Estatoe Creek under the Highway 178 overpass. We ate breakfast here too, just off the road at the edge of a private drive. It was an overcast morning and muggy. Cars flew by, drivers oblivious to us on the highway. Before long we were on the move, picking up the trail on the east side of the highway.

We finished the trail that day, despite plans for one more night of camping, reaching the car at Table Rock State Park after a long fourteen miles or so. We’d seen two black bears on our hike that day, which was thrilling, but also solidified our resolve to push on. After the drama of the night before, camping in an area where we’d seen multiple bears just wasn’t appealing. We had experienced our fill of drama. We were eager to get to the car, to a hotel in Greenville. To have a shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. We were emotionally and physically exhausted.

We arrived at Table Rock around 5pm and found our car where we had left it a week before. Melissa and I had completed all seventy-seven miles of the Foothills Trail – something that had long been on my bucket list. Moreover, we had survived the night before and learned some things along the way. Principally, that I will never again camp without a weapon. This saddens me, but camping unarmed – at least along the East Coast – no longer seems prudent. To be clear, I would not have handled the situation any differently if I had been armed. But it would have been a comfort to know a weapon was available had things deteriorated further. I also learned that in our part of the world, where there are no Grizzlies, bears are nothing to be overly concerned about. People are a different story.

More importantly though, I learned that we were pretty good in a crisis. All of us. We worked well together, we stayed calm and we thought through our best options. We took action when we needed to and we laid low when it made sense. We didn’t let fear paralyze us. I was proud of Chase for his bravery and cool calm. I was impressed, as always, with Melissa for her toughness and spirit of adventure. We were a good team.

We survived to hike another day.

 

Sixteen Thousand Days Gone By

It was March 17, 1973 in Houston, Texas. The Gamecock Basketball team beat a feisty Southwestern Louisiana team (now known as Louisiana-Lafayette) by a score of 90-85. It was a consolation game in the NCAA Tournament, back when they did those kinds of things. Carolina had earlier taken a 78-70 win over Texas Tech in a first round game in Wichita, Kansas, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen (there were only 32 teams in the tournament then).

The Gamecocks ran into a buzzsaw in the second round, losing 90-76 to a hot Memphis State team that would go on to play in the championship game that year, losing to the invincible John Wooden-led UCLA Bruins. Wooden and UCLA won the last of seven consecutive NCAA Championships that season. They won ten of twelve between 1964 and 1975.

There could be no way that legendary coach Frank McGuire and his boys (English, Traylor, Winters, Dunleavy, Joyce) could have known that the next day – March 18, 1973 – would begin a 44 year sojourn of futility and frustration in the tournament which, at that time, seemed like a birthright – an annual event etched as confidently on the calendars of Gamecock faithful as Christmas and Easter. As they boarded the plane from Houston back to Columbia, they must have thought that many tournament wins lay ahead.

The Gamecocks would return to the Tournament the following season, 1974, losing 75-67 in the first round to a surprisingly strong bunch of Furman Paladans in Philadelphia. It would be Coach McGuire’s final NCAA Tournament team and the Gamecock program would not return to NCAA Tournament play for another 15 years. USC was three years removed from its heated exit from the ACC. The great, natural rivalries that fueled recruiting and constant sellouts at Carolina Coliseum were gone. South Carolina now found itself wandering through the wilderness of Major Independent status. And the basketball program suffered.

Scheduling was difficult without the built-in drama of conference play. The Marquettes and Fordhams and Notre Dames of the world, solid programs though they were, did not spark the same level of fan interest. Attendance began to suffer. Recruiting began to slip. Coach McGuire’s final six seasons saw a slow decline with only two NIT appearances (’75 and ’78) and no additional 20-win seasons. It was a sad ending to one of the legendary coaching careers in the history of College Basketball.

By the spring of 1980, the legendary coach stepped down under pressure and Carolina, a half dozen years removed from their last NCAA win, managed to woo Bill Foster from Duke. It appeared an inspired hire. Foster had led the revival of a flagging Duke program, taking his 1978 team to the NCAA Championship game before losing to powerhouse Kentucky. His last three teams won two of three ACC Championships. Foster was an innovator and a nationally-recognized builder of programs.

After two rebuilding seasons, Foster’s 1983 team went 22-9 – the program’s first 20 win season since 1975. They narrowly missed the NCAA tournament and wound up in the NIT where they went 2-1, losing in the third round to former ACC rival Wake Forest. It was this NCAA snub that provided the impetus to join the Metro Conference the following year in order to re-engage in conference affiliation and bolster their future tournament resume.  Unfortunately, Foster’s program never could duplicate the success of ’83, due in part to his health problems, the upgrade in Metro competition, and a slide in recruiting during his last few years.

South Carolina hired George Felton to replace Foster in 1986 and this seemed to inject new life into the program. Felton, a top assistant on Bobby Cremins’ powerful Georgia Tech teams, was a proven recruiter and a USC letterman. He returned energy and the McGuire connection to the program, and his 1989 team marked a long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament. Felton was a reserve on that 1974 squad – the last Gamecock tournament team – so there was added significance to his return in ’89. Things did not go well in that opening round game, however, and USC lost 81-66 to a hot-shooting N.C. State team, coached by ACC Coach of the Year, Jim Valvano and led by point guard Chris Corchiani. The Wolfpack shot 56.7% that day, the best opponent shooting percentage in South Carolina NCAA Tournament history.

Felton’s program came close again in 1991, winning 20 games in the program’s final season in the Metro Conference, but did not receive an NCAA bid, settling again for the NIT. In a still mysterious development, Athletics Director King Dixon fired Felton soon after the completion of that season, leading to a botched coaching search in which several prominent coaches turned down offers to lead the Gamecock program. Dixon ultimately hired Murray State (KY) coach Steve Newton, who would lead the program into their initial season in the SEC, in 1991-92.

It soon became apparent that Newton was in over his head. Talent was not up to SEC standards and Carolina took its lumps for several years as the new kid on the block. To compound frustrations, fellow SEC newbie Arkansas was competing for national championships at the time, winning it all in 1994.

Carolina’s next NCAA tournament invitation came in Coach Eddie Fogler’s best season at Carolina in 1997. A magical 15-1 run through the SEC and a regular-season conference championship gave the University their first SEC team championship, and is to this day their only one in Men’s Basketball. The Gamecocks entered that year’s tournament with a sparkling 24-7 record and a #2 seed in the East Regional. They would face #15 seed Coppin State out of the MEAC in Pittsburg. Many pundits predicted a final four run for Carolina, which was led by a three-headed monster in guards in B.J. McKie, Larry Davis and Melvin Watson. Tied 34-all at the half, Coppin State went on an improbable 35-14 run in the second half, ultimately pulling off the 78-65 upset, which at the that time was only the second 15-2 upset in NCAA Tournament history.

The Gamecocks returned to the Tournament the following year as a #3 seed and would go down in similar fashion to the #14 seeded Richmond Spiders in a close one, 62-61 in Washington, D.C. The wind seemed to go out of Coach Fogler’s sails after two monumental tournament upsets, and his last two teams at USC were unmemorable.

South Carolina’s next tournament appearance came in 2004, under Coach Dave Odom. Coming off of a 23 win season, the Gamecocks squared off with a Memphis squad in an ugly defensive slugfest marked by long scoreless stretches by the Garnet & Black. Carolina did not score a basket in the last 9:37 of the first half and went on to lose 59-43 in the first round game in Kansas City.

Odom would go on to have several more solid teams at Carolina which always seemed to start strong, then falter down the stretch, earning themselves NIT bids rather than NCAA. His teams won consecutive NIT Championships in 2005 and 2006, but that was not enough to revive fan interest. Coach Odom never achieved a winning SEC record and never seemed to gain favor with Gamecock fans. He was a class act, represented the University well and made admirable inroads at reconnecting with disaffected lettermen, particularly from the McGuire era. Unfortunately, that was not enough to bring an end to the now 30 year drought of NCAA Tournament wins.

Enter Darrin Horn, who parlayed a 2007 Sweet Sixteen appearance by his Western Kentucky squad into a Power 5 job at South Carolina. In his first season, 2007-08, the Gamecocks won 20 games, achieved double digit SEC wins, a share of the SEC East title, and an NIT appearance. This was accomplished with a mostly Odom-recruited team. Led by First Team All-SEC guard, Devon Downey, Carolina achieved a program milestone in it’s first-ever victory over a #1 nationally-ranked team at home that season versus Kentucky. This was the high-water mark of the Horn era. Reported poor relations with players and the media were distractions and Horn – a promising young coach – proved to be in over his head.

Coach Frank Martin was lured to Carolina from Kansas State in the spring of 2012 – a parting gift from Athletics Director Eric Hyman, who would soon leave for the same position at Texas A&M. Martin inherited a program in shambles, some 40 years removed from the McGuire glory years and sustained national respectability. The 18,000 seat Colonial Life Arena, which replaced the venerable Carolina Coliseum, was referred to derisively as the Colonial “lifeless” Arena. The arena was often so quiet that Martin claims he could overhear cellphone conversations of fans on the other side of the playing floor.

Over time, Martin built his program, instilling a toughness and fighting spirit not seen at USC in decades. Winning 14 games in each of his first two seasons, he won 17 in year three and 25 in year four. In a monumental snub by the NCAA in 2016, Carolina was left without a bid despite finishing 3rd in the SEC and winning 24 regular-season games. A 24 win Power 5 school had never been left out of the NCAA Tournament prior to 2016.

The Gamecocks would not be denied in 2017. After beefing up their strength of schedule and rolling through 12 wins in the SEC, the Gamecocks finally earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament – their first in 13 years.

In a thrilling and cathartic 40 minutes, Carolina finally managed an NCAA Tournament win versus a very talented Marquette team. And a convincing one at that, winning by 20 points in front of a partisan Gamecock crowd 100 miles from Columbia, in Greenville, South Carolina.

In round two, USC faces an old ACC nemesis, Duke. The Blue Devils are led by the same coach who took over for South Carolina-bound Bill Foster way back in 1980. The legendary Mike Krzyzewski. Duke is a #2 seed and picked by many to bring another championship back to Durham. But no matter what happens in that game, South Carolina has achieved something special. This squad of Gamecocks has ended 44 years of futility and frustration. That 44 year-old monkey no longer lives rent free on the backs and in the heads of Gamecock players, coaches and fans.

The last time Carolina won an NCAA tournament game, Carolina Coliseum had only been open five years. It was still a state-of-the-art facility. The finest in the Southeast. USC was in the midst of navigating its way through Major Independent status. The Athletics department was modernizing. Times were changing.

Richard Nixon was in his second term, the shadows of Watergate darkening by the day. The Vietnam War was mercifully winding down. Gasoline was 38 cents a gallon. The Dow Jones Industrial Average flirted with the mythical 1000 point level just before a long decline.

Long declines were the order of the day in 1973. Nobody could have known just how long or steep the decline of Gamecock Basketball would be. Certainly not that fiery Irish coach and his boys on that plane ride from Houston on the day after St. Patrick’s Day so many years ago.

16,000 days gone by. And on St. Patricks Day, exactly 44 years later, a new day dawned. And anything seems possible now.

*****

Afterword: In the days following this blog post, Frank Martin and his team took Gamecock fans on an improbable and magical ride. In the Round of 32, the Gamecocks dominated former ACC rival Duke – a team many analysts predicted to win it all in 2017. Carolina beat a talented Baylor team by 20 points in the Sweet Sixteen, and handled SEC rival Florida by a seven point margin in the Elite Eight. The magic finally ran out as the scrappy Gamecocks hung with Gonzaga until the final buzzer, losing by four.

Meanwhile, the USC women’s team, under the direction of Coach Dawn Staley, defeated conference rival Mississippi State to claim the program’s first basketball national championship.

It was a special March, 44 years in the making.

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photo courtesy of the University of South Carolina

 

 

 

 

 

Triathlete Chronicles is now South By Southeast

Dear friends and loyal readers (aka, Mom & Melissa)-

Beginning today, Triathlete Chronicles is now South By Southeast. We all change and grow as time moves on, and hopefully, mature along the way. The new title and format reflects a change in my focus. While triathlon was a fantastic part of mine and Melissa’s lives for years and the inspiration for a lot of blogs, Triathlete Chronicles was always about more than triathlon. It was about travel and food and all the good things of life. The new title better reflects that. Moreover, the format was due for a fresh coat of paint.

I am looking forward to re-engaging in the blog and hope to delve into a broader range of topics to boot. I hope you enjoy the new format.

Stay tuned and thanks as always for stopping by.

-Alan

Of lawnmowers and wine coolers and a boy’s first drink

There are certain events in a boy’s life that stand out. Certain firsts. The first kiss. The first time driving a car, etc. Your first drink is one of those moments.

It was the summer of 1986 and I was 14 years old. It was an exceptionally hot and dry summer that year. There was a drought, in fact. A severe one. It was the summer before my freshman year at Spring Valley High School and I was planning to try out for the “B Squad” freshman football team. I had seen the writing on the wall the prior year when, as an eighth grader, I was sitting the bench on my middle school basketball team. I was eager to try a new sport.

My Uncle Roger was in town that summer for an extended visit and staying with us at the house on Spring Water Drive in Northeast Columbia. Roger was a character. A few years younger than my Dad, he insisted that I call him “Roger”, instead of “Uncle Roger”. For a boy steeped in Southern manners, that was kind of a big deal. It made him more approachable. More like a buddy than an authority figure. He told great, off-color jokes. We laughed a lot.

One Saturday, my Dad away on National Guard duty, Uncle Roger and I drove over to West Columbia to cut the grass at some rental properties Dad owned somewhere off of Leapheart Road. He had purchased the properties – a duplex and a triplex, I think – to ease his tax burden. Shortly after he purchased them the tax laws changed, eliminating even the meager benefit he sought to obtain. The rentals became an albatross. They weren’t in the best area and good tenants were hard to come by. Rent was paid late if at all. Evictions were frequent. Despite Dad’s best efforts at keeping the properties up, the delinquents would typically leave them in varying degrees of disrepair and squalor.

We drove over there in the family’s old Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon – the kind with simulated wood grain paneling – a family truckster extraordinaire. We started early and spent several hours cutting grass, trimming weeds and whatever else needed to be done. It was a classic July day in Columbia – unyieldingly, blisteringly hot and humid. The drought made it worse and by early afternoon, the heat beat down with a malevolence that was staggering. The air was dead still, not a pine needle stirred. Everyone with a drop of sense was inside. The constant undulating song of Cicadas seemed to drown out even the drone of the lawnmower.

Parched and needing to hydrate, we took a break and drove over to a gas station around the corner. Walking into the store we were greeted with a welcome blast of air conditioning that made me nearly light headed. I was headed over to grab a Gatorade when I noticed Uncle Roger already at the counter checking out. He motioned for me to meet him back at the car and when he walked out with a grin, carrying a brown paper bag, I was intrigued.

We drove back to the triplex and parked in an empty driveway. He put the car in park and reached into the bag. I was surprised but delighted when he handed me a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler. He reached back into the bag and pulled out a Budweiser tall boy for himself.

Now, Bartles & Jaymes may seem like an ignominious beginning for a man’s drinking journey, but I tell you with all sincerity, it was magical for a thirsty fourteen year old Baptist boy. I opened the twist top and the very sound was pleasing – that release of compressed air and the mild, malty aroma that followed. I remember the beads of condensation on the label as I tipped the bottle to my lips expectantly. It was cold and the bottle somehow just felt good in my hand.

That first swallow was amazing. Slightly citrus, but enough malt and alcohol to make their presence known. I liked it and finished it quickly. After, there was a novel, if very mild buzz. The world took on a pleasing hue. The bouquet of sour sweat and gasoline and freshly cut grass and alcohol was pleasurable. Uncle Roger let me take a couple of swigs from his Budweiser and I immediately liked the taste of that too. Heavier malt with a pleasing bite as it went down.

The world slowed. We sat there in the car with the windows rolled down and the radio on – John Mellencamp singing about pink houses, the late afternoon heat beginning to relent a bit. I knew that I had crossed some sort of bridge into another, more worldly realm. I smiled a goofy smile, sublimely satisfied. After a while, we finished the mowing and headed back toward home.

Thinking back on it now, it’s as though that moment is encased in museum glass. There was something so understated and masculine about it (in spite of the wine cooler). An uncle and his nephew sharing a drink after toiling in the hot sun. A reward. A rite of passage. A bonding moment. Somehow, 31 years have gone by since that day. But I remember it like it was last week.

Verona

Each day on our recent trip with good friends Martin and Misa through parts of Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and Croatia, I would sit in the RV while Martin drove and, with questionable penmanship exacerbated by a bumpy road, scrawl a barely-legible account of the previous days adventures. The following is an entry from one of our favorite days, and by far our favorite meal…

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A change of plans yesterday took us to Verona. It was a wonderful night in one of the loveliest cities I have ever seen.

Misa found a perfect campground atop an ancient castle – Castel San Pietro, which sits on a high bluff overlooking the city. The city center is compact and perfect for walking, which we did happily after a long day of driving.

VeronaIt was a gorgeous, mild evening, just an hour or so before dusk when we descended into the city from the campground. As we did the sun cast a beautiful light on the red clay rooftops and ancient buildings and cobbled alleyways.

We were eager for wine and stopped first in a charming corner establishment, the Cappa Café. There was a fine, large balcony overlooking the wide, swift-moving Adige River, which bisects the town. We sat initially there but moved inside to a cozy table due to the dropping temperature and chilly breeze off of the river.

We spent a couple of hours there, laughing and telling stories over two bottles of good red wine. Verona was working it’s charms.

After, we strolled some more, slightly buzzed and happy. We took in a two thousand year old Roman coliseum, the Verona Arena, which is still in use today and famous for it’s large-scale opera productions. It was spectacular and reminded me of the blinding pace of change in the US. For example, the wonderful Carolina Coliseum in Columbia was only built in 1968 and was state of the art at the time. It was replaced over ten years ago by another, more modern facility. Sad. But that rant is for another blog.

We ambled over to Casa Guilietta for a glimpse at Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet – by far the most frequented tourist destination in Verona and a little crowded even in the off season on a Wednesday night. We people-watched, inhaling the salt-tinged perfume of the early evening air while walking a little more. Between the wine and the walking, we were ready to eat.

As we made our way back across the river toward the campsite, we settled on an enchanting little restaurant within the shadow of Castel San Pietro – Alcova del Frote Osteria. The “osteria” caught my attention and I immediately craved oysters.

We were seated in a private room downstairs in the wine cellar. The room was small and cozy with just one table. Dried hams and sausages hung from rough-hewn ceiling beams and candles cast soft light on the shelves of local and regional wine lining every wall from floor to ceiling. It was a room built for luxuriant dining.

We started with what might have been the best red wine I have ever tasted – a locally produced, small batch wine – Valpolicello, 2011. Amazing, peppery and boldy flavorful. We ordered ham three ways – dark, Spanish and Italian with sweet marinated tomoatos. Of course, we ordered local oysters, and they were beautiful, meaty and fresh, tasting strongly of the Mediterranean – briny and delicious. Polenta cakes with scallops and potato puret – amazing.

I ordered horse, for the dark novelty of it more than anything. It was prepared both grilled (spectacular) and carpacio, which was good as well but not as flavorful. We had the best pasta aldente any of us had ever tasted. It was light, topped with local olive oil and fresh olives. Pasta is ruined for me now because I will always judge it based on that dish and it will always fall short – I know this even now. There were also wonderful pan-roasted potatoes and at some point, another bottle of wine, this time a Heletto – also local, but smoother and equally wonderful. We coined a new word – “Foogasm” – and we were fully in the throes of multiple foogasms at this point.

We finished with dessert, which was a mix of tiramisu, cheesecake and chocolate mousse, presented on twelve large spoons – samples of all three for each of us. It was outstanding, but at this point we were in danger of sudden-onset gout. Good Italian coffee helped to settle over-burdened stomachs, but what we really needed was a walk.

I must mention as well that our waiter was tremendous. He was patient, charming and knowledgeable, offering suggestions unobtrusively and picking our wine after thoughtful questions. He was professional in every way and made our evening immeasurably more enjoyable than it could have been otherwise.

After, we shuffled back to camp, zombie-like and deeply satisfied. It was the meal of the year.

Verona reminded me vaguely of Charleston with it’s well-worn charm and seaside aromas. It made me want to sell everything and move there. To learn just enough Italian to get by and to spend my days writing and eating and walking it’s cobbled streets. I think I could talk Melissa into that…