“The Metro is not merely the best option for the moment, it is the only one.”
– Herman Helms – Sports Editor, The State
Almost from the moment USC left the Atlantic Coast Conference in August 1971, there was a push from Frank McGuire for a return to conference affiliation. The preference was an all-sports conference – namely a return to the Atlantic Coast Conference, or the Southeastern Conference. Given South Carolina’s history as a founding member of the ACC, and the geographical proximity to member institutions in both conferences, those two options made sense on paper, and certainly from an aspirational standpoint. But when Georgia Tech accepted an invitation to membership in the ACC in 1978, the door effectively closed on South Carolina’s chances of a return to the ACC. The SEC meanwhile was content and stable with ten members. A withdrawal of any team from either conference seemed highly unlikely.
Yet, the University of South Carolina increasingly found its Major Independent status a hindrance in all sports other than football. Men’s basketball particularly suffered from decreased fan interest and attendance, as well as prospects for future invitations to the NCAA Tournament. USC sorely needed a conference home.
In the early 1970s, St. Louis University Athletic Director Larry Albus envisioned the formation of a new athletic conference – one focused on basketball – whose membership would be comprised of schools from large metropolitan cities across the upper South. By June 1975, Albus’ vision had become a reality with the formation of the Metropolitan Athletic Conference. Founding members included Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Memphis State (now Memphis), St. Louis and Tulane. The fledgling conference was known less formally as the “Metro Six.”
Florida State joined the Metro in 1976, becoming the seventh member. When Georgia Tech left to join the ACC two years later, the Metro promptly returned to seven members with the addition of Virginia Tech. Founding member St. Louis withdrew its membership in 1982, but the league was once again restored to seven members with the addition of Southern Mississippi later that year. Indeed, the geographical footprint of the conference was expanding, and the movement of member institutions foreshadowed a more widespread fluctuation in NCAA conference affiliation in the decades to come.
The University of South Carolina seemed a highly desirable fit from Albus’ perspective, upon being named the conference’s first commissioner in 1975. Albus pursued USC through informal conversations, and by August 1979 he extended a formal solicitation for USC to consider joining the league. In an August 3, 1979 interview with United Press International, Albus stated: “We have always had a strong interest in South Carolina since the inception of the conference. We’ve talked quite a bit with the basketball office and they seem interested. I sent a formal request for them to consider the conference and contact me if interested.” Albus’ reference to “the basketball office” could mean nothing other than McGuire himself.
There was strong and vocal interest from some segments of Gamecock Nation. The Columbia Tipoff Club – a USC Basketball booster club unaffiliated with the University but closely associated with Coach Frank McGuire was the most vocal. On Sunday, August 5, 1979, the Tipoff Club placed a full page ad in The State with the bold headline ‘ATTENTION: GAMECOCK SUPPORTERS’ – the ad went on to state that the club endorsed USC’s affiliation with the “Metro 7 Conference”, and urged fans to let their “…feelings be known immediately to the USC Board of Trustees” before an upcoming BOT meeting on Thursday of that week.
What followed in fine print was an elaborate series of questions and answers designed to inform the public and place pressure on the BOT to consider the Metro Conference invitation. It included quotes supporting conference affiliation from USC head coaches, including women’s basketball coach Pam Parsons and Baseball Coach June Raines. Also included were quotes from various Metro coaches extolling the virtues of the conference and expressing heartfelt wishes for South Carolina’s addition.
The ad ended with a final plea: “The Time Is Urgent – If we cannot get the Board of Trustees to look into the Metro 7 on Thursday, the opportunity may be gone for this year and for many years to come.” At the bottom of the ad was a cut out petition titled Our Plea to the Board, which could be signed and mailed into the Tipoff Club.
McGuire’s desire for Metro membership was pragmatic. With more attractive options momentarily out of reach, the Metro provided the opportunity to shore up his ailing basketball program with the establishment of new rivalries. “I don’t say that games with Metro teams will be as exciting to our fans in the beginning as games with North Carolina, Duke or N.C. State,” McGuire said, “but I believe we could cultivate good rivalries with some of the outstanding Metro teams over a period of years.” Indeed, the conference boasted two elite basketball programs in Louisville and Memphis State. A McGuire-led USC, even half a decade removed from its prime, would only add excitement and prestige to the Metro.
McGuire was not alone in his advocacy for Metro affiliation. Baseball coach June Raines said he liked “…the idea of being able to play for a conference championship”, and “…especially like the advantage which conference affiliation gives a school for the playoffs.” Indeed, the NCAA Tournament selection process in recent years had shifted toward awarding bids to conference-affiliated teams rather than independents with better records. USC swimming coach Scott Woodburn added: “Conference membership would give more incentive to our athletes. It would add some identification to the program. I’m in favor of conference affiliation.” Woodburn went on to say, with a hint of resignation, “The Metro 7 would be fine, but only because there is no alternative. By that, I mean I would prefer the ACC or the Southeastern Conference.”
During the summer of 1979 some speculation swirled that Vanderbilt was considering a withdrawal from the SEC, given its struggles to compete in football. This gave some Gamecock fans a glimmer of hope for membership there, and created a short-lived buzz on local sports talk shows. During an interview with a Columbia radio station in August, 1979, SEC Commissioner Hootie Ingram put those rumors to rest, citing Vanderbilt’s competitiveness in basketball, and its ability to consistently sell out its 15,000-seat arena despite an enrollment of just 7,000. “I can’t imagine the Commodores wanting to end relations with the SEC rivals who help them fill all those seats.” Ingram said, and Vandy withdrawal talk quickly faded.
The talk of conference affiliation had exacerbated the rift between athletic director and head football coach Jim Carlen and McGuire. Carlen was most comfortable as an Independent, and that feeling was not unique to his tenure at South Carolina. Carlen was instrumental in leading West Virginia University out of the Southern Conference into Major Independent status in 1968, during his tenure as head football coach there. Carlen then left WVU following the 1969 season for Texas Tech.
Since Metro affiliation did not include competition in football, proponents argued, membership in that conference was a win-win for the entire athletic department. Football could remain an Independent, while the other programs, most notably basketball, would most certainly benefit from conference affiliation.
There were other arguments articulated by proponents, which highlighted Metro 7 benefits. Given the energy crisis of the late 1970s, travel costs were a major source of concern for athletic departments across the country. Conference play in the Metro would serve to decrease travel costs, as teams would most certainly travel less than they had as independents. Scheduling would also be much easier, with 12 regular-season contests against conference competition each season. The trouble with the Metro 7, according to The State’s sports editor Herman Helms was that “…a move into the conference seems so logical that the wishy-washy Board of Trustees may not make it.”
University President James Holderman commented in an August 22, 1979 interview with The State that the USC Board of Trustees desired to see the Gamecocks in a conference, which has both athletic and academic quality. Further, Holderman expressed the belief that the BOT wanted Carolina to be in a full and comprehensive conference, meaning an “all-sports” conference. Holderman, elaborated that the Metro Conference did not enjoy that status at that time, and predicted that it would be some time before it did.
In an effort to control the narrative, Metro Commissioner Albus released comments a few days later, stating while the door was still open for expansion, it was too late for USC to join the conference for the 1979-80 school year due to scheduling difficulties. Thus ended the initial round of talks between the Metro Conference and South Carolina. It would not be the last.
Earlier Efforts to Rejoin ACC Stumble Out of the Gate
Talk of a South Carolina/ACC détente sputtered along in fits and starts between 1971 and 1978, when the ACC invited Georgia Tech rather than USC to become its eigth member. In May of 1975, the USC Board of Trustees authorized University President James Patterson to engage in negotiations with ACC Commissioner Bob James. Talk picked up momentum in January, 1976, and the topic of reunification appeared to be on the verge of serious consideration by the ACC. President Patterson noted in an article in The Gamecock student newspaper that USC would apply for readmission prior to the ACC’s winter meeting February 10-12 in Greensboro. However, in a follow-up article in The Gamecock, Patterson reversed field, noting, “enthusiasm had begun to wane for us getting back into the ACC.” Patterson went on to state that although the matter would not be taken up during the ACC’s February meetings, the possibility remained that it would be addressed during meetings in May, by which time the ACC’s expansion committee would have made a determination on its plans. “We are not going to submit a formal application until we can see what definite plans the ACC has for expansion, Patterson said.
By April, it had become painfully obvious that ACC re-entry for South Carolina would be a long shot. In an April 8, 1976 Associated Press article, a number of conference athletic directors gave tepid commentary on the topic of expansion in general, and South Carolina in particular. USC, or any school, would need affirmative votes from five of the seven schools to attain ACC membership. By this time, both South Carolina and Virginia Tech had expressed strong interest in joining the league. East Carolina University, too, in an effort to bolster its athletic profile, had announced plans to leave the Southern Conference and apply for admission in the ACC. While South Carolina received support from Clemson and N.C. State, and Virginia Tech received support from Virginia, other member schools demurred.
“We have no burning desire for expansion,” Wake Forest’s Gene Hooks was quoted as saying. “I believe the membership is satisfied right now with seven (members), said Bill Cobey of North Carolina. Jim Kehoe of Maryland expressed a desire for better “geographic balance” within the league, which would make entry from any North or South Carolina school a non-starter in his perspective. Duke’s Carl James noted concerns with further diluting distribution of coveted ACC Basketball Tournament tickets by the addition of an eighth member. Notably, James mentioned that Georgia Tech would be “a better addition than any other school.”
Indeed, on May 19, 1976, during their meeting in Myrtle Beach, ACC athletic directors established criteria for any school seeking entry into the ACC. While specifics were not released immediately, ACC officials were clear that entry into the league would require an “equity payment,” in addition to meeting other criteria both academic and athletic. Said Commissioner James, “Quite frankly, the terms we set for admission might not be acceptable to certain schools seeking admission.”
Indeed, South Carolina did find those terms a non-starter. The substantial equity payment, which was as high as $400,000 (1.5 million), was viewed as a particularly ungracious approach. Other perceived slights included a questionnaire sent to USC President Patterson, which included generic questions about USC’s student enrollment, sports programs and the City of Columbia. Five years removed from its status as a founding member of the ACC, many at South Carolina found this galling.
This period also marked the nadir of political and institutional stability within the athletic department. Following Paul Dietzel’s resignation as head football coach and athletic director in 1974, the board of trustees expressed its intention to separate those two posts. At the same time, supporters of Frank McGuire lobbied the board to hire him as athletic director. In an effort to maneuver around the delicate egos within the athletic department, the board created a tangled web of administration, in which President Patterson essentially functioned as athletic director. New head football coach Carlen and McGuire were named associate athletic directors, and were given total control over their programs. Harold “Bo” Hagen, a department administrator and Gamecock football letterman, was given the official title of athletic director, although he had no authority over football or basketball – only the “minor” or non-revenue sports. It was this unorthodox arrangement with no strong AD to unify the department, which sowed unprecedented dysfunction. Carolina had created a three-headed administrative monster. Relations between Carlen and McGuire eventually deteriorated to the point where the two men did not speak.
Adding to the general dysfunction was a Board of Trustees with members sharply divided along pro-ACC and anti-ACC ideologies. Students and fans were divided as well, with Carlen backers and McGuire backers firmly entrenched respectively in “for” or “against” camps. Ultimately, the anti-ACC faction within the board won out. Their obstinacy was bolstered to a large degree by the by the ungracious approach of the ACC, which served to open old wounds. Board Chairman T. Eston Marchant lamented that his “greatest mistake” was allowing Dietzel to lead the University out of the ACC. He believed the split had hurt USC’s reputation, and the chaotic environment within the athletic department made that point inarguable.
Despite sporadic revivals of ACC talk in the media and among fans, any hope of membership had all but evaporated by the late 1970s. When Georgia Tech joined the ACC in 1978, bringing with it the burgeoning Atlanta television market, the ACC soon signed a lucrative media contract which guaranteed each school $1.5 million annually. Whatever marginal support USC may have enjoyed within the ACC all but evaporated, as member institutions did not wish to dilute that money. Carolina found itself tossed about in a sea of institutional and administrative upheaval, a once proud basketball program on the decline, and with no safe (or acceptable) port in sight.
Friends Come And Go, But Enemies Accumulate
Despite the Board of Trustees stated intentions to separate the positions of head football coach and athletic director, politics still held sway. By 1976, in an effort to streamline the bewildering complex of athletic administration, the board named Carlen athletic director, giving him control over all sports except the basketball program. McGuire kept his associate athletic director title and control over basketball. Bo Hagan’s responsibilities shifted from the athletic department to the newly formed alumni association. Streamlined, yes. Simplified, no. The new arrangement still left the University president in charge of coordinating the athletic program and managing the egos of both Carlen and McGuire.
By this time, McGuire’s relations with Sol Blott, Sr. and Jr. – onetime McGuire allies – had soured. Though the Blatts were no longer Speaker of the House or on the Board of Trustees, respectively, they still maintained an outsized influence over University affairs generally and Gamecock athletics specifically. The Blatts had aligned themselves with Carlen, compounding the deleterious effects of a declining basketball program and waning attendance. Though still wildly popular and influential with fans and students, McGuire’s stock had declined significantly with the power brokers at USC, and it seemed his days as basketball headman were numbered. Dislodging McGuire, however, would fall to a new president.
When James B. Holderman was appointed University president in 1977, he publicly proposed that McGuire’s duties as basketball coach would cease following the 1977-78 season. Holderman further proposed that McGuire would assume the position of athletic director for the University’s branch campuses, with headquarters on the campus of USC-Coastal in Conway. McGuire roundly rejected the proposal, stating that he only wanted to coach basketball, and proposing that he be allowed to complete his contract which expired following the 1979-80 season. Media and the student body ardently supported McGuire, and the optics were not good for Holderman. Amid rising pressure, Holderman retracted his proposal.
In short order, Holderman and the Board of Trustees tried to oust McGuire once again by enforcing a newly changed retirement age, which the board had recently lowered from 70 to 65. This would force McGuire out after the ’78 campaign. Once again, fans and the media rallied with highly vocal support for McGuire and condemnation for Holderman and the board. Several faculty members challenged the legality of the new retirement rule in court. Stinging from criticism and still working to establish credibility as president, Holderman discovered truth in the old adage that there is rarely an education in the second kick of a mule. He would not risk a third. McGuire would be allowed to coach the final two seasons of his contract.
Controversy would continue to trouble the athletic department and Holderman’s fledgling presidency over the next year. When Holderman appointed James A. Morris, a former dean of the College of Business Administration at USC and one time vice president of the ACC, to the newly created position of vice president of athletic affairs, the move initially seemed a stroke of genius. Morris could take the burden of athletic department oversight off of Holderman’s full plate and bring some stability to the scene. Morris was also a McGuire ally who would bring balance to Carlen’s growing power and influence in athletic affairs.
The move backfired when Carlen hired an attorney and threatened legal action over a breach of his contract, as he felt his powers of administration were being usurped. The Gamecock Club, led by USC football letterman Ed Pitts, sided with Carlen and publicly disputed Morris’ authority over its considerable funds, even threatening to sue the University. Morris eventually resigned, and the position of vice president for athletic affairs was allowed to lapse, handing Carlen a significant victory. In the midst of this, the University suffered yet another embarrassment when the State Law Enforcement Division began an investigation into alleged misappropriation of $95,000 ($385,000 adjusted) in concession funds by the athletic department.
Holderman found his presidency increasingly threatened by the chaos and even corruption within the athletic department. In a few months on the job, he had alienated both Carlen and McGuire, as well as Gamecock Club leaders, fans and the student body.
Carlen and McGuire continued their entrenchment, each working to solidify his power and influence within the University and among fans. Carlen donated $200,000 ($810,000 adjusted) of athletic department profits to the University’s academic funds. Later, wealthy supporters threw a lavish roast for Carlen, attended by Vice President Gerald Ford. McGuire, meanwhile, held a VIP cocktail party for influential boosters, and wealthy Tip-off Club and Gamecock Club members following the final Carolina Classic basketball tournament in 1978. Before one home game, fans were asked to wear green if they supported McGuire, and the Coliseum was awash in verdant hues. USC athletics had become a garish, partisan spectacle.
The Board of Trustees determined that if South Carolina ever had a chance of joining an all-sports conference, it would have to set the University’s athletic house in order. The Board developed a two-pronged approach, which included permanently separating the positions of head football coach and athletic director, and convincing Frank McGuire to step down. Setting the plan in motion, the board informed Carlen that his contract as USC athletic director would not be renewed at expiration in 1982. McGuire, meanwhile, eventually agreed to step down following the 1979-80 season, and received a settlement of $400,000 ($1.6 million).
These moves resulted in predictable backlash by Carlen, who gave a blistering interview in the September 17, 1979 issue of Sports Illustrated, where he criticized the board as “foolish,” and portrayed Holderman as “this little ole president we have,” who, rather than expressing gratitude for the $200,000 athletic department donation, simply asked if he could expect that every year. Likewise, McGuire backers protested loudly at his ouster. Players threatened to quit. Nearly 500 students gathered on the Horseshoe in front of the President’s House to protest the decision. But McGuire had agreed to the deal, and the board had reached an important, if clumsily executed achievement.
With McGuire’s exit determined, and Carlen’s athletic directorship due to expire at the end of his contract in 1982, it appeared that Carolina’s path was set for a move to a unified athletic department. Though the Board of Trustees would succumb to political pressure from Carlen backers and extend his athletic director and head football coach contracts to 1986 following consecutive eight-win seasons in 1979 and 1980, it would ultimately return to its stated intention of separating those two posts. Following a disappointing 6-6 campaign in 1981, which ended with three straight losses, including a 23-21 defeat at home to lowly Pacific, the board found the impetus it needed to oust Carlen. After a dismal 33-10 defeat in the season’s final game at Aloha Stadium against Hawaii, rumors swirled about Carlen’s future. On Friday, December 11, the Board of Trustees met in a contentious hours-long meeting, during which they voted “overwhelmingly” to fire Carlen. Holderman communicated the decision to Carlen by telephone that evening. The board declined comment on the reasons for the decision, but few were surprised, given Carlen’s combative relationship with President Holderman, the board, some prominent Gamecock boosters and local media.
On January 2, 1982, USC introduced its new athletic director, Bob Marcum, who formerly held the same position at the University of Kansas. Marcum’s arrival marked the first time in 20 years the athletic director was someone other than the head football coach. Rex Enright served as athletic director after turning over football duties to Warren Giese in the 1950s. When Enright passed away, Giese took on both positions. He continued to serve as AD for one year after the arrival of new football coach Marvin Bass, but in 1962 the two positions were combined again under Bass, and the jobs had remained combined over the next two decades under Bass, then Dietzel, and finally Carlen. As college athletics became big business over that twenty-year period, nearly all Division I universities had long since moved to a strong athletic director format. USC’s athletic department had suffered for its failure to evolve, and progress had been stymied by a lack of accountability and a toxic cult of personality.
That failure was most glaring when Dietzel led the charge to pull USC out of the Atlantic Coast Conference over football-related concerns. But the instability and dysfunction had only worsened in the intervening years. Marcum’s hiring marked a positive change of direction. The State’s Herman Helms wrote that Marcum’s hiring would mark an end to a system, which had “…caused so much divisiveness. Coaches will no longer wage a contest for the AD post and control over other coaches. Coaches will coach and administrators will administrate. USC will be one school again, a whole institution, and that’s worth cheering about.” Indeed, Marcum’s first order of business would be to hire a new head football coach not named Bob Marcum. A new day had dawned at USC.
Aside from the search for a head football coach, the new AD soon turned his attention to the matter of conference affiliation. He noted in an early press conference the obvious benefits of affiliation with a strong conference, and his positive experience with the Big Eight as Kansas AD certainly would have guided his thinking. After hiring former Carlen top assistant Richard Bell to coach the football team, Marcum would spend a good portion of the next two years exploring conference possibilities.
New Leadership, NCAA Snub Propel USC Toward Metro
Almost as soon as McGuire announced his retirement at USC, rumors connected Duke’s Bill Foster to the South Carolina job. Foster, a Pennsylvania native, had established a name for himself as a builder of programs during stints at Bloomsburg State, Rutgers, Utah and then Duke. South Carolina’s program needed rebuilding, and Foster soon became its number one target.
Foster’s credentials were sparkling. One of the most respected coaches in all of College Basketball, he had served as president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 1975-76, and in 1978, guided his Blue Devils team to the National Final, before losing in the championship game to Kentucky. Foster masterfully rebuilt a proud Duke program that had suffered a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the post Vic Bubas era, compiling a pedestrian 73-61 record under Bucky Waters and Neill McGeachy, including a 10-16 record in McGeachy’s lone season.
Foster came to Duke in 1974, following a successful three-year stint at Utah, including a 22-9 record in 1973-74 and a runner-up finish in that season’s National Invitational Tournament. He quickly set about rebuilding Duke’s fortunes. Following three rebuilding seasons which hovered around the .500 mark, Foster’s Blue Devils broke out in 1977-78 with a 27-7 record, including a second-place regular-season finish in the ACC, an ACC Tournament championship, and a surprising run to the NCAA Tournament final. Foster saw continued success over the next two seasons, his Duke teams hovering at or near No. 1 in the weekly rankings for portions of both seasons. Foster’s Blue Devils won a share of the regular-season ACC Championship in 1978-79, and made it to the second round of that season’s NCAA Tournament, finishing with a 28-8 overall record. His 1979-80 team finished a disappointing 7-7 in ACC play, but went 24-9 overall, winning the ACC Tournament and making it to the Elite Eight in NCAA Tournament play.
Despite Foster’s success at Duke, he felt increasingly frustrated and out of his element in Durham. There were perceived slights by Duke athletic director Tom Butters, which included failure to pave the coaches parking lot behind Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the frustration of being overshadowed by UNC’s Dean Smith, who had become something of a deity in North Carolina since taking over for Frank McGuire in 1961. There was also a general unease – a sense that he did not fit in culturally at the school and was not appreciated by the Duke people – that they perhaps thought he was lucky to be at such a prestigious institution, given his Elizabethtown College (PA) pedigree.
By his sixth and final season in Durham, with South Carolina rumors swirling and criticism mounting as ACC losses accumulated, Foster had become reclusive, speaking infrequently to reporters and refusing to address the South Carolina rumors, which only added to the speculation. By the end of the regular season, Foster had reached a verbal agreement with South Carolina, becoming Jim Carlen’s final hire as USC athletic director. The deal done, Foster’s Duke team played angry during the ACC Tournament and went on an improbable tear, beating NC State, UNC and Maryland to win the ACC Tournament and wrap up an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Twenty-four hours after beating Maryland for the ACC Championship, Foster found himself at The Roost athletic dorm in Columbia, standing alongside AD Carlen and University President Holderman at a press conference, where he was introduced as the new Head Basketball Coach at the University of South Carolina. He had tendered his resignation to Duke AD Butters effective at the end of NCAA Tournament play. Following an emotional third round loss to Purdue, Foster’s Duke tenure ended and his South Carolina tenure began. Ten days later, Duke would hire a 33-year old Bobby Knight protégé named Krzyzewski.
Foster called rebuilding the USC program “maybe my biggest challenge” during his introductory press conference on November 3, 1980. It would prove to be challenging indeed, though there were early signs Foster would work his rebuilding magic at South Carolina just as he had in his previous stops. He inherited four returning players from McGuire’s final squad, three of whom would figure prominently in Foster’s first Gamecock team – rising seniors Zam Fredrick and Kevin Dunleavy, and rising sophomore Kevin Darmody. A fourth returnee was an academic casualty. Foster quipped upon seeing the numbers, “it takes at least five to play.”
So, the new head coach and his assistants, Bob Wenzel, Ray Jones and Steve Steinwedel, all of whom had followed Foster from Duke, hit the recruiting trail quickly. Foster and staff signed six freshmen and one junior college transfer, and added three “run-ons,” Foster’s spin on the traditional “walk-on”. The incoming freshmen included Jimmy Foster (no relation) – a scrappy 6’8” power forward from Greenville, South Carolina; 6’8” forward Brad Jergenson from Manitowoc, Wisconsin; 6-5 shooting forward Kenny Holmes from Savannah, Georgia; and 6’3” guard Scott Sanderson of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (son of University of Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson). Joining this talented group of freshmen was 6’0” point guard Gerald Peacock, a junior transfer from Brevard Junior College in Florida. These five newcomers plus the returning nucleus of Fredrick, Dunleavy and Darmody played the lion’s share of minutes in 1980-81.
Foster’s first USC team far exceeded expectations, winning 17 of 24 games after an 0-3 start to finish a respectable 17-10. The season was highlighted by wins over Texas, Florida State, Penn State, and a thrilling two-point win in Milwaukee versus high-powered Marquette in a nationally televised game.
Throughout the season, and particularly over the final 13-game stretch, senior Zam Fredrick distinguished himself as a prolific scorer. He finished the season with a 28.9 ppg average to take the national scoring championship. He secured that title with a 43-point performance in a season-ending home win versus Georgia Southern. Fredrick had been mostly a role player under McGuire, but flourished in Foster’s system.
Another pleasant surprise was hard-nosed rebound machine Jimmy Foster, a promising prospect, who had been out of organized basketball for two years prior to signing with the Gamecocks. The rationale for Foster’s missing senior season at Wade Hampton High School was described as “personal reasons.” It would not be the last basketball he would miss, or the end of his personal struggles. Foster was a blue-collar scrapper who quickly became a fan favorite for his all-out, aggressive style of play. He started 26 of 27 games, led USC in rebounding, and was second on the squad in scoring behind Fredrick.
Disappointingly, the 1980-81 Gamecocks did not receive an NIT bid, but the new coach and his young squad had brought a new energy back to the Gamecock program, and notched the program’s 15th consecutive winning season.
The 1981-82 Gamecocks would be a disappointment. Foster’s second team was still one of the younger squads in the country, with five incoming freshmen, five sophomores and only two juniors who would log significant minutes. There were no seniors. The Gamecocks missed the firepower of Fredrick, who by then was playing professionally in Europe. Top returning scorer and rebounder Jimmy Foster was also missing during the season’s first eight games, a period which saw the Gamecocks go 3-5, including ugly losses to Chaminade and Hawaii during a week-long junket in which the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the football team all traveled to Honolulu for sightseeing and competition.
USC finished 14-15, the program’s first losing season since 1966. Despite that outcome, the Gamecocks finished on a strong note, winning their final three contests, versus Florida State in Tallahassee, The Citadel and a talented UNLV team in Columbia. The encouraging finish, plus the return of Foster’s entire roster bode well for his third season in 1982-83.
Foster’s third season in Columbia marked the 75th season of varsity competition for USC basketball. It would be a season of milestones, dramatic wins, and a serious health scare for Foster, which sidelined him for 17 games. Following a dramatic six-point win versus 15th ranked Purdue in early December, Foster was taken to the hospital after collapsing in the locker room. He was diagnosed with a “moderate” heart attack and underwent quadruple coronary by-pass surgery four days later. Assistant Coach Steinwedel took charge of the team in Foster’s absence, and coached USC to 12 wins and 5 losses. The Gamecocks notched a win over a strong Vanderbilt team, and a split in two games with Clemson during this stretch, as well as an eight-point win against Georgia Tech, spoiling Coach Bobby Cremins’ highly emotional homecoming.
Foster returned to the bench for a game versus Holy Cross on February 19, and led the inspired Gamecocks to a lopsided win, as well as four wins in their last five regular season games, including thrilling final-second wins versus power programs Marquette and DePaul. The Gamecocks finished with 20 wins for the first time in nine seasons, and had high hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Despite a solid resume, the Gamecocks were on the outside looking in when NCAA bids were awarded, and settled for an NIT bid. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Coach Foster and his team, as well as new Athletic Director Bob Marcum, and highlighted the need for conference affiliation. USC’s twelve seasons of Major Independent status had produced a frustrating array of troubles for both McGuire and Foster. A vast majority of colleges across the country were members of conferences and focused their efforts primarily on conference play, which created increased difficulty in scheduling quality opponents. Sub-par schedules with little to no regional interest led in turn to decreased ticket sales and attendance.
To complicate matters, the NCAA had also begun shifting from awarding post-season bids to Independent programs with comparable records to conference-affiliated teams. There was also the promise of an automatic bid with a conference tournament championship, a goal to which Independent teams could not aspire. North Carolina State, the eventual winner of that season’s national championship had ended their regular season a pedestrian 17-10, but achieved an automatic bid after an improbable run and championship in the ACC Tournament. The Wolfpack entered NCAA play with an identical win total to South Carolina’s regular season 20 wins.
Another factor had entered the equation by the early 1980s – television contracts. The ACC had just inked a lucrative new contract for its television games with Raycom Sports, guaranteeing each of its members $1.6 million ($4 million) in television revenue from basketball during the 1982-83 season. Other conferences were negotiating similar deals. There was no such financial opportunity for Major Independent schools.
The Gamecocks achieved two wins in that season’s NIT, versus Old Dominion and Virginia Tech, both played before home crowds in Columbia. The third round game was a disappointing, lopsided loss on the road to former ACC foe, Wake Forest, which left the Gamecocks one win shy of a semifinal trip to Madison Square Garden. It would prove to be the final contest for USC as a Major Independent.
Just two weeks later the USC Board of Trustees accepted an invitation from the Metro Conference, becoming its eighth member. Athletic Director Marcum moved decisively to guide USC toward the Metro in the days following the basketball team’s failure to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. It had become increasingly clear that Major Independent status was a unsustainable model in the modern world of collegiate athletics. With more appealing “all-sports” options in the ACC and SEC closed for the time being, the Metro proved to be the best, and for all practical purposes, the only option for South Carolina in 1983. The timing allowed Gamecock men’s and women’s basketball teams and baseball team among others, to begin conference competition with the 1983-84 academic year. The football team, meanwhile, would retain its Independent status.
South Carolina had now taken major steps toward putting its athletic affairs in order, in the hiring of a strong athletic director, and gaining conference membership within the Metro. Coaches McGuire and Carlen had also departed, taking with them the poisonous and partisan atmosphere, which destabilized the University’s athletic affairs and kept USC from Metro affiliation in 1979. These events, while producing mixed results in the win-loss column, cumulatively provided the stability and respectability the athletic department and University sorely needed. Moreover, they set USC along the path toward bigger and better things.