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.

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photo courtesy of the University of South Carolina

 

 

 

 

 

Dad

My Dad has played many roles in his life. Father, husband, brother, uncle and son. Navy seaman, Army officer, successful businessman, civic leader, Sunday school teacher, coach and pilot. He has been a mentor and a friend and at times when I needed it, a disciplinarian. From him I inherited a deep and abiding love of the South, of Gamecock sports and of all things old and dusty and historical.

He passed on his great love of music – everything from Bluegrass to the Blues Brothers, from the Temptations to Hank Williams, Stevie Wonder to Bill Monroe and Electric Light Orchestra to Johnny Cash. My sister and I laugh often about him dancing in the middle of our living room, circa mid 80’s, to Cameo’s “Word Up” – stereo cranked, head down, fists pumping, and showing impressive rhythm for a man descended from East Tennessee hill people. These impromptu jigs always seemed to occur as he was dressing for work or changing clothes after, which often resulted in an underwear and business socks ensemble, as if he was possessed by a sudden urge to boogie much too powerful for attention to menial details – like pants. He was a strange amalgam of pale Cliff Huxtable and Tom Cruise in “Risky Business”, but he taught us not to take ourselves too seriously, to be open to the joy of music and to embrace our inner James Brown on occasion.

When I was in second grade he held me out of class one morning and drove me out to Owens Field, the municipal airport in Columbia, where he took me flying in a rented Cessna 150. We flew over Williams-Brice Stadium and the buildings of downtown and out towards Northeast Columbia where we lived. We banked right over my school, Windsor Elementary and our house nearby on Weybourne Way. It was magical to see those things from high in the air – to have that expanded perspective. It was both comforting and impressive to see him confidently at the controls and talking with the tower in that mysterious and phonetic staccato of pilot-speak over the crackling and ancient Cessna radio. Later we had lunch together and he dropped me back off at class just in time for “show and tell” where I told proudly – breathlessly – about my awesome pilot-Dad and our early morning recon at 3,000 feet over the Capital City. And it just doesn’t get much better than that for a second grader.

We attended countless basketball games at the old Frank McGuire Arena and there was no better place to be on a cold winter evening than the cozy confines of “The Frank”. And even though Gamecock hoops was not what it was in McGuire’s glory days, we were not too many years removed and you could still feel the presence of those great teams. The building was equal parts arena and shrine.

We would park on Assembly Street or Main just south of the Capital building and he would hold my hand in those early years as we walked through the tunnel under Assembly to the Coliseum. The aroma of fresh popcorn would greet us as we walked through the doors and handed our tickets to the familiar and welcoming doormen in their garnet blazers. The the squeak of high top sneakers on the old tartan floor and Gene McKay’s voice over the PA system rang in our ears as we found our seats before tipoff. The pep band would fire up “Step to the Rear” and “Go Carolina” and the retired jerseys of Roach and English and Owens and Wallace hung proudly from the massive rafters above. We pondered the history of that building, the “House that Frank built”, and there was an electricity there – a soul – that I have never experienced in another arena. And on those special nights when all 12,401 seats were filled and the team played well and the crowd was especially rowdy, I was as happy as any boy has ever been.

Every so often after a game we’d cross over the Gervais Street Bridge into neighboring Cayce and I would peak down at the moon splashed Congaree River flowing purposely below us. We would pick up donuts at the Krispy Kreme on Knox Abbott Drive, back when it was still very much a regional brand, known mostly in the Carolinas. On the way home we would always listen to the incomparable Bob Fulton conduct his post game show on AM 560, and he would delve into the stats and interview Coach Bill Foster and provide commentary. I savored that time in the dark of his car as we made our way along Assembly and Bull Streets and I-277 back towards home, not wanting it to end.

We watched George Rogers’ electrifying run to the Heisman in 1980 and Zam Frederick take the National Scoring Championship later that year in basketball. We watched baseball games at the old Sarge Frye Field and took pride in that powerhouse program some twenty-five years before Ray Tanner’s magical National Championship squads. We took in road football games in those pre-SEC years at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest and NC State – lingering rivalries from the ACC days. I was obsessed as only a young boy can be with sports and Dad indulged that obsession and shared in it as well.

Later, during the searching and sometimes reckless years of my early 20’s, he held me close through our long-established bond over Carolina sports. And even when we could think of nothing else to talk about we could talk about that. Even now it is a rarity when we don’t talk by phone after games to celebrate or commiserate.

He stood up for me at my first wedding and then provided much needed counsel and hard-earned wisdom during the difficult process when that union failed. He has been a travel companion and a sounding board and a steadfast advocate throughout.

It astounds me when I consider that his father died when he was a mere baby – three months old and living in Erwin, TN. All of his “Dad skills” came through on the job training. He was a quick study and embraced that role with the fiery passion of one determined to provide a better life. He has certainly succeeded in that.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Love you, man.

Dad & me

August – the longest month

Is it just me, or does August seem way, way longer than 31 days? For the college football fan, not to mention those longing for the cool, crisp days of Autumn, it sure seems like it. I’m not one to wish my life away, and I am thankful for each day here on this Earth, but c’mon already – is it really just the 15th??

As I sit here waiting out a late summer thunderstorm (much yard work to do), I figured I would take a best case/worst case scenario glance at the 2012 Gamecock football schedule. After a long summer of sickening news from Happy Valley, recruiting scandals and  ominous developments out of Chapel Hill, I’m counting the days to kickoff – two weeks from tomorrow.

So, here goes:

Game Best Worst Comments
8/30 @ Vandy W L Dores will be much improved
9/8 vs. East Carolina W W Gamecocks sink Pirates
9/15 vs. UAB W W A long drive back down I-20 for the Blazers
9/22 vs. Mizzou W L Missouri’s first SEC road game
9/29 @ Kentucky W W No repeat of 2010 here
10/6 vs. Georgia W L Always hard fought, always low scoring
10/13 @ LSU L L At night in Baton Rouge – must play mistake-free to win
10/20 @ Florida W L A brutal October continues – this ain’t the ACC folks
10/29 vs. Tennessee W W Still not the UT of old
11/10 vs. Arkansas W W Hogs’ recent dominance ends in Columbia
11/17 vs. Wofford W W Terriers keep it close for a half
11/24 @ Clemson W L The Palmetto Bowl – Dabo has much to prove

Under the best case scenario (11-1), Carolina gets another shot at LSU at the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. The winner of that game will play for the National Championship.

The worst case scenario (6-6) is truly unthinkable and would have to be considered a catastrophic failure for a team this loaded with talent. The Gamecocks have a troubling, well-documented history of coming out flat the year after a big season, which 2011 certainly was, with the school’s first ever 11 win season. I don’t see history repeating itself  in 2012. Too much talent, too good a coaching staff and a totally different program than in the past.

Well friends, the rain has ended and I have work to do. Until kickoff, I’ll leave you with a little pigskin poetry which appeared in a 1903 edition of The Garnet and Black – then the USC yearbook and now a periodical published by the University. I love this…

The Greatest Game 

The gridirons are deserted now, and gone the season’s strife,

But the game for us has just begun on the football field of life.

Never an intermission there the weary ones shall know,

Nor a time out call for the men that fall, nor the blessed whistle blow.

Never a sub can take your place, and never a man must yield,

For the game is o’er forevermore for the men who leave the field.

Perhaps the world shall see you win, and the pennants wave for you,

And your feet will tear the trampled turf, as you drive the touchdowns through.

Or perhaps upon your very goal the plunging bodies meet,

And the dusty lime of the last white line is crushed beneath your feet.

Perhaps the twilight wind is cold, and the goalpost shadows long,

And the victors swarm upon the field to chant their triumph song.

But if you play the losing game as but a hero can,

The men that buck your line will know the played against a MAN.

W.W. Stephens

Class of 1903

 Go Cocks! 

The rise and fall of Gamecock Basketball – Part II

This article is reprinted from a lengthy discussion of Carolina Basketball on a fan chat site. I do not know the identity of the author, so I cannot give him/her proper credit now. However, I do feel that whomever wrote it, perfectly captured the history and missteps of the program and administrators over the past 40 years. It reads like a Greek Tragedy.

The article was written prior to the firing of Coach Darrin Horn and the subsequent hiring of Coach Frank Martin. What follows is not my own work, with the exception of a brief afterward.

You hear it said so often among Gamecock fans that its now practically a cliche – “We’re a football and baseball school. No one cares about basketball at South Carolina.”

I’d wager that a fair number of you have said it; many of you may well even believe it.

But it wasn’t always this way. South Carolina once possessed an elite basketball program. If you had told a USC fan in 1972 that, within forty short years, most Gamecock fans wouldn’t care about men’s hoops – or that in 2012, Carolina fans would be infinitely more concerned about the baseball diamond than the hardwood – our 1972 counterparts simply wouldn’t have believed you. They couldn’t have believed you. You would have been laughed at.

And they would still have laughed at you in 1982. And in 1992. And in 2002.

Football may be King at Carolina, the last generation of Gamecock fans might have conceded, but USC basketball was important, they would argue. A distant third in the hierarchy of fan devotion? No way! More people attending Carolina baseball games than hoops? Out of the question! A dead arena and the worst program in the league – so far down the conference totem pole that even our most mediocre rivals stand head and shoulders above us? Impossible.

Yet, that’s where we find ourselves in 2012.  The Colonial Life Arena has become a mausoleum – less than a quarter full on game day (except when Kentucky comes to town of course – then it becomes Rupp Arena Annex).

It’s all such a far cry from 1970-71, when Carolina had a 25-3 team which won the ACC Tournament Championship, or 1971-72 when we went 24-5 and were eliminated in the regional semi-finals by a UNC team that would go onto the Final Four. Or the next year, 1972-73, when we finished 22-7, only t o be bounced again in the Sweet 16 by the eventual tournament runner-up, Memphis State.

So what happened? How did we progress from an elite program to a laughingstock? It wasn’t any one thing, but a death by 1,000 cuts. And here is a timeline of the worst cuts of all.

1971: South Carolina resigns from the ACC following years of open hostility from Duke and North Carolina, which had culminated in a blatant and heavy-handed change in league admissions requirements specifically designed to curb USC on both the hardwood and gridiron. Ultimately the courts would overturn the worst of these Tobacco Road abuses, but we lost our collective cool and left in a huff- primarily led by football coach Paul Dietzel. Most thought it was a temporary protest – after all, we were one of the charter members of the ACC and had traditional ACC rivalries dating back to the 1890’s. The untintended result, however, was a twenty year sojourn through the wilderness of independent and/or small conference play while the ACC enjoyed a golden age during that same time period. Had we held our nose and stayed in the ACC, there is a good chance McGuire would stil have been able to work his NYC recruiting magic for the rest of the 70’s, and we would have attracted better players and coaches in the future.

1975:  South Carolina hires Jim Carlen as football coach. Why would a football hire impact our basketball team, you might ask? The reason was that Carlen had been promised full control over all USC sports in his capacity as head football coach and athletic director. Unfortunately, this put Coach Carlen into direct and immediate conflict with Coach McGuire, since McGuire ran all basketball operations. The divided athletic department and the lack of an independent athletic director would make Carlen and McGuire’s relationship adversarial rather than collegial. The two men were rivals for political and fan support, and each had different agendas. This state of affairs would weaken both programs, but particularly basketball. Had we had a unified athletic department and a fully independent, strong athletic director, we would have avoided the debilitating political infighting that plagued South Carolina athletics for five ugly years from 1975-1980, and likely would have rejoined the ACC in 1976.

1976: Secret negotiations between the ACC and South Carolina break down when the ACC demands a hefty “re-entry” fee. McGuire supported re-entry because our basketball fortunes had slipped rapidly in the years following our departure. Carlen, however, opposed re-entry because the football team was enjoying on the field success – and accompanying financial rewards – playing as an independent; Carlent felt returning to the ACC would have had a negative financial impact without any upside in terms of competition. Eventually, a divided Board of Trustees, combined with the ACC’s ungracious demand for a substantial cash payment, all contributed to deny us a détente with our former conference mates. Eventually we would join the Metro Conference, but that was small potatoes compared to the ACC glory days we forfeited. Had we been able to return to the ACC, we could have reversed the mistake of 1971.

1977: USC hires James Holderman as its new president. Holderman was in many respects a visionary with amazing political and fundraising skills, but he was also a deeply flawed and narcissistic individual. One of the many causes he adopted – and ultimately botched – was his decision to back Carlen against McGuire. With the support of influential politicians and BOT members, Holderman publicly tried to oust Frank McGuire by offering him the athletic directorship of the Coastal Carolina satellite campus in Conway. McGuire – who was under contract – refused to budge. Holderman backed the wrong horse. Carlen would be unable to sustain success, but had McGuire had the full support of the administration, it likely would have allowed him to focus on returning the hoops team back to the glory years of the late 60’s and early 70’s before the slide became irreversible.

1978: Having been compelled to backtrack the year before, Holderman and his political allies make a second attempt to depose McGuire by trying to force him into mandatory retirement. This ploy also failed, but more irreversible damage was done. On a national level, we had signaled to the sports world that the administration would not support its legendary coach; not only that, but we also signaled that politicians and board members were allowed free rein to meddle and micro-manage the basketball program. Finally, the fan base had to divide between McGuire and Carlen supporters. Distracted and under assault, McGuire’s last three teams struggled to mediocre records and no NCAA appearances. It could have been different if McGuire had received the same level of unconditional support from the administration which he received from the fans. To make matters worse, Carlen became openly insubordinate and hostile to Holderman. The situation was intolerable.

1980: Having finally wrested control of the athletic department from Carlen, Holderman and the BOT were finally able to buy out McGuire by agreeing to pay the (then) insanely high amount of $400,000. In an ironic twist, USC hired former Duke coach Bill Foster to revive our flagging program. On paper, Foster looked like an inspired hire. He had enjoyed success in Durham, arriving there in ’74 to revive a team that had slipped from the Vic Buba glory days; after three lean years, he was able to recruit talent to Duke (most notably Mike Gminski) and the Blue Devils rolled through the ’78 NCAA tournament – reaching the championship game (where they lost to Kentucky). Foster also led the Blue Devils to the NCAA’s in ’79 and ’80. Hving coached in between Duke legends Bubas and Mike Krzyzewski, Foster is largely forgotten by most ordinary Blue Devil fans, but the ones in the know credit him for reviving a program that was wallowing in mediocrity and paving the way for Krzyzewski. Unfortunately for Carolina, Foster was in poor cardiac health. The other knock on Foster was that he could build a team, but not a program. In spite of his pedigree, he never could duplicate his Duke success at South Carolina – compiling a mediocre 92-79 record over six seasons, and going 12-16 (2-10) in his final season. Foster suffered a heart attack in ’82 – his only season with post-season play (NIT) – and never was able to get any traction in Columbia. Would things have worked out differently if, instead of Foster, we had gone after a young up-and-coming Northeastern coach? What if we had tried to hire Krzyzewski from Army? Or Rick Pinino from Boston University? Or Jim Valvano of Iona? Each of them was positioned to make a move around this time; you would like to think any of those three would have jumped at South Carolina only a few years removed from McGuire’s glory days. Instead, we went for the safe hire (Foster) without appreciating his poor health. By 1986, the program was no longer elite and Foster was forced out after a poor year, not to mention recruiting violations and a scandal involving the sale of complimentary tickets, which got us on NCAA probation.

1986: When we finally went after a young coach, we landed George Felton. It’s hard to find fault with the hire – Felton was a USC grad and Letterman – one of McGuire’s boys. He was one of Bobby Cremin’s top young assistants at Georgia Tech – at a time when the Yellow Jackets were a perennial ACC contender. He put together a stellar assistant staff, including Tubby Smith (who you know of course) and Eddie Payne (who now coaches USC-Upstate), and recruited some amazing talent like Brent Price, Jo Jo English, the Dozier brothers and Jamie Watson. There were other, young, talented coaches who probably could have been lured to South Carolina in ’86 – notably Rick Pitino (then at Providence), Eddie Fogler (one of Dean Smith’s assistants at UNC) and Roy Williams (another UNC assistant). But hindsight is 20/20 and we put our eggs in Felton’s basket. When Felton was fired in May of 1991, it was like a bolt from the blue to most USC fans – he had gone 20-13 that year and had made the post-season (NIT).  Athletic Director King Dixon refused to explain why he had terminated Felton. Rumors soon circulated that Felton’s drinking had caused a rift between he and Dixon; Felton’s DUI arrest not long after his termination (for which he was exonerated) added to that speculation. Whether the rumors were true or not have never been substantiated, but we all believed them at the time and many are adamant about them to this day. As far as the University was concerned, Felton’s contract was up in 1991 and that was that. In the end, does it really matter? Felton went 87-62 during his tenure, making the NCAA’s in 1989 (first round loss to NC State) and the NIT in 1991. Hardly a return to the glory days. We were now firmly a mediocre program – some 20 years removed from McGuire’s heyday.

1991: Would South Carolina’s basketball history have been different if we had hired Fogler, Williams or Pitino in ’86 instead of Felton? How could it not have been? By the time Felton was terminated in ’91, Pitino and Williams were entrenched at UK and KU respectively, and Fogler was at Vanderbilt. One would have thought it would be an easy trick to replace Felton quickly – after all, South Carolina had inked a deal to join the SEC and would commence league play during the 1991-92 season. Unfortunately, what happened was a complete debacle. Fogler turned us down. Larry Brown turned us down. Wimp Sanderson (whose son, Scott, was a USC letterman circa the Foster era) turned us down. It was a fiasco and a national embarrassment, and it basically destroyed Dixon’s athletic directorship. The obvious choice in hindsight would have been Tubby Smith – then a top assistant at UK under Pitino – who would take the Tulsa job that same year. By the time we hired Steve Newton of Murray State in July it felt like we had to beg someone to take the job. Everyone was furious at Dixon. But had we hired Smith instead of Newton, who knows what might have changed – even if Tubby had left us for UK in 1997 (instead of leaving Georgia), when Rick Pitino tried his hand in the NBA. There is no reason Tubby could not have duplicated his success at Tulsa and Georgia (four straight NCAA’s from ’94-’97) while at South Carolina. Perhaps in some alternate universe, we could have convinced him to stay 10, 15 or 20 years at Carolina. But the opportunity was lost, and loses and recruiting scandals haunted Newton, who was forced out in 1993 with an over-all 20-35 record. I vividly remember Newton sitting on the bench, looking bewildered and over-burdened, clutching a rolled-up play sheet in his hand. It was a low ebb. We officially sucked.

1995: You’re wondering why I am not including the abortive Bobby Cremins volte-face of 1993, when three days after accepting the USC job, he bagged his alma mater to return to Georgia Tech. Yes, it was a national humiliation – and the source of great merriment for Clemson fans, but the rapid hiring of Eddie Fogler was – we thought at the time – actually better for USC. He was a national coach of the year and had guided Tulsa and Vandy to multiple post-season berths, including the NIT Championship. And everything seemed to bear out the judgement all the way up to 1998, when we lost for the second consecutive season in the first round of the NCAA’s (to the #14 seed Richmond Spiders) –this followed, of course the previous year in which we lost as a #2 seed; after that, the life seemed to go out of Fogler and he quietly folded his tent three seasons later after a 15-15 finish and NIT first round exit in 2001. Because that’s the year Kevin Garnett, originally of Mauldin, S.C., became one of the first major talents to forgo college and enter the NBA Draft. While UK fans thought they were a lock to get him, every indication seemed to be that Garnett was leaning to South Carolina if he had decided to play college ball. Had he played even two years for USC, that would have put him on the same floor as the fist team all-SEC guard trio of BJ McKie, Melvin Watson and Larry Davis for the ’97 and ’98 tournaments. With KG’s raw talent, South Carolina would have had the guns for a deep run in the NCAA’s. Would an Elite Eight or Final Four finish in ’97 or ’98 have changed the dynamic of South Carolina recruiting? I would say absolutely. Would Fogler have lost his drive to coach as he appeared to after the disappointment of the 1998 season? I honestly don’t think he would have. The knock of Fogler in 2001 was that he had lost interest in coaching and (in his best high school math teacher fashion) had calculated how much money he needed for retirement, and hung up his whistle accordingly. What a pity Garnett never wore the Garnet and Black.    

2001: When Fogler resigned we made a huge run at Tubby Smith. A the time, we thought we could peel him out of Lexington, since the Big Blue fans were upset the ‘Cats had not advanced past the Sweet Sixteen in three years. Ultimately, Tubby would turn us down, and we’d go to our fall-back, Dave Odom. As much as we may miss Odom now, 2001 was the last year we likely could have reversed a thirty-year slide from McGuire’s golden age. Odom was able to build some very good teams at Carolina, winning the NIT Championship in consecutive years and fielding one NCAA tournament team (another first round loss). Smith could have built great ones – and his interest seemed more than a passing fancy. Alas, it was close, but no cigar. At least we didn’t hire Kelvin Sampson, then at Oklahoma, which would have been disastrous considering the nearly mortal blow he struck on Indiana.

2008:  We hire Darrin Horn instead of Gregg Marshall. Or anyone else.

So here we are in 2012. Forty years removed from McGuire’s great teams. Now a cellar dweller and a national laughingstock.

That’s how it all went down.

Afterward:

 

Last week, Athletic Director Eric Hyman made the hire that just might finally stem the bleeding and return at least some of the luster to this once-great program. Frank Martin was brought in from Kansas State to lead the Gamecock basketball program. This was a spectacular hire for Hyman, especially considering the woeful state of the program, and a testament to his skills of administration and persuasion. Martin lead KSU to their best stretch of seasons in school history, with consistent NCAA tournament appearances. He posesses a fiery courtside persona which has made him a You Tube sensation and a fan favorite.

Does Martin have what it takes to being Gamecock Basketball back out of the shadows? As a Gamecock fan, you have to believe.

The rise and fall of Gamecock Basketball – Part I

Coach McGuire

The University of South Carolina hosted a press conference all-too familiar to our University over the 32 years since Legendary Coach Frank McGuire stepped down under pressure from the administration following the  1979-80 season. That was some 16 years after he came to Columbia to direct the Gamecock Basketball program through what are still considered its “glory years”. Yesterday, Carolina announced the firing of yet another basketball coach – Darin Horn. That’s coach #6 to have come and gone since Coach McGuire graced the sidelines of the arena named in his honor. In 1964, when Coach McGuire arrived in Columbia, USC was an afterthought on the ACC and national stages – a backwater – a second tier program. What followed McGuire’s hiring is legendary.

The former North Carolina head coach and mastermind of the Tarheel’s 1957 National Championship, McGuire eventually was forced to resign by UNC in 1961 over NCAA violations. McGuire went on to coach the Philadelphia Warriors and all-world center, Wilt Chamberlain until the franchise moved west to San Francisco. McGuire opted not to make the move west and was looking for a new basketball home about the time that South Carolina was looking for a coach to bring it’s program out of the shadows.

McGuire was an instant hit in Columbia. He quickly established his New York pipeline, much as he had at UNC, tapping into the tremendous talent of his native Big Apple, and bringing in names such as Bobby Cremins, John Roche, Tom Owens, Tom Riker and Kevin Joyce, not to mention a few South Carolina products, including Columbia’s Alex English and Calhoun County’s Zam Fredrick. Support for the program mushroomed and soon it was obvious that the old Carolina Field House, with a seating capacity in the neighborhood of 3,000, would have to be replaced. In November, 1968, Carolina Coliseum was unveiled at the intersection of Assembly and Blossom Streets in Columbia. Seating 12,401, it was a basketball palace and at the time was described as college basketball’s greatest venue. The “House that Frank Built” was christened with a thrilling one point victory over future SEC rival Auburn via a last second John Roche jumper. Carolina basketball was on the move.

The next several seasons brought unprecedented success to the USC program. The Gamecocks went undefeated in the ACC during the 1970 regular season, only to lose to N.C. State in double overtime during the championship game of the ACC tournament. In those days, only the winners of conference tournaments went to the NCAA tourney, thus South Carolina’s greatest team at 25-3 (still a school record for wins) was shut out of a chance of winning a National Championship. The following year, the Gamecocks defeated UNC in a thrilling ACC Tourney finale, giving USC its first and only ACC title. They would leave the ACC that same year amidst a dispute with the powers that be in the conference over recruiting issues and years of accumulated bitterness from their Tobacco Road rivals. 1971 was the high-water mark for Carolina Basketball. Leaving the ACC must have felt good at the time – it was a kind of “Fort Sumter moment” for the University – an impassioned one-fingered salute to the “Big Four” of North Carolina (UNC, NC State, Wake Forest and Duke) who dominated ACC politics. The culture of South Carolina always has been “us against the world”, and this played right into the sentiments of the fiery Irishman stalking the sidelines in those days. Little did McGuire (and Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Paul Dietzel) know at the time, but they had set in motion a decline of Carolina Basketball some forty years in the making. It has been a decline marked by 1,000 small cuts – poor decisions made by weak athletic directors (and one famously scandalous and unstable University president), missed coaching hires, years of wandering the wilderness with no conference affiliation, a several-year association with a mid-major athletic conference that did not even play football, and the building of an 18,000 seat monstrosity that is more glorified concert hall than basketball arena.

How did the Gamecocks go from ACC Champions and perennial national powerhouse to where we are today? I’ll explore that in Part 2.

Ol’ Ball Coach, Stephen Garcia and Hank Williams, Jr

It’s been a crazy couple of days down in my hometown of Columbia, S.C. Within the span of two hours yesterday, Coach Spurrier abruptly called The State (Columbia) paper columnist Ron Morris onto the carpet at the start of a previously scheduled press conference and former starting quarterback Stephen Garcia was permanently dismissed from the football team. OBC noted that in 27 years of coaching he has only had to disassociate himself with two members of the media – Ron Morris and a Florida journalist in the mid-nineties. He went on to elaborate about the source of his angst, stating in essence that he could handle negative stories about the team and about himself, but he could not tolerate untruths. The well-documented spur under his saddle dates back to an April, 2011 article in which Morris speculated that Spurrier “recruited” Bruce Ellington to the football team and away from Coach Horn’s basketball team, where he had served as the starting point guard. Coach Spurrier took exception to the article, calling it a fabrication and clarifying that he and Ellington never spoke until Ellington had approached Coach Horn regarding his desire to play football in addition to basketball. Evidently, the option to play football was an accommodation Coach Horn made during the recruitment of Ellington two years ago. Spurrier went on to say that in the future, he would not address the media while Morris was in the room. He then invited members of the television media to a separate room for one-on-one interviews, and then came back later to address the members of the print media, sans a chastened Morris.

Members of the print media seem to have rallied around Morris, while fans have overwhelmingly voiced their support of the Ol’ Ball Coach, many vowing to cancel their subscriptions to the paper. Morris has yet to respond in print. There is one way to clear this up – Morris must now lay his cards on the table – he needs to provide proof of his accusations. Otherwise, The State will have some personnel decisions to make. Morris has no obligation to be a cheerleader for the University or it’s athletic teams. But, he has an obligation to report the truth, be it good, bad or indifferent. If he has done that in this case, good for him. Substantiate it. If not, well, the newspaper market is tough enough already without The State loosing the passionate legions of Gamecock Nation.

*****

Quarterback Stephen Garcia was permanently removed from the football team yesterday for positive results from an alcohol test. ESPN has reported that the positive results included marijuana, however I have not heard that from any other source. Garcia’s troubles have played out on a national stage for the past five years. Five suspensions in five years, unprecedented highs and crushing lows on the football field… Garcia’s career as a Gamecock has been a stormy one.

I feel for Stephen. When I was in college, most of his transgressions wouldn’t have even been transgressions. All but one of his five suspensions were alcohol-related, the lone exception being a gargantuanly bone-headed/borderline criminal brain fart in which he keyed a visiting professor’s car. Yes, that was stupid. That was also back in 2007, one month after he arrived on campus. His other suspensions have come from under age possession of alcohol, having girls in his hotel room after “lights out” before last year’s bowl game, and other general goofiness that are par for the course for most college kids and wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow for a collegiate athlete when I was in school. Today, these kids – especially quarterbacks, and extra-especially Spurrier-coached quarterbacks – live in a media fishbowl. Their every move is debated, criticized and scrutinized. Makes me want to have a beer just thinking about it.

Garcia led the South Carolina football program to, among other highlights, the program’s first-ever win over a top ranked team (vs. Alabama last season), the program’s first-ever SEC East Division championship, the first consecutive wins over arch-rival Clemson since the 1968-70 seasons (that last stat boggles my mind even today), he threw for over 7,500 passing yards (one of only three to do so in program history). He was a fearless warrior who played with reckless abandon and earned the respect of his teammates. That was the good Stephen. There were also the suspensions, the freshman mistakes made even as a fifth-year senior, the bad decisions both on and off the field, the 0-3 bowl record, the stormy relationship with his Head Coach. He was equal parts Jekyll and Hyde. He showed so much potential, yet was his own worst enemy in falling short of it. Reckless abandon works well most times on the football field. Not so much off it.

Stephen will be ok. He comes from an excellent family who will support him through this tough time. He graduated from Carolina this past spring with a degree in Sociology. He has much to be proud of from his time at Carolina and hopefully he has learned some valuable lessons.

Thank you, Stephen for the good times. You were without a doubt, the most entertaining quarterback in school history and it has been quite a ride. You are an alum and will always be a Gamecock. Best of luck and God speed.

*****

“Are you ready for some football???” Country legend Hank Williams, Jr. has been asking that question of Monday Night Football fans for 22 years now, but the question has been asked (shouted) for the final time. After making an unquestionably over-the-top comparison between President Obama and Hitler on a Fox News morning show last week (you know it’s over-the-top when even Fox News morning hosts are stricken speechless), ESPN and Hank have parted ways. ESPN says it was their decision. Hank says it was his. One thing we can all agree upon (I would hope) is that it was a muddle-headed thing for Ol’ Bocephus to say. Check that… it was just plain stupid. Even the most vociferous anti-Obama tea partier would have to admit that. Hitler’s is quite possibly the most toxic name in the history of world. Had Hank compared Obama to Pol Pot, most people would have likely thought he was accusing the President of smoking marijuana. Mention Hitler and all hell breaks loose. And rightly so. It was a ridiculous comparison. As much as I love his music (the early 80’s stuff, anyway), I will have to admit that Hank can be a bloviating jerk-off sometimes. I cringe whenever he stops singing and starts talking. It’s not pretty. Why can’t all of my musical heroes just shut up and sing? (I’m talking to you too, Mr. Mellencamp/Springstein/Young, etc, etc, etc).

Yet, we still live in a great country where people are free to make asses of themselves. The funny thing is, Hank owns the rights to his song and will likely take it elsewhere and make more money than he was making with ESPN. He’s an entrepreneur as well as a musician. Bottom line is, Hank had a right to say what he said, just as ESPN had a right to disassociate themselves from Hank. To be honest, the theme song had gotten a little stale anyway. Maybe now Hank can get back to focusing on music instead of being the court jester of the NFL. One can always hope.

Those Lowdown Kentucky Bluegrass Blues

This past weekend, Melissa & I made the nine hour drive from Raleigh to Lexington, KY where we met my Sister and Brother-in-law, Celeste & Dwayne, and Dad & Joan for the much-anticipated Carolina vs. Kentucky weekend. We met at the Lexington Double Tree where, despite making reservations months earlier, we were unceremoniously placed in smoking rooms. The kind of smoking rooms you can smell the moment the elevator door opens on your floor, some fifty yards away, and which reeks with a maloderous, penetrating  tenacity only exceeded by fetid, beer-soaked college dive bars in the dilatory minutes right before closing on Friday nights. I didn’t even know there were still smoking rooms anymore! I’ve spent upwards of 2,000 nights in hotel rooms over the past ten years and I couldn’t even tell you the last time I encountered a hotel that allowed smoking – especially an “upper middle” category hotel like the Double Tree. But after some light finagling with the front desk, we were graciously switched into non-smoking rooms at the expense of some poor S.O.B., likely a fellow Gamecock fan, who had been slated for those rooms but had not arrived yet. At any rate, the six of us gathered at the hotel bar for an innuagural libation prior to heading off to a nice dinner at the Chop House.   

Saturday morning after breakfast Melissa & I found a wonderful greenway – the Legacy Trail – where we did our requisite long run for the week, a nine miler along the rolling Kentucky hill country north of town and up toward the Kentucky Horse Park. It was one of those precious few perfect days – maybe one of fifty or so we get in an average year – where the sky is a brilliant, cloudless blue, the temperature hovers at around 72 with a gentle breeze that seems to know just when you need it, coming at the top of a hill or during a long, sunny stretch but lying dormant in the already cool shady spots. The scenery was gorgeous and faded steadily from metro Lexington into horse pastures and bluegrass as we made our way out to the 4.5 mile mark where we turned around. It was one of those ideal runs you get every so often when you feel strong and genuinely savor each mile – we soaked in the October sun on our faces, running mostly in a comfortable, contented silence, pondering the upcoming football game and realizing how fortunate we were to be able to be there at that very moment in time.

By the time we made it back to the hotel, showered and dressed it was time to meet the others and make our way over to the stadium for a little tailgating prior to the game. Dwayne had smartly and proactively purchased a parking pass for a lot no more than a hundred yards from the stadium earlier in the day and so as we rolled into the parking lot in his garnet Ford pickup, Gamecock flags flying, we got quite a few looks from the legion of blue-clad Kentucky loyalists and endured a few chants of “cock-sucker” from the already inebriated college kids. Dwayne had thoughtfully remembered to pack his 10×10 tailgating tent, which provided a nice bit of shade, though it was the unfortunate and unintended color of Kentucky Blue, which caused a bit of confusion for those around us as we sat beneath it munching fried chicken and sipping bourbon, all six of us clad in garnet & black.

By 5:15 or so we made the short walk to Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium where we took our seats in one of the upper decks and awaited kickoff. Carolina came out like a house afire, scoring two quick touchdowns and shutting down Kentucky on their initial attempts, looking every bit the tenth-ranked team in the country. By halftime USC was up 28-10 and everyone – especially the long-suffering Kentucky fans (who are even longer suffering than Carolina fans) expected a runaway win by the Gamecocks. Unfortunately, Kentucky reeled off 21 unanswered points in the second half for a gut-wrenching 31-28 victory – the first against South Carolina since the Clinton administration and the first in 18 tries against Steve Spurrier. So long top ten!  

We made it back to the hotel after midnight and said our goodbyes in the lobby as Dad & Joan and Celeste & Dwayne would be on the road earlier than we would on Sunday.

Sunday’s drive was a thoroughly enjoyable one, despite the outcome of the game the night before. We picked up a book on cd – a detective novel whose title and author I cannot recall, but which helped pass the time as we made the drive back south toward Raleigh. Driving through Southwestern Virginia, the views – even from the interstate – were breathtaking. It made me yearn to strap on my old hiking boots and backpack and wander off on the nearest footpath. We made plans to do just that sometime next year after all of this Iron Man madness is behind us.

We made it back into Raleigh by 7pm, had a quick dinner at Bonefish and were back home by 8:15 or so. Monday we were gone our separate ways – Melissa on a business trip to Bloomington and me to work in Wilmington for the week. It was a great weekend and could have only been improved by a Gamecock win. However, as hard life experience has taught me, you sure as hell can’t count on that, so you better find your fun and contentment in ways you can actually control. I think we did an admirable job of that.

Thanks to a particularly down year in the SEC East, Carolina is still in 1st place, despite the rare loss to Kentucky. Hopefully they’ll bounce back at Vandy this week. Until then, Go Cocks!