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

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

1972 Gamecock

The Dietzel Era Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From Simmer to Boil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are stories to tell.

 

 

 

Sixteen Thousand Days Gone By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Afterword: In the days following this blog post, Frank Martin and his team took Gamecock fans on an improbable and magical ride. In the Round of 32, the Gamecocks dominated former ACC rival Duke – a team many analysts predicted to win it all in 2017. Carolina beat a talented Baylor team by 20 points in the Sweet Sixteen, and handled SEC rival Florida by a seven point margin in the Elite Eight. The University of South Carolina found itself in the promised land – the Final Four. With their top scorer and team leader Sindarius Thornwell suffering from influenza, the magic finally ran out.  The scrappy Gamecocks hung with Gonzaga until the final buzzer, losing by four. They came just shy of a national championship match-up with another old ACC foe – the University of North Carolina.

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 10.28.05 PM

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.