Any Port in a Storm – South Carolina and the Metro Conference Experiment

“The Metro is not merely the best option for the moment, it is the only one.”

 Herman Helms – Sports Editor, The State

 

Almost from the moment USC left the Atlantic Coast Conference in August 1971, there was a push from Frank McGuire for a return to conference affiliation. The preference was an all-sports conference – namely a return to the Atlantic Coast Conference, or the Southeastern Conference. Given South Carolina’s history as a founding member of the ACC, and the geographical proximity to member institutions in both conferences, those two options made sense on paper, and certainly from an aspirational standpoint. But when Georgia Tech accepted an invitation to membership in the ACC in 1978, the door effectively closed on South Carolina’s chances of a return to the ACC. The SEC meanwhile was content and stable with ten members. A withdrawal of any team from either conference seemed highly unlikely.

Yet, the University of South Carolina increasingly found its Major Independent status a hindrance in all sports other than football. Men’s basketball particularly suffered from decreased fan interest and attendance, as well as prospects for future invitations to the NCAA Tournament. USC sorely needed a conference home.

In the early 1970s, St. Louis University Athletic Director Larry Albus envisioned the formation of a new athletic conference – one focused on basketball – whose membership would be comprised of schools from large metropolitan cities across the upper South. By June 1975, Albus’ vision had become a reality with the formation of the Metropolitan Athletic Conference. Founding members included Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Memphis State (now Memphis), St. Louis and Tulane. The fledgling conference was known less formally as the “Metro Six.”

Florida State joined the Metro in 1976, becoming the seventh member. When Georgia Tech left to join the ACC two years later, the Metro promptly returned to seven members with the addition of Virginia Tech. Founding member St. Louis withdrew its membership in 1982, but the league was once again restored to seven members with the addition of Southern Mississippi later that year. Indeed, the geographical footprint of the conference was expanding, and the movement of member institutions foreshadowed a more widespread fluctuation in NCAA conference affiliation in the decades to come.

The University of South Carolina seemed a highly desirable fit from Albus’ perspective, upon being named the conference’s first commissioner in 1975. Albus pursued USC through informal conversations, and by August 1979 he extended a formal solicitation for USC to consider joining the league. In an August 3, 1979 interview with United Press International, Albus stated: “We have always had a strong interest in South Carolina since the inception of the conference. We’ve talked quite a bit with the basketball office and they seem interested. I sent a formal request for them to consider the conference and contact me if interested.” Albus’ reference to “the basketball office” could mean nothing other than McGuire himself.

There was strong and vocal interest from some segments of Gamecock Nation. The Columbia Tipoff Club – a USC Basketball booster club unaffiliated with the University but closely associated with Coach Frank McGuire was the most vocal. On Sunday, August 5, 1979, the Tipoff Club placed a full page ad in The State with the bold headline ‘ATTENTION: GAMECOCK SUPPORTERS’ – the ad went on to state that the club endorsed USC’s affiliation with the “Metro 7 Conference”, and urged fans to let their “…feelings be known immediately to the USC Board of Trustees” before an upcoming BOT meeting on Thursday of that week.

What followed in fine print was an elaborate series of questions and answers designed to inform the public and place pressure on the BOT to consider the Metro Conference invitation. It included quotes supporting conference affiliation from USC head coaches, including women’s basketball coach Pam Parsons and Baseball Coach June Raines. Also included were quotes from various Metro coaches extolling the virtues of the conference and expressing heartfelt wishes for South Carolina’s addition.

The ad ended with a final plea: “The Time Is Urgent – If we cannot get the Board of Trustees to look into the Metro 7 on Thursday, the opportunity may be gone for this year and for many years to come.” At the bottom of the ad was a cut out petition titled Our Plea to the Board, which could be signed and mailed into the Tipoff Club.

McGuire’s desire for Metro membership was pragmatic. With more attractive options momentarily out of reach, the Metro provided the opportunity to shore up his ailing basketball program with the establishment of new rivalries. “I don’t say that games with Metro teams will be as exciting to our fans in the beginning as games with North Carolina, Duke or N.C. State,” McGuire said, “but I believe we could cultivate good rivalries with some of the outstanding Metro teams over a period of years.” Indeed, the conference boasted two elite basketball programs in Louisville and Memphis State. A McGuire-led USC, even half a decade removed from its prime, would only add excitement and prestige to the Metro.

McGuire was not alone in his advocacy for Metro affiliation. Baseball coach June Raines said he liked “…the idea of being able to play for a conference championship”, and “…especially like the advantage which conference affiliation gives a school for the playoffs.” Indeed, the NCAA Tournament selection process in recent years had shifted toward awarding bids to conference-affiliated teams rather than independents with better records. USC swimming coach Scott Woodburn added: “Conference membership would give more incentive to our athletes. It would add some identification to the program. I’m in favor of conference affiliation.” Woodburn went on to say, with a hint of resignation, “The Metro 7 would be fine, but only because there is no alternative. By that, I mean I would prefer the ACC or the Southeastern Conference.”

During the summer of 1979 some speculation swirled that Vanderbilt was considering a withdrawal from the SEC, given its struggles to compete in football. This gave some Gamecock fans a glimmer of hope for membership there, and created a short-lived buzz on local sports talk shows. During an interview with a Columbia radio station in August, 1979, SEC Commissioner Hootie Ingram put those rumors to rest, citing Vanderbilt’s competitiveness in basketball, and its ability to consistently sell out its 15,000-seat arena despite an enrollment of just 7,000. “I can’t imagine the Commodores wanting to end relations with the SEC rivals who help them fill all those seats.” Ingram said, and Vandy withdrawal talk quickly faded.

The talk of conference affiliation had exacerbated the rift between athletic director and head football coach Jim Carlen and McGuire. Carlen was most comfortable as an Independent, and that feeling was not unique to his tenure at South Carolina. Carlen was instrumental in leading West Virginia University out of the Southern Conference into Major Independent status in 1968, during his tenure as head football coach there. Carlen then left WVU following the 1969 season for Texas Tech.

Since Metro affiliation did not include competition in football, proponents argued, membership in that conference was a win-win for the entire athletic department. Football could remain an Independent, while the other programs, most notably basketball, would most certainly benefit from conference affiliation.

There were other arguments articulated by proponents, which highlighted Metro 7 benefits. Given the energy crisis of the late 1970s, travel costs were a major source of concern for athletic departments across the country. Conference play in the Metro would serve to decrease travel costs, as teams would most certainly travel less than they had as independents. Scheduling would also be much easier, with 12 regular-season contests against conference competition each season. The trouble with the Metro 7, according to The State’s sports editor Herman Helms was that “…a move into the conference seems so logical that the wishy-washy Board of Trustees may not make it.”

University President James Holderman commented in an August 22, 1979 interview with The State that the USC Board of Trustees desired to see the Gamecocks in a conference, which has both athletic and academic quality. Further, Holderman expressed the belief that the BOT wanted Carolina to be in a full and comprehensive conference, meaning an “all-sports” conference. Holderman, elaborated that the Metro Conference did not enjoy that status at that time, and predicted that it would be some time before it did.

In an effort to control the narrative, Metro Commissioner Albus released comments a few days later, stating while the door was still open for expansion, it was too late for USC to join the conference for the 1979-80 school year due to scheduling difficulties. Thus ended the initial round of talks between the Metro Conference and South Carolina. It would not be the last.

 

Earlier Efforts to Rejoin ACC Stumble Out of the Gate

 Talk of a South Carolina/ACC détente sputtered along in fits and starts between 1971 and 1978, when the ACC invited Georgia Tech rather than USC to become its eigth member. In May of 1975, the USC Board of Trustees authorized University President James Patterson to engage in negotiations with ACC Commissioner Bob James. Talk picked up momentum in January, 1976, and the topic of reunification appeared to be on the verge of serious consideration by the ACC. President Patterson noted in an article in The Gamecock student newspaper that USC would apply for readmission prior to the ACC’s winter meeting February 10-12 in Greensboro. However, in a follow-up article in The Gamecock, Patterson reversed field, noting, “enthusiasm had begun to wane for us getting back into the ACC.” Patterson went on to state that although the matter would not be taken up during the ACC’s February meetings, the possibility remained that it would be addressed during meetings in May, by which time the ACC’s expansion committee would have made a determination on its plans. “We are not going to submit a formal application until we can see what definite plans the ACC has for expansion, Patterson said.

By April, it had become painfully obvious that ACC re-entry for South Carolina would be a long shot. In an April 8, 1976 Associated Press article, a number of conference athletic directors gave tepid commentary on the topic of expansion in general, and South Carolina in particular. USC, or any school, would need affirmative votes from five of the seven schools to attain ACC membership. By this time, both South Carolina and Virginia Tech had expressed strong interest in joining the league. East Carolina University, too, in an effort to bolster its athletic profile, had announced plans to leave the Southern Conference and apply for admission in the ACC. While South Carolina received support from Clemson and N.C. State, and Virginia Tech received support from Virginia, other member schools demurred.

“We have no burning desire for expansion,” Wake Forest’s Gene Hooks was quoted as saying. “I believe the membership is satisfied right now with seven (members), said Bill Cobey of North Carolina. Jim Kehoe of Maryland expressed a desire for better “geographic balance” within the league, which would make entry from any North or South Carolina school a non-starter in his perspective. Duke’s Carl James noted concerns with further diluting distribution of coveted ACC Basketball Tournament tickets by the addition of an eighth member. Notably, James mentioned that Georgia Tech would be “a better addition than any other school.”

Indeed, on May 19, 1976, during their meeting in Myrtle Beach, ACC athletic directors established criteria for any school seeking entry into the ACC. While specifics were not released immediately, ACC officials were clear that entry into the league would require an “equity payment,” in addition to meeting other criteria both academic and athletic. Said Commissioner James, “Quite frankly, the terms we set for admission might not be acceptable to certain schools seeking admission.”

Indeed, South Carolina did find those terms a non-starter. The substantial equity payment, which was as high as $400,000 (1.5 million), was viewed as a particularly ungracious approach. Other perceived slights included a questionnaire sent to USC President Patterson, which included generic questions about USC’s student enrollment, sports programs and the City of Columbia. Five years removed from its status as a founding member of the ACC, many at South Carolina found this galling.

This period also marked the nadir of political and institutional stability within the athletic department. Following Paul Dietzel’s resignation as head football coach and athletic director in 1974, the board of trustees expressed its intention to separate those two posts. At the same time, supporters of Frank McGuire lobbied the board to hire him as athletic director. In an effort to maneuver around the delicate egos within the athletic department, the board created a tangled web of administration, in which President Patterson essentially functioned as athletic director. New head football coach Carlen and McGuire were named associate athletic directors, and were given total control over their programs. Harold “Bo” Hagen, a department administrator and Gamecock football letterman, was given the official title of athletic director, although he had no authority over football or basketball – only the “minor” or non-revenue sports. It was this unorthodox arrangement with no strong AD to unify the department, which sowed unprecedented dysfunction. Carolina had created a three-headed administrative monster. Relations between Carlen and McGuire eventually deteriorated to the point where the two men did not speak.

Adding to the general dysfunction was a Board of Trustees with members sharply divided along pro-ACC and anti-ACC ideologies. Students and fans were divided as well, with Carlen backers and McGuire backers firmly entrenched respectively in “for” or “against” camps. Ultimately, the anti-ACC faction within the board won out. Their obstinacy was bolstered to a large degree by the by the ungracious approach of the ACC, which served to open old wounds. Board Chairman T. Eston Marchant lamented that his “greatest mistake” was allowing Dietzel to lead the University out of the ACC. He believed the split had hurt USC’s reputation, and the chaotic environment within the athletic department made that point inarguable.

Despite sporadic revivals of ACC talk in the media and among fans, any hope of membership had all but evaporated by the late 1970s. When Georgia Tech joined the ACC in 1978, bringing with it the burgeoning Atlanta television market, the ACC soon signed a lucrative media contract which guaranteed each school $1.5 million annually. Whatever marginal support USC may have enjoyed within the ACC all but evaporated, as member institutions did not wish to dilute that money. Carolina found itself tossed about in a sea of institutional and administrative upheaval, a once proud basketball program on the decline, and with no safe (or acceptable) port in sight.

 

Friends Come And Go, But Enemies Accumulate

Despite the Board of Trustees stated intentions to separate the positions of head football coach and athletic director, politics still held sway. By 1976, in an effort to streamline the bewildering complex of athletic administration, the board named Carlen athletic director, giving him control over all sports except the basketball program. McGuire kept his associate athletic director title and control over basketball. Bo Hagan’s responsibilities shifted from the athletic department to the newly formed alumni association. Streamlined, yes. Simplified, no. The new arrangement still left the University president in charge of coordinating the athletic program and managing the egos of both Carlen and McGuire.

By this time, McGuire’s relations with Sol Blott, Sr. and Jr. – onetime McGuire allies – had soured. Though the Blatts were no longer Speaker of the House or on the Board of Trustees, respectively, they still maintained an outsized influence over University affairs generally and Gamecock athletics specifically. The Blatts had aligned themselves with Carlen, compounding the deleterious effects of a declining basketball program and waning attendance. Though still wildly popular and influential with fans and students, McGuire’s stock had declined significantly with the power brokers at USC, and it seemed his days as basketball headman were numbered. Dislodging McGuire, however, would fall to a new president.

When James B. Holderman was appointed University president in 1977, he publicly proposed that McGuire’s duties as basketball coach would cease following the 1977-78 season. Holderman further proposed that McGuire would assume the position of athletic director for the University’s branch campuses, with headquarters on the campus of USC-Coastal in Conway. McGuire roundly rejected the proposal, stating that he only wanted to coach basketball, and proposing that he be allowed to complete his contract which expired following the 1979-80 season. Media and the student body ardently supported McGuire, and the optics were not good for Holderman. Amid rising pressure, Holderman retracted his proposal.

In short order, Holderman and the Board of Trustees tried to oust McGuire once again by enforcing a newly changed retirement age, which the board had recently lowered from 70 to 65. This would force McGuire out after the ’78 campaign. Once again, fans and the media rallied with highly vocal support for McGuire and condemnation for Holderman and the board. Several faculty members challenged the legality of the new retirement rule in court. Stinging from criticism and still working to establish credibility as president, Holderman discovered truth in the old adage that there is rarely an education in the second kick of a mule. He would not risk a third. McGuire would be allowed to coach the final two seasons of his contract.

Controversy would continue to trouble the athletic department and Holderman’s fledgling presidency over the next year. When Holderman appointed James A. Morris, a former dean of the College of Business Administration at USC and one time vice president of the ACC, to the newly created position of vice president of athletic affairs, the move initially seemed a stroke of genius. Morris could take the burden of athletic department oversight off of Holderman’s full plate and bring some stability to the scene. Morris was also a McGuire ally who would bring balance to Carlen’s growing power and influence in athletic affairs.

The move backfired when Carlen hired an attorney and threatened legal action over a breach of his contract, as he felt his powers of administration were being usurped. The Gamecock Club, led by USC football letterman Ed Pitts, sided with Carlen and publicly disputed Morris’ authority over its considerable funds, even threatening to sue the University. Morris eventually resigned, and the position of vice president for athletic affairs was allowed to lapse, handing Carlen a significant victory. In the midst of this, the University suffered yet another embarrassment when the State Law Enforcement Division began an investigation into alleged misappropriation of $95,000 ($385,000 adjusted) in concession funds by the athletic department.

Holderman found his presidency increasingly threatened by the chaos and even corruption within the athletic department. In a few months on the job, he had alienated both Carlen and McGuire, as well as Gamecock Club leaders, fans and the student body.

Carlen and McGuire continued their entrenchment, each working to solidify his power and influence within the University and among fans. Carlen donated $200,000 ($810,000 adjusted) of athletic department profits to the University’s academic funds. Later, wealthy supporters threw a lavish roast for Carlen, attended by Vice President Gerald Ford. McGuire, meanwhile, held a VIP cocktail party for influential boosters, and wealthy Tip-off Club and Gamecock Club members following the final Carolina Classic basketball tournament in 1978. Before one home game, fans were asked to wear green if they supported McGuire, and the Coliseum was awash in verdant hues. USC athletics had become a garish, partisan spectacle.

The Board of Trustees determined that if South Carolina ever had a chance of joining an all-sports conference, it would have to set the University’s athletic house in order. The Board developed a two-pronged approach, which included permanently separating the positions of head football coach and athletic director, and convincing Frank McGuire to step down. Setting the plan in motion, the board informed Carlen that his contract as USC athletic director would not be renewed at expiration in 1982. McGuire, meanwhile, eventually agreed to step down following the 1979-80 season, and received a settlement of $400,000 ($1.6 million).

These moves resulted in predictable backlash by Carlen, who gave a blistering interview in the September 17, 1979 issue of Sports Illustrated, where he criticized the board as “foolish,” and portrayed Holderman as “this little ole president we have,” who, rather than expressing gratitude for the $200,000 athletic department donation, simply asked if he could expect that every year. Likewise, McGuire backers protested loudly at his ouster. Players threatened to quit. Nearly 500 students gathered on the Horseshoe in front of the President’s House to protest the decision. But McGuire had agreed to the deal, and the board had reached an important, if clumsily executed achievement.

With McGuire’s exit determined, and Carlen’s athletic directorship due to expire at the end of his contract in 1982, it appeared that Carolina’s path was set for a move to a unified athletic department. Though the Board of Trustees would succumb to political pressure from Carlen backers and extend his athletic director and head football coach contracts to 1986 following consecutive eight-win seasons in 1979 and 1980, it would ultimately return to its stated intention of separating those two posts. Following a disappointing 6-6 campaign in 1981, which ended with three straight losses, including a 23-21 defeat at home to lowly Pacific, the board found the impetus it needed to oust Carlen. After a dismal 33-10 defeat in the season’s final game at Aloha Stadium against Hawaii, rumors swirled about Carlen’s future. On Friday, December 11, the Board of Trustees met in a contentious hours-long meeting, during which they voted “overwhelmingly” to fire Carlen. Holderman communicated the decision to Carlen by telephone that evening. The board declined comment on the reasons for the decision, but few were surprised, given Carlen’s combative relationship with President Holderman, the board, some prominent Gamecock boosters and local media.

On January 2, 1982, USC introduced its new athletic director, Bob Marcum, who formerly held the same position at the University of Kansas. Marcum’s arrival marked the first time in 20 years the athletic director was someone other than the head football coach. Rex Enright served as athletic director after turning over football duties to Warren Giese in the 1950s. When Enright passed away, Giese took on both positions. He continued to serve as AD for one year after the arrival of new football coach Marvin Bass, but in 1962 the two positions were combined again under Bass, and the jobs had remained combined over the next two decades under Bass, then Dietzel, and finally Carlen. As college athletics became big business over that twenty-year period, nearly all Division I universities had long since moved to a strong athletic director format. USC’s athletic department had suffered for its failure to evolve, and progress had been stymied by a lack of accountability and a toxic cult of personality.

That failure was most glaring when Dietzel led the charge to pull USC out of the Atlantic Coast Conference over football-related concerns. But the instability and dysfunction had only worsened in the intervening years. Marcum’s hiring marked a positive change of direction. The State’s Herman Helms wrote that Marcum’s hiring would mark an end to a system, which had “…caused so much divisiveness. Coaches will no longer wage a contest for the AD post and control over other coaches. Coaches will coach and administrators will administrate. USC will be one school again, a whole institution, and that’s worth cheering about.” Indeed, Marcum’s first order of business would be to hire a new head football coach not named Bob Marcum. A new day had dawned at USC.

Aside from the search for a head football coach, the new AD soon turned his attention to the matter of conference affiliation. He noted in an early press conference the obvious benefits of affiliation with a strong conference, and his positive experience with the Big Eight as Kansas AD certainly would have guided his thinking. After hiring former Carlen top assistant Richard Bell to coach the football team, Marcum would spend a good portion of the next two years exploring conference possibilities.

 

New Leadership, NCAA Snub Propel USC Toward Metro

Almost as soon as McGuire announced his retirement at USC, rumors connected Duke’s Bill Foster to the South Carolina job. Foster, a Pennsylvania native, had established a name for himself as a builder of programs during stints at Bloomsburg State, Rutgers, Utah and then Duke. South Carolina’s program needed rebuilding, and Foster soon became its number one target.

 

Foster’s credentials were sparkling. One of the most respected coaches in all of College Basketball, he had served as president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 1975-76, and in 1978, guided his Blue Devils team to the National Final, before losing in the championship game to Kentucky. Foster masterfully rebuilt a proud Duke program that had suffered a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the post Vic Bubas era, compiling a pedestrian 73-61 record under Bucky Waters and Neill McGeachy, including a 10-16 record in McGeachy’s lone season.

Foster came to Duke in 1974, following a successful three-year stint at Utah, including a 22-9 record in 1973-74 and a runner-up finish in that season’s National Invitational Tournament. He quickly set about rebuilding Duke’s fortunes. Following three rebuilding seasons which hovered around the .500 mark, Foster’s Blue Devils broke out in 1977-78 with a 27-7 record, including a second-place regular-season finish in the ACC, an ACC Tournament championship, and a surprising run to the NCAA Tournament final. Foster saw continued success over the next two seasons, his Duke teams hovering at or near No. 1 in the weekly rankings for portions of both seasons. Foster’s Blue Devils won a share of the regular-season ACC Championship in 1978-79, and made it to the second round of that season’s NCAA Tournament, finishing with a 28-8 overall record. His 1979-80 team finished a disappointing 7-7 in ACC play, but went 24-9 overall, winning the ACC Tournament and making it to the Elite Eight in NCAA Tournament play.

Despite Foster’s success at Duke, he felt increasingly frustrated and out of his element in Durham. There were perceived slights by Duke athletic director Tom Butters, which included failure to pave the coaches parking lot behind Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the frustration of being overshadowed by UNC’s Dean Smith, who had become something of a deity in North Carolina since taking over for Frank McGuire in 1961. There was also a general unease – a sense that he did not fit in culturally at the school and was not appreciated by the Duke people – that they perhaps thought he was lucky to be at such a prestigious institution, given his Elizabethtown College (PA) pedigree.

By his sixth and final season in Durham, with South Carolina rumors swirling and criticism mounting as ACC losses accumulated, Foster had become reclusive, speaking infrequently to reporters and refusing to address the South Carolina rumors, which only added to the speculation. By the end of the regular season, Foster had reached a verbal agreement with South Carolina, becoming Jim Carlen’s final hire as USC athletic director. The deal done, Foster’s Duke team played angry during the ACC Tournament and went on an improbable tear, beating NC State, UNC and Maryland to win the ACC Tournament and wrap up an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Twenty-four hours after beating Maryland for the ACC Championship, Foster found himself at The Roost athletic dorm in Columbia, standing alongside AD Carlen and University President Holderman at a press conference, where he was introduced as the new Head Basketball Coach at the University of South Carolina. He had tendered his resignation to Duke AD Butters effective at the end of NCAA Tournament play. Following an emotional third round loss to Purdue, Foster’s Duke tenure ended and his South Carolina tenure began. Ten days later, Duke would hire a 33-year old Bobby Knight protégé named Krzyzewski.

Foster called rebuilding the USC program “maybe my biggest challenge” during his introductory press conference on November 3, 1980. It would prove to be challenging indeed, though there were early signs Foster would work his rebuilding magic at South Carolina just as he had in his previous stops. He inherited four returning players from McGuire’s final squad, three of whom would figure prominently in Foster’s first Gamecock team – rising seniors Zam Fredrick and Kevin Dunleavy, and rising sophomore Kevin Darmody. A fourth returnee was an academic casualty. Foster quipped upon seeing the numbers, “it takes at least five to play.”

So, the new head coach and his assistants, Bob Wenzel, Ray Jones and Steve Steinwedel, all of whom had followed Foster from Duke, hit the recruiting trail quickly. Foster and staff signed six freshmen and one junior college transfer, and added three “run-ons,” Foster’s spin on the traditional “walk-on”. The incoming freshmen included Jimmy Foster (no relation) – a scrappy 6’8” power forward from Greenville, South Carolina; 6’8” forward Brad Jergenson from Manitowoc, Wisconsin; 6-5 shooting forward Kenny Holmes from Savannah, Georgia; and 6’3” guard Scott Sanderson of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (son of University of Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson). Joining this talented group of freshmen was 6’0” point guard Gerald Peacock, a junior transfer from Brevard Junior College in Florida. These five newcomers plus the returning nucleus of Fredrick, Dunleavy and Darmody played the lion’s share of minutes in 1980-81.

Foster’s first USC team far exceeded expectations, winning 17 of 24 games after an 0-3 start to finish a respectable 17-10. The season was highlighted by wins over Texas, Florida State, Penn State, and a thrilling two-point win in Milwaukee versus high-powered Marquette in a nationally televised game.

Throughout the season, and particularly over the final 13-game stretch, senior Zam Fredrick distinguished himself as a prolific scorer. He finished the season with a 28.9 ppg average to take the national scoring championship. He secured that title with a 43-point performance in a season-ending home win versus Georgia Southern. Fredrick had been mostly a role player under McGuire, but flourished in Foster’s system.

Another pleasant surprise was hard-nosed rebound machine Jimmy Foster, a promising prospect, who had been out of organized basketball for two years prior to signing with the Gamecocks. The rationale for Foster’s missing senior season at Wade Hampton High School was described as “personal reasons.” It would not be the last basketball he would miss, or the end of his personal struggles. Foster was a blue-collar scrapper who quickly became a fan favorite for his all-out, aggressive style of play. He started 26 of 27 games, led USC in rebounding, and was second on the squad in scoring behind Fredrick.

Disappointingly, the 1980-81 Gamecocks did not receive an NIT bid, but the new coach and his young squad had brought a new energy back to the Gamecock program, and notched the program’s 15th consecutive winning season.

The 1981-82 Gamecocks would be a disappointment. Foster’s second team was still one of the younger squads in the country, with five incoming freshmen, five sophomores and only two juniors who would log significant minutes. There were no seniors. The Gamecocks missed the firepower of Fredrick, who by then was playing professionally in Europe. Top returning scorer and rebounder Jimmy Foster was also missing during the season’s first eight games, a period which saw the Gamecocks go 3-5, including ugly losses to Chaminade and Hawaii during a week-long junket in which the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the football team all traveled to Honolulu for sightseeing and competition.

USC finished 14-15, the program’s first losing season since 1966. Despite that outcome, the Gamecocks finished on a strong note, winning their final three contests, versus Florida State in Tallahassee, The Citadel and a talented UNLV team in Columbia. The encouraging finish, plus the return of Foster’s entire roster bode well for his third season in 1982-83.

Foster’s third season in Columbia marked the 75th season of varsity competition for USC basketball. It would be a season of milestones, dramatic wins, and a serious health scare for Foster, which sidelined him for 17 games. Following a dramatic six-point win versus 15th ranked Purdue in early December, Foster was taken to the hospital after collapsing in the locker room. He was diagnosed with a “moderate” heart attack and underwent quadruple coronary by-pass surgery four days later. Assistant Coach Steinwedel took charge of the team in Foster’s absence, and coached USC to 12 wins and 5 losses. The Gamecocks notched a win over a strong Vanderbilt team, and a split in two games with Clemson during this stretch, as well as an eight-point win against Georgia Tech, spoiling Coach Bobby Cremins’ highly emotional homecoming.

Foster returned to the bench for a game versus Holy Cross on February 19, and led the inspired Gamecocks to a lopsided win, as well as four wins in their last five regular season games, including thrilling final-second wins versus power programs Marquette and DePaul. The Gamecocks finished with 20 wins for the first time in nine seasons, and had high hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Despite a solid resume, the Gamecocks were on the outside looking in when NCAA bids were awarded, and settled for an NIT bid. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Coach Foster and his team, as well as new Athletic Director Bob Marcum, and highlighted the need for conference affiliation. USC’s twelve seasons of Major Independent status had produced a frustrating array of troubles for both McGuire and Foster. A vast majority of colleges across the country were members of conferences and focused their efforts primarily on conference play, which created increased difficulty in scheduling quality opponents. Sub-par schedules with little to no regional interest led in turn to decreased ticket sales and attendance.

To complicate matters, the NCAA had also begun shifting from awarding post-season bids to Independent programs with comparable records to conference-affiliated teams. There was also the promise of an automatic bid with a conference tournament championship, a goal to which Independent teams could not aspire. North Carolina State, the eventual winner of that season’s national championship had ended their regular season a pedestrian 17-10, but achieved an automatic bid after an improbable run and championship in the ACC Tournament. The Wolfpack entered NCAA play with an identical win total to South Carolina’s regular season 20 wins.

Another factor had entered the equation by the early 1980s – television contracts. The ACC had just inked a lucrative new contract for its television games with Raycom Sports, guaranteeing each of its members $1.6 million ($4 million) in television revenue from basketball during the 1982-83 season. Other conferences were negotiating similar deals. There was no such financial opportunity for Major Independent schools.

The Gamecocks achieved two wins in that season’s NIT, versus Old Dominion and Virginia Tech, both played before home crowds in Columbia. The third round game was a disappointing, lopsided loss on the road to former ACC foe, Wake Forest, which left the Gamecocks one win shy of a semifinal trip to Madison Square Garden. It would prove to be the final contest for USC as a Major Independent.

Just two weeks later the USC Board of Trustees accepted an invitation from the Metro Conference, becoming its eighth member. Athletic Director Marcum moved decisively to guide USC toward the Metro in the days following the basketball team’s failure to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. It had become increasingly clear that Major Independent status was a unsustainable model in the modern world of collegiate athletics. With more appealing “all-sports” options in the ACC and SEC closed for the time being, the Metro proved to be the best, and for all practical purposes, the only option for South Carolina in 1983. The timing allowed Gamecock men’s and women’s basketball teams and baseball team among others, to begin conference competition with the 1983-84 academic year. The football team, meanwhile, would retain its Independent status.

South Carolina had now taken major steps toward putting its athletic affairs in order, in the hiring of a strong athletic director, and gaining conference membership within the Metro. Coaches McGuire and Carlen had also departed, taking with them the poisonous and partisan atmosphere, which destabilized the University’s athletic affairs and kept USC from Metro affiliation in 1979. These events, while producing mixed results in the win-loss column, cumulatively provided the stability and respectability the athletic department and University sorely needed. Moreover, they set USC along the path toward bigger and better things.

Paul Dietzel and the Modernization of South Carolina Athletics

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

-USC Board of Trustees Chairman T. Eston Merchant

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House That Frank Built

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gamecocks Find A New Home At “The Roost”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Carolina Stadium becomes Williams-Brice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dietzel’s Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.  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 faced #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 field 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 came 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 – 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 resulted in an underwear and business socks ensemble, as if he was possessed by an urge to boogie 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 and our house 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 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 Street 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. We could hear the squeak of high top sneakers on the old tartan floor as we pushed through the turnstiles, and the familiar baritone of court side announcer Gene McKay 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 Roche 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 Blossom 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 northeast 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 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, Tennessee. 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

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.

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!

Kona, Gamecocks’ Big Win, etc…

The Iron Man World Championships took place this past weekend in Kona, Hawaii. The participants in this event truly represent the greatest athletes the endurance sports world has to offer. I was awe-struck reading the event recap – specifically by how men’s winner  Chris McCormack completed the initial stages of the marathon at a blistering sub-six minute pace! This is, mind you, after completing the 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike portions of the event. To put that into perspective, the slowest sub-six minute pace (5:59/mile) would result in a 2:36 marathon finish. The world record marathon finish is 2:03:59 set by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia in the 2008 Berlin Marathon. We’re talking about a paltry margin of 32 minutes over the course of 26.2 miles – and I can promise you Mr. Gebrselassie never even remotely considered donning a wetsuit or mounting a bike before his marathon. By contrast, my PR for the 26.2 mile distance is 4:20:17, which equates to a 9:55/mile pace – meaning that the elite marathoners could run their marathon, drink a beer, have lunch, enjoy a 60 minute massage, and be considerably well on their way home before I stumble, bug-eyed and gasping across the finish line – on my best day! Endurance sports are nothing if not humbling.

***** 

I would be remiss if I did not mention the incredibly awesome win by my GAMECOCKS over then #1 and winner of 29 consecutive games, Alabama Crimson Tide this past Saturday. The Cocks vaulted into the top ten as a result of the biggest win in program history and the rest of the schedule seems encouraging with the next three games vs. traditional SEC doormats Kentucky and Vanderbilt, followed by a struggling Tennessee squad. However, SEC doormats are not like other doormats and Carolina will have to be at their best to keep on track for their first-ever visit to the SEC Championship game in Atlanta.

This weekend, Melissa & I, Dad & Joan and Celeste & Dwayne will make the trip up to Lexington for the game. I’ve even coaxed Melissa – a Wisconsin native and Southern College Football novice – into donning the Garnet & Black for the game. Updates to follow.

Go Cocks!

 

Growing up Gamecock

Admittedly, the Garnet & Black section of this blog will be of interest only to those hardy souls who share a life-long passion for the University of South Carolina and all things Gamecock. Those of you who share that passion with me know well the trials and tribulations, the pride and passion, the frenzied euphoria and at times, the depths of despair that come with following our beloved Gamecocks. You know what it was like when you walked through the doors of the old Carolina Coliseum – that great old building that Frank built at Blossom and Assembly – and were greeted by the familiar, wafting aroma of fresh popcorn and the squeaking of high tops on the tartan (and later, wood) playing floor. If, like me, you’re a total geek and as a young boy you studied media guides, you can still recall that the Coliseum sat 12,401 for basketball. (and, if you’re from Columbia, you likely walked across the stage at your high school graduation there). If you grew up in the 80’s, as I did, you might have named pets after Jimmy Foster and Zam Fredrick. You probably practiced your baseline jump shot like Kenny Holmes and you felt somehow cheated because you missed the McGuire era. You felt that there was no better place to be on a cold January night than with your Dad in the cozy confines of the Frank McGuire Arena. You remember how loud the place could be and how hostile for opposing teams – a truly perfect basketball venue, and no matter how shiny and new and modern the Colonial Center is – no matter how short the wait for bathrooms and how elaborate the concession stands, you genuinely mourn that games are no longer played at “The Frank” and feel sorry for those who never experienced it. (I realize, of course, that the previous sentence places me squarely in the “old fart” category – I’m comfortable with that.)

You remember the days when smoking was allowed at Williams-Brice and it seemed perfectly normal to breathe in the second hand smoke of the ancient and crotchety old bag that always sat directly behind you in Section 305, row 8 and who would complain every time you stood up because you blocked her view. But because you were 12 years old and could not sit down for long, you stood up anyway, hoping that some day she would just stay home. You remember Big George and the Fire Ant Defense and Black Magic and “If it ain’t swayin’, we ain’t playin”, and you remember gazing with muted horror across the stadium as the upper east stands visibly swayed up and down while the marching band played “Louie, Louie”. You remember the days when very few games were on TV and you would actually listen to the radio to catch road games – and of course there was no broadcaster as great as “The Voice”, Bob Fulton. You know the chills and goose bumps that arrive as the very first note of “2001” strains over the loudspeaker and it almost always causes a lump in your throat. You remember the shellacking Carolina put on FSU on national television in 1984, climbing to #2 in the polls, only to loose to Navy the following week and somehow, even 26 years later, you find yourself instinctively pulling for Army in the annual Army Navy game.

You remember the old Sarge Frye Field and Roost facilities when they were relatively new – and how nice they seemed and you remember taking pride in Gamecock Baseball long before Coach Tanner & Co.’s magical run to the CWS championship this summer.

These are sacred memories for me and in many ways they defined my childhood. There are so many more to write about. More to come.

Go Cocks!