USC football's lost title team of 1965

Special to The StateOctober 11, 2009 

  • 1969

    A team that included legends Tommy Suggs, Fred Zeigler and Warren Muir

    A team coached by Paul Dietzel, the visionary coach and athletics director

    A team that finished unbeaten in the ACC and beat Clemson

    COMING NEXT SUNDAY: THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON

In 1965, South Carolina tied Duke for the ACC title. An eligibility scandal stripped the Gamecocks of the title. Even worse, one of the teams named co-champs was rival Clemson. Few fans remember that season. For the players and coaches, the memories remain.

This is their story.

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There are few reminders of what happened to the 1965 USC football team.

Its record is listed at 5-5 in the media guide. A few players are recognized for All-ACC and other postseason honors.

But a glimpse at page 91 of the ACC media guide shows what transpired that season. The page includes a list of all-time conference champions. At the bottom right is a box entitled "1965."

It reads: "Duke and South Carolina finished the 1965 regular season tied for conference leadership with identical 4-2 league marks before ACC Commissioner Jim Weaver ruled that the Gamecocks had violated league rules in regards to the eligibility of two players and were required to forfeit all conference games in which the two players had participated. Due to the forfeit wins they received, N.C. State and Clemson, which had both lost to South Carolina, were declared ACC co-champions with 5-2 records in league play."

According to the archives of The State and The Daily Gamecock, an investigation by the ACC found that three players - two varsity players and one on the freshman team - were receiving athletic scholarship money from the university despite not qualifying academically for the funds. The players' names were never divulged.

In a column by former State sports writer Herman Helms, a source in the athletic department said each player received between $75-$100 for meals and textbooks.

While the scandal of having a championship taken away has faded over the years, the memories of the men who lived it have not.

MIKE FAIR: A LEADER UNDER CONSTRUCTION

When Mike Fair began his sophomore season in 1965, there was a lot of uncertainty in the USC program. The Gamecocks were beginning their first season without Dan Reeves at quarterback, and experience under center was limited.

So it came as a surprise to the Greenville native when the coaching staff asked if he would take a redshirt season.

"The first game of the year was The Citadel, and I found out - I guess it was in the next couple of days - that they wanted me to redshirt. They didn't tell me to redshirt; they asked me if I wanted to redshirt," Fair said. "It probably would have been a much better thing to do, but I didn't want to. I said, 'No, I'd rather not.'"

The result? Fair put together the best statistical season by a quarterback in program history at the time.

Fair replaced starter Ted Wingard at halftime of the second game, against Duke, with South Carolina trailing 14-0. Fair led the Gamecocks on touchdown drives of 51 and 64 yards in the second half of a 20-15 loss.

"There was nobody. It was just a good situation for me to step right in," Fair said. "There were no real experienced quarterbacks, and the one who had experience was a bit gimpy."

Fair led the Gamecocks into some of the South's most storied football cathedrals that season, including SEC powers LSU, Tennessee and eventual national champion Alabama. The Gamecocks lost all three games, but Fair carries plenty of fond memories.

Against LSU, the Gamecocks were the victims of a Tigers defense that bent but did not break in 21-7 loss.

"We actually could have won that game, but we didn't. A pass was dropped at the end zone that would have tied the game, if I remember, but that was early (in the contest)," Fair said. "(LSU) was a fascinating place to play football."

The next-to-last game of the season pitted the Gamecocks against Bear Bryant's Alabama team, which was in search of its second consecutive national championship.

Fair had his best game of the season with 243 passing yards, including two that went for more than 45 yards, in a 35-14 defeat.

But he was more impressed with the opponent.

"We should've scored four touchdowns. We lost the ball twice inside the 10(-yard line), but they just scored when they needed to," Fair said. "They were so good."

Fair ended the season with a single-season record 1,049 passing yards on 89 completions. J.R. Wilburn, Fair's top target, caught 38 passes for what was then a school-record 562 yards.

"He had great, great hands, and he ran terrific routes," Fair said. "It was like throwing to a coach. It increased my confidence exponentially. If I'm throwing to J.R., somehow he's going to catch it."

After his playing career, Fair eventually got into politics. From 1984-95, he represented Greenville as a member of the state House of Representatives. Since 1995, he has been a member of the state Senate. Fair credits football, in part, for his successes as a politician.

"The whole thing about making your successes and failures public and learning that you don't die when you fumble or throw an interception, that's pretty hard stuff when you're 18 and 19 years old," he said. "That's a character builder."

As for the team having its championship taken away, Fair chooses to remember the good times.

"That feeling of achievement, that feeling of excitement that went along with it, it's in the memory bank," he said. "It can't be taken away."

MARVIN BASS: THE COACH

Marvin Bass had watched his USC team struggle in a 13-3 victory against The Citadel in the first game of the 1965 season. The team followed that with a poor first-half performance against Duke, which is when Bass benched Wingard and inserted Fair.

"I can't tell you why I put him in. It's those hunches you play, that's all," Bass said.

That hunch created the spark that led to the best season in Bass' five-year tenure. "I thought we were on the rise," he said.

So why did Bass, who also served as athletics director, leave for the Continental Professional Football League team in Montreal?

The former coach believed it was in his best interest, and that of the university. With a 17-29-4 record at USC, Bass had not been offered an extension on his contract, which was set to expire after the 1966 season.

"I knew I couldn't recruit very successfully just having one year left on my contract, and they wouldn't have fired me here; I'm convinced of that," Bass said. "But I told them when I left the meeting with them, if I don't get an extension on my contract, the first job that comes along, I'm taking it."

That job came after the 1965 season, and after the program was docked five scholarships and fined $2,500 for violations involving three players receiving improper benefits.

On April 1, 1966, Bass resigned and headed to Canada. But the real shock came when NCAA investigators showed up across the border to speak with Bass almost three months after he left the Palmetto State.

The details of what went wrong have become clouded to the old coach in 40-plus years.

"I wish I could get this thing cleared up myself," Bass said. "It's bothered me all these years because I wasn't sure what the real story was."

Despite how things ended for Bass, the soon-to-be 89-year old said Columbia was his favorite stop during his coaching career, and he moved back to the area when he retired. He cites his inability to establish a consistent winner at USC as his biggest disappointment.

While his time at USC could be seen as ending with a black mark, his hope is his players do not view that season as a negative moment.

"I still claim sharing the conference (championship) with Duke," Bass said. "They took it away from us, but I still share it in my own mind, and I hope all those players share it their mind, too."

BOBBY BRYANT: THE SUPERSTAR

Bass will not take credit for Bobby Bryant's success. The man who recruited the eventual All-ACC performer as both a defensive back and left-handed pitcher called Bryant a "self-made player."

But Bryant admits he had an ulterior motive to play baseball.

"Spring (football) practice was the worst thing you had to do. For me to able to get out of it was great. I didn't mind at all," Bryant said.

On the football field, Bryant finished 1965 with 11 punt returns for 161 yards, making him the ACC leader. His three interceptions were tops on the team.

After 20-plus seasons of playing football, Bryant admits the plays have begun to blur together a bit.

"I've probably been hit so much in the head that I don't remember all the stuff, but certain plays I remember," said Bryant, who is a salemsan with Quacked Glass in Lancaster. "Some of the guys I played with, when we get together they talk about certain games we played in back then and they say, 'Bobby, you remember that game you fumbled three punts?' And I say, 'I never fumbled three punts. What are you talking about?'"

None of Bryant's interceptions were bigger than the one against Clemson. For the first time in their 70-year rivalry, the teams were meeting with the possibility of the winner receiving a share of the ACC title.

During Clemson's potential game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, Bryant picked off a pass at the USC 12-yard line.

Clemson scored on its next possession with 40 seconds remaining to close the deficit to 17-16. Tiger coach Frank Howard lined up his team for the point-after attempt but instead went for a two-point conversion, the win and the conference crown. USC's Bob Gunnels deflected the pass and sealed the title for USC.

The win also cemented Bryant's place in the rivalry's history.

"My freshman team beat Clemson, my sophomore year we beat Clemson, my junior year we beat Clemson, and my senior we played them here and they killed us," Bryant said. "At least I had that to say when they say, 'Bobby, what was your record (against Clemson) when you played there?' It was 3-1, as a matter of fact."

After the ACC ruled the co-championship would be awarded to Clemson and N.C. State, Howard said, "the score was 17-16 as far as I'm concerned" and seemingly refused to accept the title. The Tigers and Wolfpack both recognize 1965 as championship seasons.

What happened after the Clemson game remains a bit of mystery to Bryant. He said he was surprised when Bass left the program for the job in Montreal.

"I don't recall whether there was any controversy or what the general opinion of him was or why he was leaving," Bryant said. "We had certain players that they knew everything that was going on, and it really didn't concern me."

The loss of the ACC title also surprised Bryant, who said players were never formally told why the league was vacating the championship they had been celebrating for almost eight months.

"When you look at the guy or guys that caused us to have it taken away, I don't think any of them were such superstars that if you had taken their part of the equation away that it would have changed anything," Bryant said. "We did win and were co-champions. Our record proved that."

Bryant believes what happened that season is another point of discussion in the search for reasons the program never has achieved elite status.

"The history of South Carolina, football especially, is just 'shoulda, coulda, woulda,' 'if only,' or 'what if' or 'man, we were so close.' It's not a real glorious past," Bryant said. "That's just another chapter on how we screwed something up that should have been, could have been a good chapter."

Bryant went on to play 14 seasons in the NFL as part of the heralded "Purple People Eater" defense with the Minnesota Vikings. During that time, the team appeared in four Super Bowls, each of which Bryant received a championship ring for.

But the piece of championship jewelry that has befuddled him was the little, gold football charm given to the players to commemorate the 1965 ACC championship. Bryant still is not sure what he was supposed to do with it.

"I wasn't sure if I was supposed to put it on a charm bracelet or put it on a gold chain and wear it around my neck or give it to my girlfriend," Bryant said. "I wasn't one for a lot of jewelry and stuff. I look at it once in a while when I go in there to get something out, and I say, 'My little co-championship football that no longer represents what happened.'"

BENNY GALLOWAY: THE B.G. BOYS TAKE THE STAGE

All athletes claim to believe the upcoming season will be a special one. But Benny Galloway had reason to believe the 1965 USC team was destined to do great things.

Galloway played on the 1964 freshman team, which lost one game. The previous season, the freshman squad had gone undefeated. So the team appeared to have plenty of talent in 1965.

In Galloway, the coaches found a stocky and powerful running back. Then there was Ben Garnto, a quicker and multi-faceted runner who could complement Galloway.

The pair were placed in the backfield together and became one of the first great running back tandems at USC

It also made for a great nickname.

"I don't know (how it happened), because we had a lot of great running backs that came in '64," Galloway said. "And it was ironic that we had the same initials, and I think the press picked up on it and said, 'Hey, we may have something here.' Let's do this and see if that happens, and that became the B.G. Boys back then. And it worked good."

Galloway and Garnto each averaged more than 4 yards per carry that season, with Garnto's 437 yards leading the team. Galloway was not far behind with 415.

The pair's biggest day came in a 38-7 victory against Wake Forest. Garnto broke loose for an 89-yard run to the Demon Deacons' 5-yard line for what at the time was the longest non-scoring play in ACC history. Galloway capped the drive with one of his two rushing scores.

Galloway attributes much of the team's success to the connection between the players and coaches.

"The (coaches) we had then, it just seemed like you wanted to do things more for them because they were the ones that recruited you and was taking care of you and, really, other than you mother and father, your coaches raise you," Galloway said.

Nearly 45 years removed from that season, Galloway still cannot put his finger on what caused the Gamecocks to forfeit the championship. He believes the story of what happened has not been talked about or well documented since because of the upheaval in the program at the time, specifically the transition in coaches from Bass to Paul Dietzel and the school's hope that the change might put the issue behind it.

Yet Galloway emphasizes that he and his teammates share the idea that they were the first true championship football team at South Carolina.

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