BILL FOSTER FOUND OUT. So, too, did George Felton and Steve Newton and Eddie Folger and Dave Odom and Darrin Horn. In the end, they all learned that the men’s basketball head-coaching position at South Carolina is as difficult and challenging as any in the country.
Nebraska. Auburn. Northwestern. Washington State. South Carolina. All have one commonality: No coaches have been able to build sustained success for those programs. Yet with every coaching change, there remains optimism.
“The person coming in, yes, I don’t think there’s any question about it, they will have their challenges,” Hyman said. “But when I look back at some of our other sports, they’ve had their challenges and been able to overcome them.”
With all due respect to football, baseball, women’s basketball, soccer and just about every other sport at USC, none faces the challenges of men’s basketball. Five reasons why the job is so difficult:
South Carolina ranks 24th nationally in population with nearly five million people. As a result, USC has a smaller talent base to draw from in every sport, but it is most noticeable in men’s basketball with neighboring states Georgia (ninth in population) and North Carolina (10th) producing far more prospects than South Carolina.
When he arrived at USC in 1964, Frank McGuire knew there was little or no basketball talent within the state. Just as he had done in developing a national championship team at North Carolina, McGuire established a pipeline of talent from the streets of New York City to Columbia.
New York City kids wanted to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, considered by most to be the best men’s basketball league in the country and one USC belonged to at the time. The pipeline produced an ACC regular-season and tournament championship, and three NCAA tournament appearances.
When USC left the ACC following the 1970-71 season, the pipeline eventually went dry. McGuire was forced to find players elsewhere, and the program has suffered ever since. While other programs can tap into their home state for prospects, USC coaches have attempted to cull them out of Georgia, North Carolina and sometimes the junior-college ranks.
While the common belief is that top prospects growing up in this state long to play for ACC schools such as North Carolina and Duke, the numbers do not bear that out, at least not since 1998.
Of the 18 top-100 ranked high school players in the country from South Carolina since then, according to RSCI recruiting service, USC and Clemson have kept 11 at home. Three (Mike Jones, Devan Downey and Buck Fredrick) of the seven who initially went out of state to play transferred back to USC.
The problem does not appear to be players leaving the state as much as it does the state simply not producing top-level talent. Five of those 18 top-tier players are still playing in college. Of the remaining 13 who completed their college eligibility, only one played in the NBA.
Of course, that one was Raymond Felton, considered the third-best prospect in the country coming out of Latta High School in 2002. Felton, who said he grew up a UNC fan, led the Tar Heels to a national championship, was a first-round pick in the NBA draft and now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Years of USC playing as an independent (1972-1983) and as a member of the Metro Conference (1984-1991) proved to be the long-range demise of the program, mostly because it could not recruit big-time prospects. Since the McDonald’s All-American game was established in 1977, USC has signed only three players (Terry Dozier, 1985; BJ McKie, 1995; and Rolando Howell, 2000) who were participants.
It is difficult to build successful teams with that as your baseline of success in recruiting.
2. SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE
While joining the SEC has proved to be a godsend for USC in football, it is has done no favors to the men’s basketball program. Geographically, the SEC is a killer for men’s basketball.
Year-in and year-out, the ACC remains one of the best leagues for men’s basketball, and USC has the misfortune of being located smack in the middle of that conference. In football, USC can go into neighboring states and sell playing in the SEC to recruits. In basketball, it generally is wasted effort to convince prime prospects in the ACC area to come play in the SEC.
The SEC also has a reputation, however warranted, of being a “cheater’s league” in men’s basketball. While the label might not apply to all programs, the belief is that a program needs to cheat in recruiting to be successful. To its credit, USC has never employed a coach who went to those measures to succeed.
3. TWO-SPORT CHALLENGE
Until the past couple of seasons, USC generally has not enjoyed high-level success in football. It will take a few more seasons of bowl wins and challenges to the SEC East championship before football is considered a long-term success.
To reach that level in the two major sports has proven to be difficult to do for a state’s flagship school across the country. The list is short. Florida. Texas. Oklahoma. Michigan. Ohio State. It has happened on occasion at other SEC schools -- Tennessee, LSU, Alabama -- but not often.
The truth of the matter is that most of the resources at schools such as USC are pumped into football, and that is OK with its fan base.
Let’s get right to the point: Colonial Life Arena hangs like an albatross around the neck of the men’s basketball program. It is too big. It has few good site lines for basketball. Rarely do fans create a homecourt advantage. Other than that, it is a beautiful building.
USC will never be able to erase the mistake of pumping $60 million into an 18,000-seat arena instead of spending less money to make the 12,000-seat Carolina Coliseum a palace for college basketball.
So, USC will have to live with a place that is much better suited as a hangar for the school’s Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering program. Of the 171 games played in the building since it opened in November of 2002, a whopping five had sellout crowds. Three of those were against Kentucky, which means fans likely came to see the opponent rather than USC.
Part of the problem with low attendance at basketball games is the football season runs into January. Basketball fans -- particularly students -- do not pay much attention to the team until the football season is complete. By then, half of the basketball season is complete.
While season-ticket sales to USC men’s basketball have dropped 35 percent over the past four years, the dip represents a trend in fan following across the country. Average attendance for home games in college basketball has dropped from 5,548 in 2007 to 5,237 in 2011, according to USA Today.
USC does not have much.
It is easy to romanticize about the Frank McGuire days. Basketball was king in Columbia then, mostly because USC had enjoyed very little success in any other sport. The Gamecocks once were ranked No. 1 in the country. They went unbeaten in the ACC during a regular season and captured a tournament title in another.
But the fact is, those glory days were short-lived. McGuire teams posted six consecutive 20-win seasons, then reeled on a steady decline until he departed following the 1979-80 season.
What perhaps proved to be McGuire’s greatest accomplishment was winning NCAA tournament games in 1972 and 1973. Amazingly enough, USC has not won one since.
Foster and Felton each produced one 20-plus win season. Fogler won an SEC regular-season championship and took two teams to the NCAA tournament. Odom won a pair of NIT championships. Horn won a share of an SEC East title.
In the end, every one of those coaches departed with the recognition that USC is one of the most difficult and challenging jobs in the country.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)