On the morning of Sept. 25, 1990, the Southeastern Conference officially extended an invitation to South Carolina to join its league. The Gamecocks were not going to let the sun set on the offer.
Interim university president Art Smith called then-commissioner Roy Kramer as soon as he left the Board of Trustees meeting that made the school’s acceptance official to say yes.
“I said, ‘Art, when do you want to announce this?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve got a problem. My board of trustees knows we’ve made this decision, and I know it’ll be out by 8 or 9 o’clock tonight, so we need to make it as quick as we can,’” Kramer said. “Well, I’m in Birmingham, Ala., at the time and it’s about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and Art wanted to set it up (the announcement) before dark at the stadium.”
After what Kramer remembers as a 15-minute flight, he was standing next to Smith at Williams-Brice Stadium that evening.
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“There was a full moon,” Kramer said. “It was a magnificent scene, looking out over the city as we made that announcement. It’s one of the most memorable nights I can ever remember in my career in athletics.”
It is the most important moment in the history of Gamecocks athletics. The impact of South Carolina’s 25 years in the SEC has been hard for the school’s power brokers to put into words in the days leading up the anniversary, but this from trustee Miles Loadholt is the general sentiment.
“Not being an independent,” Loadholt said, “it just means everything in the world.”
After leaving the ACC following the 1970 season, the Gamecocks football team spent the next 20 years as an independent, but college football’s landscape was beginning to change in the early ’90s. The Big Ten started the ball rolling when it brought in Penn State in the summer of 1990.
“Our board of trustees and our president were very clear, the priority was to seek conference affiliation, and we went after it with all we had,” said King Dixon, South Carolina’s athletics director at the time.
Dixon also reached out to the ACC, where the Gamecocks had played from 1953-1970, including during his time as a player, but he didn’t pursue a reunion with that league, he said.
“It just would not have been a good fit for a variety of reasons,” he said.
The SEC, on the other hand, looked like the Promised Land. The league didn’t pursue any schools, Kramer said. It simply announced it was taking calls and waited for the phone to ring. South Carolina called early and often, Kramer said.
“We went after the SEC with everything we had,” Dixon said.
One of Dixon’s most lasting memories of the process of joining the league is asking conference officials for a ballpark figure of how much annual money he should expect to receive from the league so he could work on the next year’s budget.
When he was told $1.1 to $1.2 million, it seemed too good to be true. In 1990, the Gamecocks had a total athletics revenue of $14.8 million and finished the year with a deficit of $233,745. It’s the last time the department has run in the red.
“The revenue has certainly meant everything in the world, not only to the athletic department, but to the entire university,” Loadholt said.
In 2014, South Carolina’s athletics department revenue was $98.6 million, and athletics routinely gives more than seven-figure payouts to its academic side.
Joining the league has also helped the school in less quantifiable ways. It was helped recruit everything from more students to better coaches. It even helped recruit the school president.
When Harris Pastides was hired away from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to be the dean of South Carolina’s school of public health in 1998, the draw of being in the SEC was part of his decision-making process, he said.
“Among other things, I said, ‘The SEC, wow,’ having grown up and watched so many of those legendary names compete,” Pastides said. “I was not thinking of being the president then. I was thinking of buying a ticket.”
“It’s a brand,” Pastides continued. “You look at that logo and that is one of the most valued brands, and it doesn’t only mean successful financially.”
When Ray Tanner left North Carolina State to become South Carolina’s baseball coach in 1997, joining the SEC was a factor.
“The SEC, certainly, had an impact on my decision,” said Tanner, now the Gamecocks’ athletics director. “And my wife was a Carolina graduate. That was the rest of the impact.”
South Carolina teams have won 19 regular season or conference tournament titles since joining the league, and all of the school’s six national team titles have come since joining the league, but Tanner knows as well as anybody that the schedule that comes along with joining in the SEC is not a cakewalk in many sports.
“There have been a lot of days where the competition has been very, very difficult, and, as a coach, sometimes you may wish for a different opponent, but once you get beyond that, we are where we need to be,” he said. “The SEC has been great for us as Gamecocks, the city and the University of South Carolina.”
Where South Carolina might be now without that 25-year-old bid to the SEC, Tanner doesn’t even think about, he said.
“I don’t know if I can what-if, but I can’t imagine it would be better,” he said. “It’s not like we’re sitting here today saying, ‘If we had done this or we’d have done that, we’d be better positioned.’ No. Those conversations are not thought about.
“We are where we belong.”