September 1990. The cry rattled from Hilton Head to Greenville – after years of wandering in the wilderness as an independent, South Carolina was joining the Southeastern Conference.
The move meant money. Spotlights. National exposure. Surely success, long-term success that Gamecock fans had always desired, would follow.
It has. It just took a while.
USC’s athletics program is in its heyday, a revived football team leading the way. Division, conference and national championships have arrived in Columbia.
“The perception among the member institutions about the culture here are so different than they were,” said athletics director Ray Tanner, at USC since 1996. “It’s not easy in the Southeastern Conference. It’s a great conference, the best one in the country as far as competition, revenue, exposure, but it’s a tremendous challenge to sustain success.”
The majority of the 22 years since they first suited up for SEC competition were like USC’s previous athletics history – pockets of brilliance that cast little light on the overall dark surroundings. While enjoying the view in 2014, the perches from 1992 on were usually looking up at the rest of the conference.
Steve Spurrier, a crucial piece of USC’s rise, put it best.
“We got up there a little bit, but we’re still not at the top.”
After three consecutive 11-win seasons, the Gamecocks open a new season on Thursday night, playing host to Texas A&M in the first game televised by the new SEC Network.
COME OUT AND PLAY
SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer announced in 1990 that the SEC was considering expansion; the league wouldn’t recruit, but if schools were interested in joining, the SEC would listen.
“South Carolina was independent at the time and contacted us, and to us, it became very attractive,” Kramer said. “They’re a state university, broad-based, with a significant commitment to all sports. They had a great fan base, which was significant, because it was very similar to fan bases that our other schools had. It was a favorable match from the beginning.”
Arkansas had joined in July 1990 and USC’s addition gave the conference 12 schools. That enabled the football squads to split into two divisions and have a championship game, starting the SEC’s rise to a national power.
USC was simply trying to hang on. The years from 1992-98 had some highlights (men’s basketball and softball won SEC championships in 1997) but the flagship program, football, had two winning seasons.
“I felt that we were the new kids on the block,” Tanner said. “There were even publicized statements about do we belong, are we worthy of being in the SEC?”
“That was a wake-up call to everybody,” said Senior Associate AD Charles Bloom, a 1985 USC graduate and longtime SEC staffer.
Lou Holtz suffered through an 0-11 season in 1999, stretching the football losing streak to 21 games, but the nation noticed something – fans didn’t give up.
“We had a little bit of an advantage coming in that, maybe, wasn’t realized immediately, but it was evident – that’s our fan base,” Tanner said. “We had that kind of fan support.”
Tanner’s baseball team became a national power in a few short years. Other teams were solidifying.
Holtz’s second team stunned everyone, posting the biggest turnaround in the nation on its way to eight wins. That led to a 9-3 season in 2001 and another bowl victory.
“While they weren’t conference champs or division champs, they proved to be very competitive,” Kramer said. “They had enjoyed success in other sports, particularly baseball, but coach Holtz did a great job in bringing a new enthusiasm.”
It didn’t last. While other teams rose (women’s track and field won the school’s first team national championship), football slid. Holtz’s final three seasons were disappointing. He retired, but then-AD Mike McGee already had a successor lined up.
It didn’t hurt that the new guy had already proven himself as an SEC winner.
WHY NOT US?
It’s still surreal. Reporters and fans packed into Williams-Brice Stadium’s south end zone and in walks Spurrier. Was this really happening?
“When coach Spurrier took over in 2004, I remember it distinctly – I said to my coaches that our name recognition and our branding has just taken on a whole new meaning,” Tanner said.
USC was suddenly the national topic. Could Spurrier do what he had always done, at a place where wins had been scarce?
“That was a major, major factor and I still salute Mike McGee in that achievement of hiring coach Spurrier,” said Chuck Allen, a Board of Trustees member and former football defensive captain. “I always felt personally that our university, athletically, had a lot of potential. Some people said ‘sleeping giant,’ and I shared that sentiment.”
Spurrier’s first season also brought in AD Eric Hyman, an architect of several programs. Seeing that USC needed fuel to lift off, Hyman began making tough decisions.
USC quit dealing in fives and tens in favor of fifties and hundreds. As popular as Spurrier made USC, and as well as some of the other sports were doing, the athletics department was in debt. That had to change if the Gamecocks were going to truly contend.
SPEND IT TO MAKE IT
Facilities began to be constructed or improved. Wins, from football to baseball to women’s soccer to women’s basketball, began to mount. Hyman’s vision, paired with the Spurrier spotlight, began to raise USC to the next level.
“We weren’t up to SEC standards in facilities,” Allen said. “When we instituted the YES plan, that was challenging, and we lost some good people. I hated to see that, because some of those supporters had been with us a long time and, just for me personally, some of them paid for my scholarship. But we were at a real disadvantage because we were definitely in the bottom half.”
USC football began to win, averaging seven victories over Spurrier’s first five years but exploding into a 42-win program over the past four. Top-five national rankings came in football, baseball, women’s basketball. Tanner’s teams won back-to-back national championships and then he succeeded Hyman.
Facilities are being improved as money continues to pour in. USC is now considered one of the top athletics programs in the SEC.
“I’ve never been much on ranking people, but I certainly think they deserve their status as a strong member of the SEC,” Kramer said. “I think that’s what all our schools expected when we brought them into the conference.”
“I always thought Carolina had potential,” Bloom said. “There’s an aura around campus of a certain type of confidence. Athletics, while it’s not the most important thing on campus, it is the front porch and it is visible and people do hang their hat on it.”
USC has reached the point of sustained success. It’s not satisfied.
“It took a serious, serious commitment to get us to this point. Now we’re a contender,” Allen said. “There’s more work to do, no doubt, but so far, the results have been very good. The immediate answer is to win division championships, conference championships, national championships.
“It’s a great time to be a Gamecock. I think most of our fans would tell you that.”