It remains a footnote, an eight-year blip between periods where South Carolina wandered the desert of independent athletics before finding the lush green meadows of the SEC.
The Gamecocks were once a member of one of the finest, if undersung, basketball leagues in the country.
“It was the same model of the Big East, but they had the backing of ESPN,” said Brian Binette, who worked USC home games as a media relations student assistant before becoming assistant sports information director in 1987. “We had big schools, different metropolitan areas – therefore the name Metro Conference.”
Saturday’s game hosting Memphis isn’t just the Gamecocks’ final nonconference contest, it’s a rekindling of a long-ago rivalry. USC and the Tigers (known as Memphis State until 1994) were brother members of the Metro from 1983-91, before the Gamecocks joined the SEC and the Metro began petering out.
The game recalls a lot of old memories. Frank Martin watched the league early in his career, and later joined Bob Huggins, who coached two seasons in the Metro at Cincinnati. One of Martin’s assistants, Perry Clark, was two-time league coach of the year at Tulane.
“It was an unbelievable basketball conference. It was one of those leagues, it’s kind of like the SEC right now. That it’s real good, but for whatever reason, nobody thinks it’s any good,” Martin said. “That’s the way that league used to be good – South Carolina was good, Cincinnati was good, Memphis was good.”
The Metro was created in 1975 as a league built around basketball and TV. Foreshadowing how ESPN would partner with the Big East later in the decade, Raycom Sports and six schools (Cincinnati, Louisville, Tulane, Memphis, St. Louis and Georgia Tech) formed the Metro. Georgia Tech soon left for the ACC, but Florida State joined, giving the league a foothold as a basketball-strong, independent football power.
“Great basketball league, with incredible cities,” Binette said. “We were going to Cincinnati and Louisville, not Auburn or Starkville. We had a couple of trips to New Orleans. At South Carolina, the general rule of thumb was we were a big football program who needed a basketball conference.”
Gamecock basketball had slipped since 1971, when Frank McGuire won his only ACC tournament and the school departed the conference. He was still winning as an independent, but not as much, and Bill Foster was hired from Duke in 1980.
Foster’s program joined the Metro after three years as an independent, and had three straight losing league seasons. He was replaced by George Felton in 1986, and USC began climbing. Signing the program’s first McDonald’s All-American, Terry Dozier from Baltimore, helped.
“I got to see (the Metro) in games, because of the NCAA tournament,” Dozier said. “Louisville won it in 1986, and they had played in the 1983 Final Four against (Houston) Phi Slama Jama. I didn’t know anything about South Carolina ... Gamecocks? What were they? I thought I could come down here and help them climb out of the cellar.”
It took time. Louisville and Memphis were the top two teams, and their games against each other were hateful. USC began to build rivalries, with the Hokies because of proximity, and the Cardinals and Tigers because of the crowds.
“It was Keith Lee and Dana Kirk and all those guys, played in the old (Memphis) Mid-South Coliseum,” Binette said. “We played at (Louisville’s) Freedom Hall – those games were knockdown drag-out games.
“Dell Curry (at Virginia Tech) would make a shot from press row. (Former USC SID) Tom Price would sit on the side of the court and half the game, Dell was making shots and falling in his lap.”
USC began to make headway under Felton and clinched the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since McGuire in 1989. It was shortly after that the Metro started to plan for the next decade.
Raycom was ahead of its time in thinking the future of college athletics was in super-conferences. It drew up a plan for a 16-team Metro, with basketball the focus but giving each football school its due.
There would be two eight-team divisions or four four-team divisions. The Metro in 1990 was USC, Cincinnati, Tulane, Louisville, Memphis, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Southern Miss. It would add Boston College, Syracuse, Pitt, Miami, Rutgers, Temple, West Virginia and East Carolina.
The package would have been lucrative for TV markets, retained traditional rivalries and been a forerunner for the expansion of today. But the basketball powers of the Metro such as Memphis, Louisville and Cincinnati were keeping money earned from NCAA tournament appearances instead of revenue-sharing, so when it came to a school like USC, there wasn’t much thought of being a Metro football team.
“Football was independent and everything centered around the big money-maker,” Dozier said.
Florida State joined the ACC. USC joined the SEC. The Big East expanded from its basketball-centered creator to begin playing football with Pitt, Virginia Tech and Miami. The Metro scattered to eventually become most of Conference USA.
The Gamecocks settled into the SEC (although their men’s soccer team ironically joined C-USA since the SEC doesn’t field the sport). Financially, it was the best decision ever made.
Emotionally, there are still a few regrets.
“It was the dark ages for our program because it was a great conference, but we were in it for such a short time,” Dozier said. “We got our first Metro tournament win by beating Florida State, and I broke Keith Lee’s record by scoring 38 points. That record will never be broken because they disbanded the conference.
“Many wish we had stayed in the ACC because of that success back in the day. But money drives everybody’s decision, and football drives that decision. The SEC has proven to be the best overall move for us. The Metro, it didn’t draw the interest that a super-conference would have.”
The Gamecocks and other former Metro teams have met sparingly, but Memphis holds a notable spot in USC postseasons. It was the Tigers that beat USC for the 2002 NIT championship, and then again in 2004, the last time the Gamecocks went to the NCAA tournament. Saturday’s reunion will bring forth a few more memories.
“Clarence Weatherspoon at Southern Miss, he was the Charles Barkley of the Metro,” Binette said. “Louisville had Pervis Ellison. Memphis had all those great teams.
“It was better basketball. People look back on it now, wow, the teams were great. Good, good basketball in that league.”
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Memphis (9-3) at No. 24 USC (12-0)
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Next game: The Gamecocks tip off at Auburn at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
Memphis (9-3) at No. 24 USC (12-0)
Memphis’ probable starters: G Ricky Tarrant 6-2 Sr. (13.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Markel Crawford 6-5 So. (6.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg); G Avery Woodson 6-2 Jr. (8.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg); G/F Dedric Lawson 6-9 Fr. (15.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg); F Shaq Goodwin 6-9 Sr. (12.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg)
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 Fr. (8.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Jr. (10.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg); F Mindaugas Kacinas 6-7 Sr. (12.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg); F Michael Carrera 6-5 Sr. (12.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg); C Laimonas Chatkevicius 6-11 Sr. (11.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg)