Fred Watson gathered his Benedict College men’s basketball team in late August prior to a preseason conditioning practice. He had some big news.
“We’re playing the University of South Carolina!” Watson screamed for all to hear.
Then he stood and watched as some players danced in place. Others sprinted around the Benedict gym, chest bumps and hand slaps all around. The jubilation was not to be shared only with Watson and those 15 players. It was a joyous occasion for an entire college.
“It’s a big deal for those guys,” Watson said. “It helps us in recruiting, knowing we get the opportunity to compete against USC, an SEC program. It’s great for our community.”
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Even though it is considered an exhibition game by NCAA rules, Sunday’s 4 p.m. tipoff at Colonial Life Arena is believed to be the first meeting between the two schools in any athletic competition.
NCAA Division I programs are permitted to play one exhibition game each preseason against a lower-division program. USC coach Frank Martin has said he would prefer those games be against in-state, Division II programs. A season ago, USC played USC Aiken.
Martin made the Benedict game work.
“I’m all about putting our players in places where they realize just how important it is to understand the power they have . . . to impact people in the community in which they live,” Martin said. “This is a great moment to be able to do that.”
Since the game’s official announcement on Sept. 26, the Benedict community has been abuzz with excitement. The date played perfectly into Benedict’s calendar with alumni in Columbia for Saturday’s Homecoming football game.
“The game itself is kind of meaningless. . . . This is what you want,” Watson said. “This is what our players want. There is no way we could turn this down. We won’t scoreboard watch because it’s bigger than that. I can’t minimize what it means.”
When Martin was hired at USC in late March of 2012 he immediately organized a coaching clinic at Richland Northeast High School and invited high school and small-college coaches from around the state. At that meeting, Martin distributed his cellphone number to all coaches and asked that they keep in contact.
Watson immediately took Martin up on the offer, and a friendship was formed. Watson is a frequent visitor to Martin’s practices, forever in search of better ways to run his basketball program.
Watson has been known to text Martin in the middle of the night, once asking the USC coach what to do in “pin-down” situations where a screen is set for a bigger guard near the basket. Watson was stunned when Martin responded immediately.
The two developed a mutual admiration, Watson knowing of Martin’s successful coaching stint at Kansas State, and Martin learning of the successful program Watson has built in 10 seasons at Benedict. Watson’s Benedict teams are 214-79 and have won four SIAC regular-season titles and two league tournament crowns. He has been named conference coach of the year five times.
When Martin heard from Bobby Gist, USC’s executive assistant to the president for equal opportunity programs and a 1969 Benedict graduate, that USC and Benedict have never met on an athletic field, the coach went to work on making the exhibition game happen.
“He stepped outside the box to do this. He didn’t have to play us,” Watson said. “I think he just wanted to do this so much for the community. He wanted to show people the community can come together. He will play this game. He will help us out. He’s here for the community.”
USC also will pay Benedict a $7,500 guarantee for the game. While the amount does not sound like much to those who follow big-time athletics, it is a nice sum for a basketball program that operates on a limited budget. Watson said the money will help with his recruiting budget and also could go toward practice gear and additional shoes for the players.
“It does wonders for us,” Watson said. “It might be a small drop in the bucket to them, but it’s a big deal for us.”
Much like the game itself.