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Morris: USC looks ahead, not back

By any measuring stick, South Carolina’s 2007-08 year of athletics was abysmal. From the collapse of the football team to the baseball team’s late-season failures, USC and its fans had little to cheer about.

That does not mean USC should shut down its program. Anyone with a little foresight can see that this sorry year was a blip on the long-range radar. One day in the not-so-distant future, USC fans will reflect on these trying times as part of the necessary building process to obtaining sustained success in all sports.

“I see the light in front of us,” says Eric Hyman, USC’s athletics director. “I say that very sincerely. I’m not saying that because it’s propaganda or because I’m supposed to say that. I believe in that.”

There is good reason that USC fans should believe Hyman. For perhaps the first time in program history, Hyman has a long-term plan. He has embarked on a $200 million capital fund-raising campaign, the first of its kind in USC athletics department history.

With those funds, Hyman believes USC’s facilities in all sports will match those of any SEC opponent. On top of that, Hyman is proving to be adept at hiring coaches. Perhaps for the first time in school history, USC has a solid lineup of coaches.

“If you look across the board, one of my jobs is to give resources and facilities to our coaches to where they can reach their potential,” Hyman says. “Quite frankly, our presentation isn’t what it needs to be.

“It’s not all about presentation, but it’s a very important part of the decision-making process. In this conference we’re in, it’s accentuated and it’s highlighted because it’s the most aggressive, best conference in the country.”

There was a time in the early 1970s when USC had among the finest facilities in the country. USC was ahead of the curve when it came to dormitories for athletes, athletic fields and indoor practice facilities.

Unfortunately, USC failed to keep pace in facilities with its brethren, either in the ACC, which it left in 1971, or in the SEC, which it joined in 1992. In the interim, it did not appear USC was losing ground because it was comparing facilities with the inferior Metro Conference.

Give the previous athletics administration credit, it generally hired well. As a result, USC coaches produced beyond their means in many sports. Those sound hiring practices culminated in USC placing 11th in 2002 in the annual Directors Cup standings, which takes into account team finishes in all sports.

At the time, the previous athletics director said it was USC’s goal to finish in the top 20 of the Directors Cup standings every year. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, the AD told USC coach Curtis Frye that facilities improvements were not needed in track and field. The thinking was that Frye won a national women’s track championship in 2002 with inferior facilities, and he could do it again with the same facilities.

That line of thinking verified that USC’s success in athletics in 2002 and 2003 (18th in the Directors Cup) was founded with a house of cards. Quick fixes and makeshift accommodations in many sports meant the inevitable collapse was coming. It just took five more years to occur.

There is no denying that the collapse was total. Men’s golf placed second in the SEC championships, only to fall apart in NCAA competition. Women’s soccer, with a 5-4-2 record, posted the only winning mark against SEC competition where standings were kept.

That was the extent of USC’s success. It fell to 70th in the Directors Cup standings, its lowest ranking in the past 10 years. After placing fourth among SEC schools in 2002 and 2003, USC ranked 10th among the 12 SEC schools this year. For only the second time in the past 10 years, USC finished below Clemson in the rankings.

“It was a disappointing year. I don’t think there is any question about it,” Hyman says. “But what we’re trying to do is not something that’s going to happen overnight. What we’re trying to achieve and accomplish here is going to take some time. It’s taken us awhile to be where we are, and it’s going to take us awhile to get where we need to be.”

As disappointing as the year was, the reality is that a good showing in any of the four major sports would have soothed some of the hurt. One more win in football and a bowl game appearance would have shed a different light on the year.

Blame Steve Spurrier for that failure, not because his team lost its final five games to finish 6-6, but because he got ahead of himself in saying USC was ready to challenge for SEC championships. He now enters year four of a major rebuilding project, and there is every reason to believe good times are on the horizon.

The men’s and women’s basketball programs operated another season in transition, and the hiring of two bright young minds as coaches bodes well.

Even with the shortcomings in those sports, USC fans held out hope that baseball would reach the College World Series. It never happened, and a break-even record against SEC competition and an early NCAA tournament exit only extended an already long year in athletics.

There is something to be said for hitting rock bottom before any climb to success begins. The tide will turn for USC and when it does, Gamecocks’ fans will know that new-found success was realized by building a solid foundation. The odds are much greater this time around that success will be sustained, and not a one-time fling as in years past.