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Morrison's legacy looms 20 years after death

USC's Michael Roth throws to first for an out in the second inning during game two of the 2010 College World Series finals between South Carolina and UCLA at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb, Tuesday, June 29, 2010.
USC's Michael Roth throws to first for an out in the second inning during game two of the 2010 College World Series finals between South Carolina and UCLA at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb, Tuesday, June 29, 2010. Gerry Melendez

They met that chilly Sunday afternoon as they usually did. For the four men, ranging in age from mid-30s to early 50s, Sundays meant racquetball on the courts beneath Williams-Brice Stadium — intense “ex-jock” games that included jokes and laughter.

It always was the former USC players, attorney Ed “Punky” Holler and businessman Ken Wheat, against the coaches, defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn and his boss, Joe Morrison. The coaches usually won — “when we finally beat them one time, Joe put the score up on the (stadium) marquee,” Holler said — but the camaraderie was what counted.

Afterward, Morrison, who had been suffering from flu symptoms, kept sweating after the others had cooled down. His friends suggested the coach, who had a history of heart trouble, check with a team trainer. Morrison, though, wanted to take a shower first.

“He looked bad,” said Dunn, who was Morrison’s closest friend, almost a younger brother. “I went to call an ambulance. Then Joe started making all kinds of sounds. When I pulled the shower curtain back, he was stiff as a board, blue from waist to head.”

Teddy Heffner, then a reporter for The State who had befriended the coach, heard a police-scanner report of an ambulance at the stadium. At Providence Hospital, he saw Dunn waiting.

“Is (Morrison) OK?” Heffner asked.

“No. He’s not,” Dunn replied.

Morrison, 51, was pronounced dead at 9:03 p.m. on Feb. 5, 1989. On hand were Holler and Wheat, Morrison’s wife, JeVena, and athletics director King Dixon, who, on the job for four months, had been dealing with reports of a steroids scandal in Morrison’s football program.

Now, Dixon had to organize a memorial service. That Friday, several thousand fans, many clad in the all-black look Morrison made popular, sat in Williams-Brice as Dunn and Morrison’s former New York Giants teammates delivered eulogies.

Dixon recalls a moment at Trenholm Road United Methodist Church (services also were held in Morrison’s hometown of Lima, Ohio) when Alex Hawkins, Dixon’s former USC teammate from the 1950s, approached him.

“Knowing I have a strong faith,” Dixon said with a chuckle, “Alex put his arm around me and said, ‘How does it feel to be saved ... the second time?’ ”

Indeed, Morrison’s death likely spared USC (and Dixon) the wrenching decision of whether to fire its iconic coach.

Morrison, who in six seasons led USC football to its greatest heights — a 9-0 start and No. 2 national ranking in 1984, back-to-back eight-win bowl seasons in 1987 and ’88 — also presided over a team portrayed by Sports Illustrated as out of control and infested with drug abuse. In April 1989, three former members of Morrison’s staff — defensive line coach Jim Washburn, strength coach Keith Kephart and tight ends coach Tom Kurucz — pleaded guilty to reduced steroids charges; another, ex-defensive coordinator Tom Gadd, later was found innocent.

And yet, the day he died, Morrison remained immensely popular with USC’s fan base and players. He still does.

“Joe always took a personal interest in me, was quick to bring me to his office and say, ‘I’m going to lean on you,’” former All-American and NFL receiver Sterling Sharpe said.

“He gave me a little more responsibility than others. He had a lot of control over how I turned out.”

Twenty years later, that seeming paradox — control, and lack of control — remains unchanged when assessing Morrison’s impact.

Much of the current generation of USC fans never saw the “Black Magic” team that won a school-record 10 games; never saw Todd Ellis trigger the Gamecocks’ explosive offenses from 1986-88, flinging passes to Sharpe and Ryan Bethea. Never saw Morrison, hand cupped surreptitiously around a Marlboro, stalking the sideline, expressionless behind his trademark dark glasses.

They know about 1984 from signs at Williams-Brice, books and old videos. But they never knew Joe Morrison. But then, who did?

“At the memorial service, it struck me, even as people were reflecting about him, that very few knew him very well,” Ellis said. “I even put myself in that category.

“Not many knew who he really was.”

MAN OF FEW WORDS

In December 1982, USC athletics director Bob Marcum knew about Joe Morrison — by reputation from his New York Giants career and from having met the coach three years earlier at an All-America banquet. Marcum, hired in 1981 to replace Jim Carlen, was looking for a new coach after firing former Carlen assistant Richard Bell following a 4-7 season. And Morrison’s name kept coming up.

“Sam (Huff, like Marcum a West Virginian and a teammate of Morrison’s with the Giants) said Joe would be great for us,” Marcum, now the athletics director at Marshall, said. “I looked at his record at Tennessee-Chattanooga and at New Mexico and said, ‘Well, he must be a pretty good coach.’”

Morrison was looking to move, too. His 10-1 New Mexico team drew just 19,000 for its 1982 finale and failed to receive a bowl bid. In December, Washburn, who was recruiting in Dallas, took a call from his boss.

“He said, ‘We’re going somewhere,’” said Washburn, now with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Later, Morrison called back.

“He said, ‘Jimmy son, you’re from Shelby (N.C.); how far is that from Columbia?’” Washburn said. “I knew that was South Carolina. I told him, ‘Coach, we need to go there. They’ve got everything — 72,000-seat stadium, fans — and they’ve never been any good.’ ”

Meanwhile, Marcum contacted Morrison, who was visiting Tulane, and convinced him to come to Columbia. Over drinks, the two men wrote out a rough contract on a cocktail napkin, which Marcum still has.

Morrison made an early impression on players. Del Wilkes, an All-American offensive lineman in 1984 (and also a steroids user), had quit the team after Carlen’s firing but had set up a meeting with the new coach.

“I’m there at noon,” Wilkes said. “It gets to be 12:15, no Joe. Then he comes in, introduces himself and says, ‘Sorry I’m late. I tied one on last night and I’m still a little hung over.’

“I knew then he was a different kind of coach than I had played for.”

Morrison also impressed Gamecocks fans early, almost by accident. He showed up for a press day in all-black — shirt, pants, cap — because other coaching gear had not arrived. Asked about his look, he quipped, “It was clean, and it fit.”

That was Morrison’s first moment of memorable brevity. It was far from the last.

In 1983, USC finished 5-6, highlighted by a 38-14 dismantling of Southern Cal in Columbia. Excited fans jumping up and down caused the cantilevered upper decks to sway, as designed to do. Spectators, though, were frightened.

Asked about the movement, Morrison uttered this one-liner: “If they ain’t swayin’, we ain’t playin’.” Fans, and T-shirt makers, loved it.

“People felt they could reach out and touch Joe,” Marcum said. “He wasn’t going to engage in a long conversation, but he was accessible.”

The “swayin’” had just begun.

BLACK MAGIC

The 1984 season ignited with a stunning 17-10 upset of 12th-ranked Georgia and then skyrocketed, taking fans along for the ride. After a home victory against Florida State, the Gamecocks were 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. USC games were a senses-blasting experience, from the now-familiar “2001” opening to the “Fire Ants” nickname for the garnet-clad defense.

“I guess at that time, we came as close to rock-star status as you could be,” said Mike Hold, who along with Allen Mitchell quarterbacked USC’s veer offense. “Coach Mo, by his demeanor, had a lot to do that; he never allowed us to lose that focus.”

Not, that is, until an upset loss at Navy that kept USC out of a potential national title game. Still, enthusiasm for the Gamecocks and their coach hardly waned.

After 1984, Morrison turned down an offer from Arizona State, in part because of a bumper crop of recruits. In 1985, losses in the offensive line resulted in a 5-6 finish, but USC brought in Ellis, Bethea and future NFL tailback Harold Green. Even after a 3-6-2 record in 1986, the potential was obvious.

“We were in a hurry to get into the new (run-and-shoot) offense, get all the new players on the field,” Ellis, now a Columbia attorney, said. “We made mistakes and couldn’t quite hold on, but it was always about excitement.”

Ellis began to see other sides of his coach. Each Thursday, Morrison took his quarterbacks to dinner at USC’s Faculty House, where they met, among others, the coach’s wife and former NFL great Gale Sayers.

“That was coach Morrison at his most relaxed, telling stories about the NFL,” Ellis said. “That’s when I learned a lot about him.”

And yet, there remained a reserve in Morrison — perhaps because he had secrets to keep.

NOT INVINCIBLE

The first chink in Morrison’s aura of invincibility came in March 1985, when he underwent a balloon angioplasty to relieve a heart blockage. Morrison called the procedure “an interesting thing that snuck up on us,” and he briefly gave up — or said he did — his beloved cigarettes.

That fatalistic approach, said Dunn, was typical. “He knew he was going to die early,” he said. “His dad died when he was about 48; it was in the family. Joe never did try to quit (smoking). (His attitude was) ‘Enjoy it while I’m here.’”

“He wasn’t going to show (vulnerabilities),” Ellis said. “He was the John Wayne of football coaches.”

Potentially more image-damaging was the revelation in August 1987 that Morrison had been sued for child support by the mother of his out-of-wedlock daughter. Barbara Button and Morrison had begun an affair in New Mexico, and she followed the coach to South Carolina.

Holler, who represented Morrison in the paternity suit, will not discuss details of the case. But he said the incident, while embarrassing, did not damage the coach’s stature with most fans.

“He was that popular,” Holler said. “Winning and losing, that’s what makes the big difference.”

And the 1987 Gamecocks won. Ellis threw for 3,206 yards (the single-season USC record), Sharpe caught a then-record 74 passes for 1,106 yards, and Green rushed for 1,022 yards, most for USC since George Rogers in 1980.

After a 2-2 start, USC routed its next six opponents by an average score of 38-10, including a 20-7 defeat of Clemson.

But then the eighth-ranked Gamecocks lost 20-16 at No. 2 Miami and were pummeled by No. 7 LSU, 30-13, in the Gator Bowl. Morrison changed offenses again, firing offensive coordinator Frank Sadler and replacing him with ex-Wake Forest coach Al Groh.

In 1988, USC’s new run-and-shoot offense worked — at first — in a 6-0 start. But at Georgia Tech, the eighth-ranked Gamecocks were stunned, 34-0. A week later, Sports Illustrated made former USC lineman Tommy Chaikin a household name, steroids a national topic — and the Morrison era began to unravel.

HITTING THE ICEBERG

If the iceberg that sank Morrison’s program was Chaikin’s assertion that “upwards of 50 percent” of the USC team was using steroids and coaches were providing them, the iceberg’s tip had been visible for some time.

Before the 1987 Gator Bowl, lineman Woody Myers was banned after tests revealed steroids usage. The following spring, Bethea — a disciplinary disruption who went largely unpunished — was arrested for marijuana and cocaine possession, and later declared ineligible for his dealings with an agent.

“There were Ryan’s rules and everyone else’s,” said former quarterback Mitchell. “Eventually, that breaks your morale.”

USC president James Holderman fired Marcum on March 1, 1988, for allegedly running a bogus drug-testing program (in 1990, Marcum sued for wrongful dismissal and was awarded $234,000). Replacing Marcum was former Virginia coach and administrator Dick Bestwick, who lasted eight months before quitting due to health issues, which he now admits likely were job-related.

“The problems ... were legion,” Bestwick, now living in Athens, Ga., said. “The drug problem, the way the strength program was run, academics ... It was, ‘go with the flow.’

“Joe was really a pro coach in his whole approach, not a lot of discipline. And he had some assistants who were border-line at following the rules. ... Joe didn’t pay a lot of attention as long as things got done.”

Player Jones Andrews, who confronted Morrison after one of Bethea’s unpunished violations, said Morrison’s reputation for discipline took a beating, especially with players — Chaikin and George Hyder, among others — inclined to use drugs.

“Joe didn’t care if guys went to jail, so long as they played on Saturday,” Andrews, a Columbia attorney, said. “He treated us like adults, but sometimes the discipline wasn’t there. I don’t think he would’ve done well in today’s climate.”

All other issues, though, paled next to SI’s allegations (Chaikin, reached at his home in Maryland, did not respond to interview requests for this story). Assistant coaches fled: Washburn to Purdue, offensive line coach Mike Bender to Rice, Kephart to Texas A&M. The day Morrison died, two members of his original staff remained.

Washburn said he had told Morrison in a staff meeting about drug use but was rebuked. “Joe refused to believe we had a problem,” he said. “He thought beer and cigarettes were as bad as it got. He couldn’t keep up with the times.”

Kephart in 1985 had written a memo to his boss detailing steroids concerns. “I tried,” said Kephart, a personal trainer in Myrtle Beach. “But it became me vs. the staff, and I was going to lose that battle.

“I think Joe was out of touch with the college scene. But he should be held accountable ... for not hearing the warning signs.”

In February 1989, Dunn saw signs the end was near. “Joe said we needed to find some other place (to coach),” he said. “He felt like he was going to get fired.”

Morrison likely was correct. Said Dixon: “There was a strong faction (at USC) who, because of the allegations and ongoing problems, said to me, ‘We appreciate what Joe did (as a coach), but he has to go.’”

A USC MAN

In the decade after Morrison, South Carolina football floundered. Ex-Appalachian State coach Sparky Woods and then former Florida State assistant Brad Scott were a combined 47-51-4 with one bowl (1994) and one seven-win season.

Even under Lou Holtz and Spurrier, USC only occasionally has approached Morrison’s success. Joining the SEC (in which the Gamecocks are 34-46) in 1991 has a lot to do with that — but not everything.

Holtz and Spurrier cannot duplicate what Morrison meant to USC fans, Sharpe said, because Morrison did it here rather than repeating a formula from Notre Dame or Florida.

“I think that after Steve (retires), you need to go with a guy who is looking to use South Carolina to get somewhere,” Sharpe said. “Joe had a mystique and mysteriousness.”

Ellis agreed. “Coach Spurrier was an icon before coming here, but there’s a part of the South Carolina community that takes pride in the fact coach Morrison was successful and did it here first.

“If (Spurrier) led us to an SEC title, it would cap an incredible career. But Joe Morrison did it at the highest level — at South Carolina. Those who recognize that still look at him as the benchmark.”

Twenty years after his death, Morrison’s legacy lingers — in the thrill of “2001,” in fans decked out in black, in memories of good times ... and bad.

“He made South Carolina stand out for the first time,” Ellis said. “He provided an edge; he made it cool to play at Carolina.

“He was the Man in Black.” And still is.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.

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