The arena is getting a new scoreboard and signage. The men’s offices will be in a gleaming new showroom by next season, one that matches the opulence next door at the women’s offices. Each team is coming off its greatest season, and the athletics director and Board of Trustees swiftly moved to reward the coaches with new contracts.
Everybody’s joining the party of recognition. Just ask USC’s Office of Research.
“We’re not just a basketball school,” tweeted the office’s feed Friday, “come see why our researchers are national contenders too.”
South Carolina is a basketball school.
“I just think our fans believe in the product. We make them feel a part of our program. We talk to them. We invite them to our offices. We put on events just for them,” Dawn Staley said while clutching her freshly won national championship trophy. “In return, you know, they become No. 1 in attendance for the past three years, which is unheard of in South Carolina, what people think of as a football town.”
USC as a “football school” has become the norm, despite not having the results that normally go with the tag. Oh, it’s lived up to it a few times, when George Rogers won the Heisman and Steve Spurrier posted an unprecedented decade of wins, but mostly, it’s inaccurate at best and flat wrong at worst.
The Gamecocks have had great athletics success, and most of it’s not been on the gridiron. It’s why the administration strives to spread the wealth among all sports, not just the start at the top and work down approach favored by many schools.
“My first year as an athletic director, you had that football component, especially that the Southeastern Conference would sometimes be labeled, ‘We’re the SEC, we’re all about football,’ which is not the case,” Ray Tanner said. “One of my missions in year one was we’re going to be successfully broad-based. We’re going to try to win in all sports.”
Starting from scratch
Tanner followed Eric Hyman, who also had that belief and was the man who hired Staley and Frank Martin. Hyman shot and scored with each coach, luring Martin from Kansas State and convincing Staley to leave her native Philadelphia for Columbia.
“Eric Hyman convinced me that I was the human being he needed,” Martin said at the Final Four. “Him and Harris Pastides convinced me that I was the person that was willing to roll up his sleeves and change the whole dynamic that existed at South Carolina for men’s basketball.”
Martin found out he was going to have to do much more than coach basketball. He had to rebuild a shattered trust between his program and the community, and shake the Gamecocks from the malaise that had existed for years.
The same could be said for women’s basketball, which had some brief bright spots but still played in a cavernous gym in front of a handful of fans. Staley, like Martin, went through early storms but knew the payoff, if it came, would be glorious.
“South Carolina is a place in which they love their sports,” she said. “They love the University of South Carolina. I mean, they love winners.”
The wins came, slowly at first and then snowballing. Staley’s program burst from anonymity to win 25 games in her fourth season, starting an NCAA Tournament run that hasn’t slowed six years later. Martin began packing in fans despite not having great teams, then put up two of the best three win totals in program history in back-to-back seasons.
Each coach was thinking about the early struggles as they prepared for the biggest games in school history, Martin in the national semifinal and Staley in the championship game. Each was thinking how the other coach had been so beneficial to the other: Staley never failing to talk to Martin’s recruits and Martin never hesitating to ask her for advice.
Now as each continues the offseason, they can’t wait to get back on the court again. It’s only going to get better.
“You can’t always be first. You can’t always be in the Final Four. You can’t always win the national championship,” Tanner said. “But you can provide the opportunities, and I think that’s been key.”
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