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The Decline of South Carolina Basketball 1972-2012: A Timeline

Missed opportunities

<em>Pinnacle:  Frank McGuire, with his son Frankie</em>
Pinnacle: Frank McGuire, with his son Frankie

You hear it said so often among Gamecock fans that it's now practically a cliche - "We're a football and baseball school. No one cares about basketball at South Carolina."

I''d wager that a fair number of you have said it; many of you may well even believe it.

But it wasn't always this way. South Carolina once possessed an elite basketball program. If you had told a USC fan in 1972 that, within forty short years, most Gamecock fans wouldn't care about men's hoops - or that in 2012 Carolina fans would be infinitely more concerned about the baseball diamond than the hardwood - our 1972 counterparts simply wouldn't have believed you. They couldn't have believed you. You would have been laughed at.

And they would still have laughed at you in 1982. And in 1992. And in 2002.

Football may be King at Carolina, the last generation of Gamecock fans might have conceded. But USC basketball was important, they would argue. A distant third in the hierarchy of fan devotion? No way! More people attending Carolina baseball games than hoops? Out of the question! A dead arena and the worst program in the league - so far down the conference totem pole that even our most mediocre rivals stand head and shoulders above us? Impossible.

Yet that's where we find ourselves in 2012. Barring some sort of miracle on the order of angelic intervention, the season is for all intents and purposes over as of Saturday's loss to the Auburn Tigers. The Cocks have twelve games left on the schedule from January 25 to March 3, and if the odds were set today then we wouldn't be favored in any of them. The Colonial Life Arena will remain a mausoleum - less than a quarter full on game day (except when Kentucky comes to town of course - then it will be Rupp Arena annex).

It's all such a far cry from 1971-1972, when Carolina had a 24-5 team that was eliminated in the regional semi-finals by a UNC team that would go onto the Final Four. Or the next year, 1972-1973, when we finished 22-7 only to be bounced again in the Sweet 16 by the eventual tournament runner-up, Memphis State (in case you're wondering, John Wooden's UCLA Bruins won both years).

So what happened? How did we progress from an elite program to a laughingstock? It wasn't any one thing, but the death of a thousand cuts. And here is a timeline of the worst cuts of all:

1971 - South Carolina resigns from the ACC following years of open hostility from Duke and North Carolina, which had culminated in a blatant and heavy-handed change in league admissions requirements specifically designed to curb USC on both the hardwood and the gridiron. Ultimately, the courts would overturn the worst of these Tobacco Road abuses, but we lost our collective cool and left in a huff - primarily led by football coach Paul Dietzel. Most thought it was a temporary protest - after all, we were one of the charter members of the ACC and had traditional ACC rivalries dating back to the 1890s. The unintended result, however, was a twenty year sojourn through the wilderness of independent and/or small conference play while the ACC enjoyed a golden age during that same time period. Had we held our nose and stayed in the ACC, there is a good chance McGuire would still have been able to work his NYC recruiting magic for the rest of the '70s, and we would have attracted better players and coaches in the future.

1975 - South Carolina hires Jim Carlen as football coach. Why would a football hire impact our basketball team, you might ask? The reason was that Carlen had been promised the full control over all USC sports in his capacity as head football coach and athletic director. Unfortunately, this put Coach Carlen into immediate conflict with Coach McGuire, since McGuire ran all basketball operations. The divided athletic department, and the lack of an independent athletic director would make Carlen and McGuire's relationship adversarial rather than collegial. The two men were rivals for political and fan support, and each had different agendas. This state of affairs would weaken both programs, but particularly basketball. Had we had a unified athletic department and a fully independent, strong athletic director, we would have avoided the debilitating political infighting that plagued South Carolina athletics for five ugly years from 1975-1980, and likely would have rejoined the ACC in 1976.

1976 - secret negotiations between the ACC and South Carolina break down when the ACC demands a hefty "re-entry" fee. McGuire supported re-entry because our basketball fortunes had slid rapidly in the years following our departure. Carlen, however, opposed re-entry because the football team was enjoying on the field success - and accompanying financial rewards - playing as an independent; Carlen felt returning to the ACC would have a negative financial impact without any upside in terms of competition. Eventually, a divided Board of Trustees, combined with the ACC's ungracious demand for a substantial cash payment, all contributed to deny us a detente with our former conference mates. Eventually, we would join the Metro Conference, but that was small potatoes compared to the ACC glory days we forfeited. Had we been able to return to the ACC, we could have reversed the mistake of 1971.

1977 - USC hires James Holderman as its new president. Holderman was in many respects a visionary, with amazing political and fundraising skills, but he was also a deeply flawed and narcissistic individual. One of the many causes he adopted - and ultimately botched - was his decision to back Carlen against McGuire. With the support of influential politicians and Board of Trustees members, Holderman publicly tried to oust Frank McGuire by offering him the athletic directorship of the Coastal Carolina satellite campus in Conway. McGuire - who was under contract - refused to budge. Holderman backed the wrong horse. Carlen would be unable to sustain success, but had McGuire had the full support of the administration, it likely would have allowed him to focus on returning the hoops team back to the glory years of the late '60s and early 70s before the slide became irreversible.

1978 - Having been compelled to backtrack the year before, Holderman and his political allies make a second attempt to depose McGuire by trying to force him into mandatory retirement. This ploy also failed, but more irretrievable damage was done. On a national level, we had signaled to the sports world that the administration would not support its legendary coach; not only that, but we also signaled that politicians and Board members were allowed free rein to meddle and micro-manage the basketball program. Finally, the fan base had to divide between McGuire supporters and Carlen supporters. Distracted and under assault, McGuire's last three teams struggled to mediocre records and no NCAA appearances. It could have been different if McGuire had received the same level of unconditional support from the administration which he received from the fans. To make matters worse, Carlen became openly insubordinate and hostile to Holderman. The situation was intolerable.

Keep reading after The Jump!

1980 - Having finally wrested control of the athletic department from Carlen, Holderman and the Board were finally able to buy-out McGure by agreeing to pay the (then) insanely high amount of $400,000. In an ironic twist, USC hired former Duke coach Bill Foster to revive our flagging program. On paper, Foster looked like an inspired hire. He had enjoyed success in Durham, arriving there in '74 to revive a team that had slipped from the Vic Bubas glory days; after three lean years, he was able to recruit talent to Duke (most notably Mike Gminski) and the Blue Devils rolled through the '78 NCAA tournament - reaching the championship game (where they lost to Kentucky). Foster also led the Blue Devils to the NCAA's in '79 and '80. Having coached in between Duke legends Vic Bubas and Mike Krzyzewski, Foster is largely forgotten by most ordinary Blue Devil fans, but the ones in the know credit him for reviving a program that was wallowing in mediocrity and paving the way for Krzyzewski. Unfortunately for Carolina, Foster was in poor cardiac health. The other knock on Foster was that he could build a team, but not a program. In spite of his pedigree, he never could duplicate his Duke success at South Carolina - compiling a mediocre 92-79 record over six seasons, and going 12-16 (2-10) in his final year. Foster sufffered a heart attack in '82 and never was able to get any traction any Columbia. Would things have turned out differently if instead of Foster, we had gone after a young up-and-coming Northeastern coach? What if we had tried to hire Krzyzewski from Army? Or Rick Pitino from Boston University? Or Jim Valvano of Iona? Each of them was positioned to make a move around this time; you would like to think any of those three would have jumped at South Carolina only a few years removed from McGuire's glory days. Instead we went for the safe hire (Foster) without appreciating his poor health. By 1986, the program was no longer elite, and Foster was forced out after a poor year, not to mention recruiting violations and some scandal involving the sale of complimentary tickets (which got us on NCAA probation).

1986 - when we finally went after a young coach, we landed George Felton. It's hard to find fault with the hire - Felton was a USC grad and a former player under Frank McGuire. He was one of Bobby Cremins' top, young assistants at Georgia Tech - at a time when the Yellow Jackets were a perennial ACC contender. He put together a stellar assistant staff, including Tubby Smith (who you know of course) and Eddie Payne (who coaches USC-Upstate), and recruited some amazing talent like Brent Price, Jo English, the Dozier brothers, and Jamie Watson. There were other, young, talented coaches who probably could have been lured to South Carolina in ''86 - notably Rick Pitino (then at Providence), Eddie Fogler (one of Dean Smith's assistants at UNC) and Roy Williams (another UNC assistant). But hindsight is 20/20 and we put our eggs in Felton's basket. When Felton was fired in May of 1991, it was like a bolt from the blue to most USC fans - he had gone 20-13 that year and had made the post-season (NIT). Athletic Director King Dixon refused to explain why he had terminated Felton. Rumors soon circulated that Felton's drinking had caused a rift between he and Dixon; Felton's DUI arrest not long after his termination (for which he was exonerated) added to that speculation. Whether the rumors were true or not have never been substantiated, but we all believed them at the time and many are adamant about them to this day. As far as the University was concerned, Felton's contract was up in 1991 and that was that. In the end, does it really matter? Felton went 87-62 during his tenure, making the NCAA's in 1989 and the NIT in 1991. Hardly a return to the glory days. We were now firmly a mediocre program - now 20 years removed from the McGuire heyday.

1991 - Would South Carolina's basketball history have been different if we had hired Fogler, Williams or Pitino in '86 instead of Felton? How could it not have been? By the time Felton was terminated in '91, Pitino and Williams were entrenched at UK and KU, respectively, and Fogler was at Vanderbilt. One would have thought it would be an easy trick to replace Felton quickly - after all, South Carolina had inked a deal to join the SEC and would commence league play during the 1991-1992 season. Unfortunately, what happened was a complete debacle. Fogler turned us down. Larry Brown turned us down. Wimp Sanderson turned us down. It was a fiasco and a national embarrassment, and it basically destroyed Dixon's athletic directorship. The obvious choice in hindsight would have been Tubby Smith - then a top assistant at UK under Rick Pitino - who would take the Tulsa job that same year. By the time we hired Steve Newton of Murray State in July it felt like we had to beg someone to take the job, Everyone was furious at Dixon. But had he hired Smith instead of Newton, who knows what might have changed - even if Tubby had left us for UK in 1997 (instead of leaving Georgia) when Rick Pitino tried his hand in the NBA. There is no reason Tubby could not have duplicated his success at Tulsa and Georgia (four straight NCAA's from '94-'97) while at South Carolina. Perhaps in some alternate universe, we could have convinced him to stay 10, 15, 20 years at Carolina. But the opportunity was lost, and losses and recruiting scandals haunted Newton, who was forced out in 1993 with an overall 20-35 record. I vividly remember Newton sitting on the bench, looking bewildered and over-burdened, clutching a rolled-up play sheet in his hand. It was a low ebb. We officially sucked.

1995 - You're wondering why I am not including the abortive Bobby Cremins volte-face of 1993, when three days after accepting the USC job he bagged his alma mater to return to Georgia Tech. Yes, it was a national humiliation - and the source of great merriment for Clemson fans, but the rapid hiring of Eddie Fogler was - we thought at the time - actually better for USC. He was a national coach of the year and had guided Tulsa and Vandy to multiple post-season berths, including a NIT championship. And everything seemed to bear out that judgment all the way up to 1998, when we lost for the second consecutive year in the first round of the NCAA's (to the #14 seed Richmond Spiders); after that, the life seemed to go out of Fogler and he quietly folded his tent three seasons later after a 15-15 finish and NIT first round exit in 2001. So why 1995? Because that's the year Kevin Garnett, originally of Mauldin, South Carolina, became one of the first major talents to forgo college and enter the NBA Draft. While UK fans thought they were a lock to get him, every indication seemed to be that Garnett was leaning to South Carolina if he had decided to play college ball. Had he played even two years for USC, that would have put him on the same floor as the first team All-SEC guard trio of BJ McKie, Melvin Watson and Larry Davis for the '96 and '97 tournaments. With KG's raw talent, South Carolina would have had the guns for a deep run in the NCAA's. Would an Elite Eight or Final Four finish in '96 or '97 changed the dynamic of South Carolina recruiting? I would say absolutely. Would Fogler have lost his drive to coach as he appeared to after the disappointment of the 1999 season? I honestly don't think he would have. The knock on Fogler in 2001 was that he had lost interest in coaching and (in his best high school math teacher fashion) had calculated how much money he needed for retirement, and hung up his spurs accordingly. What a pity Garnett never wore the Garnet and Black.

1996 - This was the year Jermaine O'Neal of Columbia followed Kevin Garnett directly from high school to the pros. He had publicly and repeatedly shown an interest in South Carolina. His impact would have been very similar to KG. Those of us who think about O'Neal and Garnett playing together ... with McKie, Watson and Davis, still feel a shivver up our spines; they could have won a NCAA championship together. But it was not to be.

2001 - When Fogler resigned, we made a huge run at Tubby Smith. At the time, we thought we could peel him out of Lexington, since the Big Blue fans were upset the 'Cats had not advanced passed the Sweet Sixteen in three years. Ultimately, Tubby would turn us down, and we'd go to our fall-back, Davey Odom. As much as we may miss Odom now, 2001 was the last year we likely could have reversed a thirty year slide from McGuire's golden age. Odom was able to build some very good teams at Carolina. Smith could have built great ones - and his interest seemed more than a passing fancy. Alas, it was close but no cigar. At least we didn't hire Kelvin Sampson, then at Oklahoma, which would have been disastrous considering the nearly mortal blow he struck on Indiana.

2008 - We hire Darrin Horn instead of Gregg Marshall. Or anyone else.

So here we are in 2012. Forty years removed from McGuire's great teams. Now a cellar dweller and a national laughingstock.

That's how it went down.