Something seismic happened on Wednesday morning that's going to change everything. Did you feel it?
No, no, no. Not the election!
Without fanfare or confetti, USC's' Board of Governors gave their second and final approval to proceed with a "state of the art" Football Operations Center that they initially green-lighted in December of last year. At 100,000 square feet and with a cool $50 million price tag, the as-yet unnamed structure is going to be nothing less than transformational for the entire Gamecock football program. Coach Muschamp calls it "a game changer."
All the necessary state approvals have already been obtained. This is definitely going to happen. If all goes as planned, construction will start in January and it will be opened in 2018. This is a tectonic event not only for USC but across the SEC. We are making a big-time and unmistakable statement in our program that we intend to fight to be at the top of the SEC and compete dollar-for-dollar with Clemson.
The hype video will get every true Gamecock's heart pounding. We are entering un-chartered territory.
For years, I've lamented the University's decision to forego an on-campus stadium. With soaring hillsides along both Blossom and Harden Streets, we could have built something spectacular within USCs main campus footprint near the original "Horseshoe."
Instead, we elected in 1940 to take ownership of the six year old, WPA-built Columbia Municipal Stadium located practically by itself down by the Fairgrounds on the site of an old dairy; cows used to graze by its gates. Seriously.
I can't blame the Trustees too much. While antebellum Carolina had been widely acknowledged as one of the leading universities in the South, the depredations of the Civil War, followed by the nearly-successful assassination attempt by Governor (later Senator) Benjamin "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman and his political allies to defund, dismantle and displace the institution in favor of Clemson University from the 1880s through the early 1900s, had left us in a precarious financial position - which nearly wiped out USC during the Great Depression. Outspent and outclassed by our former peers at UNC, UVA and UGA, and only grudgingly supported by the General Assembly while living in the financial shadow of Tillman's counter-cultural Land Grant university in Pickens County, we were for all intents and purposes flat broke.
It was a testament to our passion for football - despite limited gridiron success - that we scraped together the money in 1940 take over the municipal stadium [renamed Carolina Stadium] from the City, and then in 1948, wheedle the funds from the legislature to expand it from 17,500 to 34,000 seats.
If you think about it, it wasn't so unusual or illogical a situation. Had the University of Alabama been located in Birmingham, or the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, would they have permanently taken over Legion Field (1927) or War Memorial Stadium (1948)? It seems likely to me they would have; both schools practically made those stadiums their second homes anyway in the '50s and '60s. Likewise, in the 1960s, N.C. State and Wake Forest both intentionally moved their new stadiums away from their central campuses.
Located in a capital city, in poor financial shape, and with a suitable facility already in place, I can see why Carolina made the choice. It was what it was. It is what it is. And there's no use crying about it now.
Unfortunately, as everyone knows, post-World War II Columbia grew like a weed but without much of thought to planning - and certainly without an eye to retaining what little pastoral beauty surrounded Carolina Stadium - later re-named Williams-Brice Stadium in 1971.
The neighborhood around the Fairgrounds and along Bluff and Shop Roads became a light-industrial area all the way down to old I-326 (now I-77). There was ample parking, but the area was (and parts still remain) cluttered with dingy buildings, huge swaths of asphalt, garish signage, ugly power lines and only a few trees. USC Coach Paul Dietzel said in 1969 with some great understatement that the stadium and locale "was not very attractive." No caca, Coach.
To compound matters, our football facilities were a hodgepodge. By the mid-1980s, when the current landscape of CFB began to cement into place, we were scattered all over Columbia. The players lived in the Roost (top) - the old jock dorm built in '68 when the NCAA allowed such things - located between Rosewood and Assembly Streets.
The football coaches' offices were in the deplorable "Rex Enright Athletic Center" on Rosewood (bottom) - almost obsolescent from the moment it entered service in 1956 - universally known as the "Roundhouse." It was ugly in the way only an architect or USC grad could love.
The old indoor practice facility - not a full 100 yards - was built nearby (Ed. - still looking for a photo - wasn't it called the Bubble?), but everything was at some distance from each other and Williams-Brice [with the weight room, meeting rooms and locker room] and the outdoor practice fields, so that players and coaches had to drive back and forth, park ... and then cross and recross Bluff Road.
To say it was sub-optimal - scattered, disconnected, half obsolescent- would be an understatement. It had to have hurt our recruiting. How could it not have?
For its part, after years of successive renovations, Williams-Brice a/k/a the Cockpit had morphed into an impressive, full-sized stadium with its striking light towers and turnstyles (and the famous swaying upper East stands). Digging deep, we could raise funds to improve it, but the idea of moving or rebuilding it from scratch (Texas A&M style) would be beyond imagining.
Despite the additions to W-B, its setting still lacked pizzazz - dismissively tagged as "urban" and "NFL like", which was damning it with faint praise compared to the more attractive on-campus surroundings of the stadia at Clemson, Georgia and North Carolina to name but a few.
This photo above of Willy-B is a good view from the '80s through early '90s. Yes - the top tier donors could literally park and tailgate in the very shadows of the stadium. The Fairgrounds to the north and the Farmers Market (not visible) to the west were favorite tailgating places [some of you oldsters can still even see the old Tallyho and the Rocket in your mind's eye]. The rest of us would park in little nooks and crannies off Bluff Road and Shop Road - as many still do today. The locker rooms and weight room were under the West stands (left side of the photo).
The University has poured money into Williams-Brice over the years. First was the West upper deck (1972) followed by the East upper a decade later (1982) and the famous Cockaboose Railroad (1990). After joining the SEC in 1992, we soon installed a new press box/club level and the Kate and Eddie Floyd Football Building for the coaches' offices (1995) and then completed the South end zone upper project to bring the stadium to its present 80,000+ capacity (1996). Our locker room under the West Stands have been upgraded several times over the years, and in 2005 we installed the Charles F. Crews football facility (with the new weight room, players lounge and meeting rooms) at the south end of the stadium. Perhaps the splashiest addition was the cool new video board in 2012, with some additional facelifts to the stadium.
Still, no matter how good the stadium looked inside, it was located in a run-down area. To its credit, and perhaps unprecedented in the world of major college football, the University of South Carolina decided to tackle the problem head-on.
Gamecock Park, which opened in 2012 on the site of the old Farmer's Market has been nothing short of spectacular and visionary - converting an the old warren of warehouses into a 3000 parking space facility ($30 million) known as the Garnet Way - followed by the Jerri and Steve Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility dedicated late last year ($14.3 million). When combined with the 2014 conversion of the asphalt around W-B to the tree and bricklined Springs-Brooks Plaza ($14.5 million) and the $13.5 million Dodie Anderson Academic Center (2010) and the $8.5 million Rice Athletic Center (2012) to house the A.D. office - both near the old Roost - USC already could boast some of the finest facilities in the nation
Visually, the transformation of the stadium area has been nothing short of phenomenal. Approaching the complex from the North, down Assembly Street to George Rogers Boulevard, the combination of a soaring, cleaned-up Williams Brice, the fencing upgrades to the Fairgrounds, the private buildings [condominiums, tailgating facilities] and the addition of trees, is ... dare I say ... almost picturesque. As AD Ray Tanner promised in 2014, the whole area has been transformed into something more akin to a park.
Tanner can be proud for carrying on and completing the work of his predecessors Eric Hyman and Dr. Mike McGee. Perhaps we can even forgive them all for being graduates of old ACC nemeses N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke, respectively, which ganged up on us in the 1960s to drive us out of the ACC.
Eat your hearts, out, Tobacco Road.
So that brings us to today - the 100,000 square foot new facility will be the crowing achievement on the "Expanding Our Vision" Capital Campaign and Phase 2 of our building program.
Everything will be under one roof - coaches' offices, meeting rooms, weight rooms, lounge - the whole shebang. And it will not be impressive but it will look stunning. The impact on our recruiting should be incredible. No more walking back and forth across Bluff Road from the Palmetto Proving Grounds to the meetings rooms. State of the art facilities. Two adjacent, off-street practice fields and a NFL-caliber indoor facility close by. Wide open, attractive spaces.
Regardless of the wisdom of hitching ourselves to the Fairgrounds in 1940, the University has more than corrected the situation over the last decade. More than just making Williams-Brice a jewel, we've spent the money to give it a proper setting and carry our operations into the 21st century. The Football Operations Center is the big cherry on top.
Well done, USC.