This six-part series will take a closer look at the five head coaches prior to Shane Beamer and their tenures at South Carolina dating back to 1992, the Gamecocks’ first season in the SEC.
You can’t just start in 1992 if you are talking about South Carolina’s SEC history when it comes to the football program. You could really go back to the early 1970s, when South Carolina decided that it was leaving the ACC. The Gamecocks had just won the ACC Championship in 1969 before exiting the league, and did not exit one league to enter another like we see teams doing today; they opted to be a football independent with no conference affiliation in sight. This was not a time where that was an uncommon thing to see, as many national powerhouses were independent.
Fast forward to the next decade, when George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy in 1980 and it put South Carolina on the national map for arguably the first time in school history. 1983 came, and South Carolina hired Joe Morrison to lead the program. In just his second season, the Gamecocks were on the cusp of a national championship until a crippling 38-21 upset at the hands of Navy in Annapolis wrecked the undefeated Gamecocks’ dreams. Carolina did rebound to defeat Clemson 22-21, before falling to Oklahoma State 21-14 in the Gator Bowl to finish 10-2. That season would stand to be the best record in school history until 2011.
Morrison rebuilt the Gamecocks’ brand in 1986. The offense had transitioned to the run-n-shoot style with freshman quarterback Todd Ellis at the helm with superstar receiver Sterling Sharpe at his disposal. Joe Lee Dunn’s blitz-happy defense was a great left hook for Morrison’s run-n-shoot offense as well. 1987 was a season in which many fans will argue was the best South Carolina football team until Steve Spurrier’s best teams came along. The Gamecocks went 8-4, but the four losses were all on the road to ranked opponents. They dominated their former ACC conference opponents by a combined score of 156-17, including a 20-7 win over Clemson.
That sets up 1988. I don’t know how to describe 1988 for the Gamecocks other than chaotic. I believe 1988 is the most important year in South Carolina’s pre-SEC era. Carolina entered the season ranked in the top 20, began 6-0, and ascended to No. 8 in the country. The next five months would be one punch to the gut of the program after another.
October 15, 1988: College football fans should know this date very well. That was the day of the famous “Catholics vs. Convicts” showdown between Notre Dame and Miami in South Bend. That same day, the Gamecocks traveled to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech. By that time, Georgia Tech had not defeated a Division I team since November 1, 1986. They proceeded to beat South Carolina 34-0 at Grant Field that day for their first D1 victory in nearly two calendar years. In fact, that victory over South Carolina was the Jackets’ only win over a D1 team all the way to October 7, 1989.
Nine days after the Georgia Tech disaster, on October 24, South Carolina was coming off of a much-needed bye week as it was preparing to travel to Raleigh to take on N.C. State when Sports Illustrated released a detailed and horrifying article about steroid use in college football. The article revolved around Tommy Chalkin, a lineman for the Gamecocks who played from 1984-1987 and had left the team during his final season. The article began with Chalkin describing himself sitting on his bed with a loaded pistol under his chin. Obviously, this type of publicity you don’t want for your football program if you are at the University of South Carolina. Chalkin went into detail about Morrison’s practices and the conditions, as well as treatment that players were subjected to in practice. Chalkin then went on to talk about assistant coach Jim Washburn encouraging steroid use for the players as well as the drug use that was going on among players. As can be said for anything, Chalkin was just one person telling his side of a story, and South Carolina never was given the chance to tell its own, but in the end the damage had been done as it pertains to the image of the South Carolina football program, and it was significant. Consider also that SMU had just been given the death penalty as a program, and fans were afraid that a similar fate could be handed down to the Gamecocks given the significance of the details in the Sports Illustrated story. Those fears were never realized, though, as the NCAA never handed down any punishment to the Gamecock football program.
The 1988 team limped home to an 8-4 record, including a 59-0 home loss to Florida State and a 29-10 loss to Clemson. The Gamecocks would fall to Indiana 34-10 in the Liberty Bowl in what would turn out to be Joe Morrison’s final game. On February 5, 1989, Joe Morrison was playing racquetball with some of the coaches at Williams-Brice Stadium. Morrison collapsed afterward and tragically died of a heart attack. The man that made South Carolina football cool and created the brand of Black Magic and the Fire Ant Defense was gone, completely shocking the fan base. To make matters worse from a football standpoint, not only had the coach tragically passed away, but signing day for high school recruits was roughly 36 hours away and the football program now was without a leader in the blink of an eye. Two weeks later, Appalachian State head coach Sparky Woods would be hired to be the new coach of the Gamecocks. That five-month period changed the course of South Carolina football for many years to come. From 1984 to 1988, the Gamecocks had been in the to -10 in three of those seasons at one point or another. They would not make another appearance inside the top 10 again until 2001.
All things considered, Sparky Woods and his staff did a good job in 1989 under the situation they had inherited. 1989 will be remembered historically for the 45-0 loss to Clemson, but Todd Ellis had been lost to a career-ending knee injury a month before, and a 6-4-1 record should be looked at as a success given the occurrences from October 1988 to February 1989.
Little did anyone know it, the days of being a football independent were dwindling down. In 1990, the 2-0 Gamecocks were playing Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. They trailed 14-7 at the half when long-time broadcaster Jim Thacker, who was calling the game on TV, broke the news that South Carolina had accepted a bid to join the Southeastern Conference. The Gamecocks, along with the Arkansas Razorbacks, would be entering the SEC and triggering a realignment of the conference into eastern and western divisions. It also triggered the birth of the SEC Championship game from conference Commissioner Roy Kramer’s mind. By the way — the Gamecocks did come back and defeat the Hokies that day, 35-24.
Just as they had done in years prior, the Gamecocks started the season well with a 4-1 record before a home loss to The Citadel cause the Gamecocks to limp down the stretch to a 6-5 season. By the time 1991 ended, Sparky Woods’ record at South Carolina was 15-15-3. Woods was given a lot of slack in his early years at Carolina, given the unfortunate circumstances in which he accepted the job, but a .500 record entering the most difficult conference in the country was not exactly forward momentum. Now the Gamecocks had Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Clemson on the schedule for their inaugural season in the SEC. The job that Sparky Woods was hired for in February of 1989 was a completely different job in 1992.