Remembering the Days — First things first

Remembering the Days - episode 54

Curtis Frye, track and field head coach at the University of South Carolina, knows a thing or two about coming in first place and being the first to do something. He's done all of those in his time at Carolina, including bringing home the university's first-ever national championship trophy. Perhaps most importantly, Coach Frye understands the importance of putting first things first. 


“You can never replace the word first. You can only be first one time.”

That’s Coach Curtis Frye, who knows a thing or two about coming in first place, being the first to do something and putting first things first.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re going back 20 years ago to the University of South Carolina’s first-ever NCAA sports championship. It was 2002 when the women’s track and field team won it all — the university’s first varsity sport to win a national championship. That was years before the baseball team’s back-to-back College World Series wins and before Dawn Staley and her crews cut down two championship basketball nets.

But before we revisit that fast-paced event, let’s get first things first so that you’ll have a better understanding of Curtis Frye, South Carolina’s head track and field coach since 1996.

Frye learned early on that being the first is not always an enviable place to be. His family was committed to the cause of civil rights, and in the early 1960s, a 13-year-old Frye became the first to integrate public schools in Moore County, North Carolina. He and his brother played on the school basketball team, and trouble ensued when a weekly newspaper photographer posed the two boys standing beside two white players from the girls’ basketball team. Frye remembers crosses burning in his front yard afterwards.

Curtis Frye: “Then I thought we were going back to the predominantly black school and my mom said no. She walked us to the road and put us on the bus the next morning. The bus was one where we always sit near the back because that was what time we got onto the bus. This morning all the seats in the front were empty and everybody had left seats for us to sit. So that meant the whole community knew that we had gone through the cross burning.”

Frye went on to attend junior college, then enrolled at East Carolina University in hopes of playing football. He didn’t make the team, so the coach who had recruited him suggested he run track. Turned out that Frye wasn’t much of a track athlete either, but no matter — people saw something deeper in him, an ability to lead and inspire others. While Frye was earning a degree in political science, he helped ECU add its first African American cheerleaders.

After graduation, Frye became a high school coach, then joined the college ranks in a series of assistant coaching positions at N.C. State, the University of Florida and UNC Chapel Hill. He also began to earn a reputation for his ability to recruit up-and-coming track and field athletes. Frye got an edge by putting in the extra time to recognize talent early on, even at the middle school level.

Curtis Frye: “I saw Marion Jones run when she was 12 years old. Most college coaches don't go to youth and age group events. I became a household name to speaking to people before they were great, speaking to parents and doing a clinic or as an official moving hurdles on the track at youth meets.”

But beyond his reputation for recruiting, Frye made a name for himself by putting academics ahead of athletics. At N.C. State one of his star runners developed a bad habit of skipping class. Even though a major track meet was just around the corner, Frye told the young man that he would not compete since he wasn’t keeping up with his academic commitment.

“So I just told him, ‘No, you won't run.’ So it was my way or the highway. And so it just got that people would say, ‘Well, Coach Frye, you know how he is, it's his way or the highway. So if you don't go to class, you can't run.’ And then I said, ‘Oh, God, I'm painting myself into a box at championship time. And it was my way or the highway. Am I going do what I said and lose?’ And I did what I said, and I left him at home and we won by one point.”

Leaving his star athlete at home and still winning the track meet cemented Frye’s reputation for being a great track coach and a stickler for academic integrity.

Frye’s success eventually caught the attention of "Iron Mike" — athletics director Mike McGee of the University of South Carolina. Frye got the nod and became the Athletics Department’s first African-American head coach. Three years after Frye’s arrival, Lou Holtz was named head football coach, and Holtz motivated his team with a sign in the weight room that urged them to become ‘first to first’ — the first Carolina sports team to end the season in first place with a  national championship.

I’m sure Holtz’s football teams took that message to heart, but so did Curtis Frye. He had motivational slogans for his student-athletes like ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me’ and ‘Who can? I can.’ Of course, it’s athletic ability, not slogans, that wins championships, and Frye kept on recruiting top talent, including a highly touted recruit from California named LaShinda Demus.

LaShinda Demus: “So I was a top recruit in the country that year. So I took a recruit trip to UCLA, USC, University of Texas and South Carolina. I knew that I wanted to leave California and I've always been super competitive and wanted to train with the best. Now all these schools that I have mentioned, they had people who you can consider 'the best.' But I guess my mom, who is like into track and she was a track athlete herself, ran professionally for a short period — she had been following the Gamecocks and the Barber twins and Demetria Washington at that time, and they were at the top of their game, the main people to lead the 400 meters. So I said, you know, I want to train with the best. And their trajectory was like crazy. And so I'm like, ‘Well, the coach must really know what he's doing, you know, to take them from a team where basically nobody knew about and to create this atmosphere of winning.’ ”

LaShinda was a freshman in 2002 when the women’s track and field team won the outdoor SEC championship and went on to compete for the NCAA championship against highly favored contenders UCLA, Southern California and LSU.

Track and field competitions involve several events like the long jump, hurdles, relays and so on, and a team earns points by how well they compete in each event. Generally speaking, a score in the 50s or 60s is very competitive, often enough to win.

At the 2002 championship, UCLA scored 72 points. But LaShinda Demus and the rest of the Gamecocks put together a lights-out performance in the last event of the championship — the 4x400 meter relay race in which they set a collegiate record. That win, coupled with strong performances in earlier events such as the individual 200 meter and 400 meter sprints, helped to push the team over the top.

Curtis Frye: “We scored 82 points at the NCAA championship, not 40, not 50, but 82. That group was ... they were a piece of work.”

Admittedly, winning a track and field championship didn’t stir up the Gamecock fan base like winning the College World Series or the NCAA basketball championship in later years. But no matter — as Coach Frye said, you can only be first one time. Women’s track will always be the university’s first championship team.

In the 20 years since Carolina’s win, no women’s track and field team in the country has scored as many points in an NCAA outdoor championship. Coach Frye was named SEC Women’s Coach of the Year that year, and two years later he was a coach for the 2004 U.S. Olympic track team, which included LaShinda Demus.

Throughout his career, Frye has coached several Olympic medalists and more than 400 NCAA All-Americans. And here’s the really cool thing that goes back to putting first things first: Of the 200-plus student athletes he has coached at the University of South Carolina, all but one have finished their undergraduate work and earned a degree.

LaShinda Demus went on to Olympic medal-winning performances and a professional running career as did several of her teammates from the 2002 championship team. Demus will be inducted into USC’s Athletics Hall of Fame this October. By the way, she has twin sons who are competing in high school track out in California. I’m sure Coach Frye is already keeping tabs on their progress.

That’s all for this episode. Next time, on Remembering the Days, we’ll look back to the 1970s when the university launched its Honors College and scholarship programs that together have become magnets for some of the best and brightest students in South Carolina and across the country. I’m Chris Horn, thanks so much for listening and forever to thee.

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