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Remembering the Days — In the big leagues: A century of athletic conference affiliations

Remembering the Days - episode 61

In the past 100 years, USC has been a member of four athletics conferences. Here's a quick primer on the whens and whys of each affiliation and a look back at the university's 21-year stretch as a football independent.


On March 13, 1971, the University of South Carolina men’s basketball team made history. For the first time in nearly 20 years of competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Gamecocks won the ACC basketball championship, defeating the University of North Carolina 52-51 in a thrilling, come-from-behind victory in the final seconds of the game.

Just four months later, USC announced it was leaving the ACC … and it never went back.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re diving into the backstory of what led to that fateful decision more than 50 years ago and what happened afterwards.

To understand the whole story, let’s start at the very beginning, 101 years ago, when USC joined the Southern Conference in 1922. Those were the early days of collegiate athletics, long before college sports hit the big time, way before television and even radio. The Southern Conference was a mish-mash of 23 universities across the South. There were some big members, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. And there were much smaller institutions such as Washington and Lee and Sewanee and, later, William & Mary and The Citadel.

In 1932, several universities bolted from the Southern Conference and created the Southeastern Conference. USC stuck with the Southern Conference for another 20 years, but when that conference banned participation in bowl games in the early 1950s, several of its members, including USC, collectively said, ‘We’re outta here!’

South Carolina, North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia, Clemson, Duke, Wake Forest and Maryland launched the new Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953. And for the next decade or so, USC duked it out with its ACC rivals on the football field and basketball court without much success. But things started to change for USC in the mid-1960s.

I talked to Harry Lesesne who earned a Ph.D. in history from USC in the late 1990s and has written extensively about the modern history of the university. He says the turning point for Carolina athletics happened when the university hired Frank McGuire to coach basketball and Paul Dietzel for football. Both men had previously coached national championship teams — McGuire at North Carolina and Dietzel at LSU.

Harry Lesesne: “Carolina, in the mid-60s, kind of finally got serious about a big time athletic program. They had been a charter member of the ACC when it was started back in the mid-50s and I think had had had a fairly placid existence there when it wasn't threatening the traditional powers with on the field or on the court success.”

With the success of its two new big-time coaches, USC started to become a force to be reckoned with. They did, indeed, start threatening the traditional status quo of the ACC and that drew a lot of negative attention from their rivals.

Around the same time, USC built the Carolina Coliseum, which when it opened in 1968 was leaps and bounds bigger and better than many of the old basketball arenas of its ACC rivals. Harry says USC’s new Coliseum sparked even more hostility from opposing fans in what was already a super-competitive ACC environment.

Harry Lesesne: “The ACC was always known as a tough place to play. You know, those basketball arenas back in those days were — all of them — small. So whether it was Carmichael at North Carolina or Cameron at Duke or Reynolds at N.C. State, they had these small arenas where the students were right on top of the court. And I guess the University of South Carolina was one of the first to build a big, really big arena beyond one of those arenas that was built prior to World War II. And that was symptomatic of the level of support that the university was getting. The Coliseum is the house that Frank built, and the whole program was taken to another level and the pressure and consequently the ire that it drew from all those other schools in the ACC who were competing for those championships and had been for years. Carolina had been the longstanding doormat, so to speak, in the conference.”

So USC, the perennial doormat of the ACC Conference, had finally reached the big time.  The football team won the ACC championship in 1969 and the basketball squad was the ACC champion runner-up in 1970 and the ACC champion in 1971. Despite that success, not everyone at Carolina was entirely happy.

Many Gamecock fans felt that there was a little too much vindictiveness and hostility from other fans around the league, particularly at basketball games. I remember watching some of those games on TV back then, and it did seem like USC players were often singled out for especially outrageous taunting. Probably tame by today’s standards but quite insulting nonetheless.

Paul Dietzel, USC’s football coach and athletics director, had other reasons to be unhappy. The ACC had instigated a rule that required student athletes to score a minimum of 800 on the SAT to be eligible to play. Dietzel and Coach McGuire lost more than a few star recruits because of that higher educational requirement, which was above and beyond the NCAA standard. USC appealed the SAT ruling, but the ACC wouldn’t back down.

Clemson University did not like the SAT requirement either, and a lot people thought they would also leave the ACC. In the end, though, USC was alone in declaring that summer of 1971 that they were quitting the league.

Harry Lesesne: “I think when the decision was made, I think most of the folks at the university at least hoped, maybe it was a vain hope, but hoped that it would be temporary. I think they thought that they might come back in. I think also the folks at Carolina thought Clemson was going to leave, too, for the same reason. And, you know, it's so interesting that two Clemson students, two student athletes, sue in federal court over this issue. The whole thing gets overturned about 18 months or two years later, Clemson stays in the conference and Carolina is kind of left the odd man out.”

For the next 20 years, USC was in the wilderness as a football independent. They had some success in those years, most notably in 1984 with head coach Joe Morrison, but it was tough sledding. Here’s Charles Bloom, associate athletics director for the Gamecocks.

Charles Bloom: “It's 21 years of football seasons that we were an independent and it's very difficult. If you use the conference alignment philosophies of today and go back to that time — the ability of being on television, the ability to go to bowl games, the ability to share in a sizable amount of revenue that conferences give. We didn't have any of that.

“In the 21 years that we were independent, we went to six bowl games and in order for us to get to those six bowl games, these were 11-game seasons. We had to finish an average of 8-and-3 just to go to a bowl game. And now bowls have changed a lot since then, but it gives you an idea that we had to achieve at a higher level, much higher level to get to the level we wanted to be at that time.”

USC joined the Metro Conference in 1983, which didn’t include football or men’s soccer. The university was still, to a large extent, in the athletics wilderness. But a fortuitous opportunity presented itself just a few years later. The Southeastern Conference wanted to split into two divisions — east and west — and to do so they needed two more members. In 1991, USC got an invitation along with the University of Arkansas to join the SEC.

It was tough going for a while. Just as USC had been the doormat of the ACC in the early years of that league, the Gamecocks started out as cellar-dwellers in most sports in the SEC. But with the bar of competition raised, USC responded.

Charles Bloom: “Student athletes, especially high-quality student athletes, want to play against the best. They want to play in high-level facilities. They want to play in big games. And the SEC gave us that. You know, the conference schedule, the conference opponents, definitely elevated our schedule.”

In three decades of competing in the SEC, USC has, over time, earned success in just about every men’s and women’s sport. SEC competition is fierce, but the Gamecocks have risen to the challenge and have gained much higher visibility as a result.

Charles Bloom: “Athletics is a showcase — for three hours on a Saturday night is a three-hour infomercial on South Carolina. You watch a game and you see the stadium full. You see the students have a good time and, you know, more than likely if you're winning, you have the announcers talking positively about South Carolina. So I think from a PR standpoint, from a messaging standpoint, what the SEC gives us is pretty strong.”

That’s all for today. On the next episode of Remembering the Days, we’re going to take a quick dive into three different stories — one involves a campus property dispute, another about 19th century baseball rules and — my favorite — the history of students wanting to cancel class for just about any reason.

Thanks for listening, come back again and forever to thee.