As a major city just an hour-and-a-half up the road from the University of South Carolina’s
flagship campus in Columbia, it’s no surprise that plenty of Gamecocks end up in Charlotte,
But the extent of Gamecock Nation’s influence in the Charlotte metro area is impressive. From Miss USA to a former president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway and the chief communications officer of Bojangles, there are thousands of Gamecocks making an impact in the Queen City. And there’s a direct university footprint, too, with the Darla Moore School of Business offering its professional MBA program to Charlotte-area executives.
Altogether, there are more than 25,000 USC graduates living in the Charlotte area, making it the No. 3 destination for Gamecock alumni after Columbia and Greenville, South Carolina. Those alumni end up working in every sector of Charlotte’s economy, from high-visibility employers like the Charlotte Panthers to high-profile companies in business, banking, health care and more.
As the Gamecock football team prepares for its Sept. 2 season opener in Charlotte — and thousands of fans follow them — we spoke with several alumni who are making Charlotte a second home for Gamecock Nation.
As the digital video manager for the Carolina Panthers, Alex Grant produces social media videos to hype the Charlotte NFL franchise. As a Gamecock Productions intern at the University of South Carolina from 2013 to 2016 – and later, a full-time Gamecock Productions staff member – Grant produced content for Gamecock football and women’s basketball.
“My first year working at USC was the year that we beat Clemson for the fifth time in a row,” says the 2016 broadcast journalism major. “The atmosphere in the stadium that night was just unreal. Obviously, I’d worked a full season as an intern at that point, so I’d gotten used to what gameday was like, but this was another level.”
He remembers capturing footage of the celebration on the field, the players and coaches hugging each other, jumping up and down. The fans were out of their heads with excitement. Williams-Brice was rocking.
“It all kind of hit me,” Grant recalls. “I used to sit at home and watch these games on television and think, ‘Oh, this would be really fun to shoot. This would be really fun to be a part of.’ And now here I was, doing it.”
Now he’s putting his skills to work in the NFL, contributing to the atmosphere at Bank of America Stadium. It won’t be a new experience watching the Gamecocks take the field on his home turf at this year’s season opener against UNC – he’s seen the Gamecocks play in Charlotte a couple of times – but it never fails to take him back.
“I remember being on staff at USC, coming to play at Bank of America Stadium and thinking,
‘Wow, this is an NFL stadium and we're playing a game here,’” he says. “I love being
on the other side of that now. I still have relationships with people who work on
staff at USC, so it’s awesome just to see them in their element at our stadium on
It’s only been three years since Morgan Romano graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in chemical engineering, but it probably seems like a lifetime ago.
Since 2020, she’s been in the midst of a whirlwind due to another area in which she excels – beauty pageants.
In 2021, Romano – a Charlotte transplant originally from Upstate New York – was named Miss North Carolina. In 2022, she earned first runner-up in the Miss USA contest. Then, in January, she was crowned Miss USA after the 2022 winner was named Miss Universe.
All this while holding down an engineering job at R.E. Mason in Charlotte – at least at first.
In addition to being a trained engineer herself, Romano is a passionate supporter of girls in STEM, repeating the mantra “you can’t be what you can’t see” as she talks about the importance of female representation in STEM fields. In March, she was the keynote speaker for a Girls in STEM event in Charlotte.
For a while, Romano was able to juggle her engineering career with her beauty queen successes. When she became Miss USA, though, she had to cut back at her job to facilitate national and even international speaking engagements and charity work. As her time as Miss USA comes to a close this fall, she’s keeping her career options open, working with a New York agent on media and entertainment opportunities.
“I definitely see myself being an engineer again one day – I just don’t know if it would be, you know, right after this,” she says. “I think I’ll take a bit of a break and explore.”
Whatever comes next, Romano still holds STEM close to her heart and is thankful for the opportunities she’s had to represent her community as Miss USA.
“It’s been such a blessing, because I feel like when you go to other states and you
speak about your community, your initiative, it kind of drives people to look into
your community or be like, ‘Oh, I never knew that these organizations existed.’ So,
I think it draws people to your community.”
After 46 years in the business, Bojangles knows how to do fried chicken. And Stacey McCray, a 2000 University of South Carolina alumna, knows how to promote it.
McCray joined the Charlotte-based fast-food giant in 2021 as senior director of communications and was promoted to VP of communications in March.
Since then, Bojangles has ventured boldly into new territory — expanding into new states, adding new menu items and even partnering with a North Carolina brewery to launch a hard sweet tea.
With each change, McCray has played a critical role in ensuring things run smoothly. When some media outlets went into a frenzy earlier this summer about the company’s plan to remove bone-in chicken from restaurants opening in new markets, she didn’t miss a beat setting the record straight: Bojangles was also ramping up its boneless chicken offerings at these locations and streamlining menus to simplify operations. Menus at existing restaurants, she reiterated, would remain the same.
Her success as a communicator hinges largely on her ability to explain those kinds of decisions to the company’s stakeholders – internal audiences, franchisees and customers – and earn their buy-in.
“Essentially, it’s making sure that we have a communication strategy, that we have the right talking points and key messages when we’re going out into these different audiences to tell that story of ‘the why’ behind why we’re doing this in new markets and what we’re planning to do in our legacy markets where people know us best,” she says.
McCray traces a straight line from her master’s degree coursework in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications to the work she does today.
“You know, 20 years later, I’m doing exactly what I love and using the principles
that I learned from the university,” she says. “Some of the communications trends
have changed, but the foundation of what we learned about strategic communications
and how to do it the right way is the same.”
From 1975 to 2008, the 1961 University of South Carolina journalism graduate Humpy Wheeler was president and general manager of the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Fifteen years after he retired, he is still regarded as one of the most colorful promoters in NASCAR history.
How colorful? He once had a school bus jump a row of junked cars as long as a football field is wide. He brought in a giant car-eating robot called Robosaurus, parked it outside the speedway and put Dale Earnhardt at the controls. He hired a professional regurgitator to swallow billiard balls and spit them back up at a press conference to predict the race’s winning driver.
“The first time I walked into Charlotte Motor Speedway I said, ‘We’re going to jazz this place up,” says the Belmont, North Carolina, native. “It’s not just going to be a race; it’s going to be a show. That’s just my instincts. I’ve always gravitated toward doing stuff that shocks people and gets them going.”
Indeed, Wheeler didn’t just love racing. He boxed semi-professionally as a teenager and played football, both offense and defense, for the Gamecocks in the 1950s. He gave up boxing when he saw what happened to fighters who stayed in the ring too long. He gave up football when he saw what it did to him.
“This fullback cut back, I hit him right in the chest, and my own teammate slammed his helmet right into my spine,” he recalls. “I got caught between two huge men going full tilt. I was the mustard in the sandwich.”
Three broken vertebrae sidelined him indefinitely. To keep his scholarship, he convinced the USC athletics department to make him assistant sports information director. He switched his major to journalism then worked in newspapers and television after graduation.
But his first love was stock car racing, so he built his own track and got into the
promotion business. Several laps and more than a few wrecks later – literal and figurative
– he made it to the Charlotte Motor Speedway and never looked back. “When you have
a race and nobody comes or whatever, you go down in a hole. That’s just normal,” he
says. “Successful people just keep digging until they get back out.”
When Alysja Carlisle was 10 years old, she did a school project on careers – and decided right then on her future path.
“I always wanted to be challenged by what I do, and I wanted to keep learning. I didn’t want to do a job where you learn the job and then that’s all you need to know for the next 50 years,” she says. “It’s also really important to me to give back to the community.”
Fast forward a few years and the USC School of Law graduate is doing all of that. As vice president and legal counsel at Belk in Charlotte, she reviews and drafts commercial contracts, manages projects, and addresses a wide range of general corporate, privacy and intellectual property issues.
She also makes sure she gives her time and talents to organizations around the region – including her law school alma mater.
She is president of the Charlotte Asian Pacific American Bar Association, chair of
the sponsorship and programming committee of the Charlotte chapter of the Association
of Corporate Counsel, and has been a board member of Partners for Parks. She also
is president of the USC Law Alumni Council, which works closely with the law school
to look for strategic opportunities to connect alumni to law students.
Curiosity has always been a driving force for Audrey Ware.
Growing up with an American father and a French Canadian mother, she delved deep into learning French so that she could better communicate with the French-speaking side of her family. During her time at USC, she explored her curiosity as a McNair Scholar, an Honors College student, president of the French Club and a member of the international business fraternity. She has also traveled widely, doing stints in France, Spain and Chile. She’s curious about language, people, culture and the world.
All that curiosity has paid off. She earned three undergraduate degrees at USC: international business, marketing and French. Now, armed with a master’s degree in market research and consumer behavior from IE Business School in Spain, Ware works as a senior business analyst for the global firm McKinsey & Company in Charlotte.
It’s a job that allows her to dive deep into various areas of green strategy, consumer behavior and organizational efficiency in order to offer clients insights that can improve their bottom line by better understanding people. Case in point: She recently contributed to a report about underrepresented founders of startups, conducting interviews with a wide range of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.
“I think bringing a human element beyond the data is so incredibly valuable,” she
says. “I think when you portray these founders not just as statistics and you bring
things to the human level, there’s a lot of value to that in terms of how it makes
us feel and how we see things differently, because we can put ourselves in their shoes.”
Long before he ever became a financial advisor, James Wolf was bullish on the University of South Carolina. At the tender age of 7, after watching his first Gamecocks football game at Williams-Brice Stadium, Wolf was all in – and he continues to invest his time and talents in the institution after earning a degree from the Moore School of Business in 2005.
Wolf has been president of Charlotte, N.C., chapter of the Gamecock Club and USC Alumni Association for 14 years, during which time he’s gotten married and begun raising two young children. He brings an energy to the role that is equal parts motivational speaker and loyal alumnus.
“Whether you are 22 years old, 52 or 82 – we’re going to offer you something,” says Wolf, a Charleston native who earned degrees in finance and marketing from the Moore School of Business and has been a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch for the past decade. “So if you move to Charlotte and want to get plugged in socially, we’ve got that for you.”
When Wolf moved there after graduating from USC to start his career in the financial services industry, he didn’t know anyone. He soon learned, though, that the city and its suburbs are home to thousands of USC graduates, and he wanted to meet them.
Taking the reins of Charlotte’s Gamecock Club and Alumni Association chapters, Wolf knew that Gamecock football was a key rallying point – but not the only one. These days, the Charlotte groups, which operate as one unit, also offer opportunities for community service and professional networking.
“We tell people, ‘If you want to find a new job, come to an event. You want to meet
other Gamecocks, come to an event. You want to marry another Gamecock, come to an
event,’” he says. “With anything in life, it takes effort, and you get out of it what
you put into it. We have become one of the most active – not only chapters within
the university – but we’re probably one of the most active chapters of any university
in the entire country.”