The two decades between USC's departure from the Atlantic Coast Conference and entry into the Southeastern Conference were a challenging time for Gamecock sports. But USC sports enthusiast Alan Piercy's new book about that era reminds us that a lot of cool things — including a Heisman Trophy winner and a new iteration of USC's mascot — came about in the midst of those wilderness years.
If you’re a Carolina fan, and you were in Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 3, 2000, you know a little something about finding your way out of the wilderness.
Twenty three years ago, the Gamecocks had lost 21 consecutive football games — a miserable losing streak that began early in September 1998 and continued until Carolina beat New Mexico State two years later. Gamecock fans stormed the field when the game ended and ripped down both goal posts, giving full vent to the exhilaration of finally winning again after all those losses.
USC notched a winning season after the New Mexico State victory, and beat Ohio State in the Outback Bowl that year.
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back — not at the football team’s two seasons in the wilderness of winlessness — but to a much longer time in the wilderness … the two decades between the university leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1971 and joining the Southeastern Conference in 1991.
Back in the spring we had an episode about why USC left the ACC in the first place and how they later joined the SEC. We didn’t talk much about the interval in between when the Gamecocks were independent, but today we will, and we’ve got just the person to help tell the story.
Alan Piercy graduated from Carolina in 1995 with a history degree and an enthusiasm for Gamecock sports that's been on full tilt ever since he attended his first football game as a young boy. Alan publishes a blog entitled South by Southeast that digs into the history of Gamecock athletics. Check it out on Substack when you can.
Alan has also written a book that’s due out next month from USC Press called A Gamecock Odyssey, University of South Carolina Sports in the Independent Era. It’s a cool book — Alan knows how to tell a story — and he has plenty of interesting tales of men’s and women’s sports at USC from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.
First things first, though, I asked Alan how he became such a fervent fan of garnet and black.
Alan Piercy: “I was fortunate to have a dad who took me to ball games. And so we spent a lot of time at the old Carolina Coliseum and Williams-Brice and Sarge Frye field, the old baseball stadium. And so my first year that I remember going to games was 1980, going into the '80-81 school year. And you think back to what happened in that year. George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy. Zam Frederick led the nation in scoring in basketball. And our baseball team went to Omaha to the College World Series. So that was a pretty great introduction to Gamecock sports. I was 8 turning 9 that year and was just hooked and have been a big Gamecock fan ever since.”
Alan says he initially planned to write a book focused solely on Jimmy Foster, a very colorful and highly talented basketball player who came on the scene just after the Frank McGuire era ended in 1980. Instead, Alan decided to expand the scope of the book to cover everything that happened in USC sports after the university left the ACC.
Alan Piercy: “This 20-year period is really an interesting period. There’s so many things going on. We're just on the heels of the civil rights movement, Black athletes are on scholarship at Southern colleges for the first time ever. Title IX happens during this period. Women's sports go from club level competition to varsity status. The story of conference realignment, which is still a big story today. Carolina played a big part in that in the ACC and the SEC. College athletics becomes big business during this time — television deals, ESPN comes along during this time. So, I started thinking about everything that was happening during this 20-year period, and it's really the story of all of those things sort of through the lens of Gamecock athletics.”
Men’s basketball had reached superstar status right at the moment when USC left the ACC and became an independent sports program in 1971. But Alan says leaving the conference also meant leaving behind the big rivalries that drew fans and recruits.
Alan Piercy: “When the '71-72 season rolls around, Carolina is a major independent now and they're still the reigning ACC champs. And there were still great basketball teams for a number of years. Unfortunately, those intense rivalries were no longer there. The ACC teams outside of Clemson were not playing South Carolina, and so that affected recruiting. It affected fan interest. Unfortunately, that program sort of slid into decline. But there were still some great seasons. You think about the likes of Alex English and some of the others that came through that program.
While men’s basketball would ultimately decline during the independent era, other Gamecock sports programs like baseball began to shine.
Alan Piercy: “Bobby Richardson comes on board in 1970 to take over the baseball program, and he turned that program around by 1975, had South Carolina in Omaha for the first time — their first college World Series. He steps aside in ‘76 to run for Congress and June Raines takes over and ‘77 was Coach Raines’ first season, and he takes them right back to the College World Series. And both that ‘75 and ‘77 team — they went to the championship game and so they finished runner-up in both of those seasons. So the baseball program really became a nationally relevant national power during those years.
The Carolina football program struggled during much of its two-decade run as an independent. In spite of that, Alan reminds us of a few notable successes that came along during the wilderness years.
Alan Piercy: “George Rogers — obviously it might be the biggest story from those independent years — kid from Duluth, Georgia, who came to South Carolina. His choice was down to Georgia Tech and Tennessee and South Carolina. And Coach Carlen was the only coach that promised him an opportunity to play as a freshman. And he said, ‘Well, that's that's my school then.’ So he came to Carolina and had just a phenomenal career. Obviously ended up as a Heisman Trophy winner his senior year, 1980, the opening game of his junior year against North Carolina in ’79. He ran for 99 yards. And that was his last game below 100 yards; every game after that, you know, I think it was 22 straight games he ran for over 100 yards. So just a magnificent career for him and, of course, went on to a great NFL career as well.”
“Then you had Joe Morrison, who came along in the early, mid-80s and some of the teams he had — Black Magic, you know, the Black Magic era of ‘84. Carolina starts off nine and zero, climbs to No. 2 in the nation after a big win against Florida State on national television. And then everybody knows what happened the following week against Navy. But still the first 10-win team in program history.”
Not long after USC left the ACC, Title IX changed the landscape of collegiate women’s sports, opening the door for women’s sports to compete at the varsity level just like men’s sports had been doing for decades. That had a significant impact on women’s basketball in particular.
Alan Piercy: “A lot of people, particularly younger people, the only thing they know of Gamecock women's basketball is Dawn Staley. And Coach Staley has had such tremendous success at Carolina. But South Carolina women's basketball was at an elite level once before in the late '70s and early '80s under Coach Parsons. They finished third in the nation one season. They won a WNIT championship, a season before that they had a number one recruiting class in 1981. So she really had that program on the rise, and it was an elite program for a short period. You know, unfortunately, there was a bit of a scandal with Coach Parsons. There was a relationship with a player. There's a chapter on sort of the evolution of women's sports. And it really — the biggest part of that chapter is around Coach Parsons and her program. I didn't know how to write that story. It's such a difficult story, and I actually set the book down for about a year and a half until I could, you know, wrap my, wrap my head around it.”
That’s one of the things I like about Alan’s approach to this book. He’s not afraid to tell the difficult stories, but he does it with objectivity. It makes for a compelling read.
While we’re on the subject of women’s basketball, Alan pointed out that Coach Nancy Wilson, who arrived three years after Parsons, led the women’s team to several championships in the Metro Conference, which USC joined in the early 1980s. That now-defunct athletics conference did not include football or men’s soccer, but it did give some of the non-revenue sports an opportunity to compete in tournament play.
One of the chapters in Alan’s book includes the story of Cocky, the university mascot who came on the scene in 1980 — the midpoint of USC’s independent era.
Alan Piercy: “Linda Singer, who was the cheerleader coach at the time, decided she wanted a more huggable, softer, friendlier bird. And so she had that Cocky costume manufactured, and initially it was not well received by fans. I think it debuted for the Homecoming game in 1980 against Cincinnati. And fans didn't like it. They didn't think he was dignified enough. And Linda Singer said he looked pregnant. He was small on top and big in the middle. They brought Big Spur back to finish that season. Cocky started working women's basketball games and June Raines invited Cocky to come on out to the baseball games and so he did that and by ‘81 he was back at the football games and really since then has just been a fixture at Carolina and just an icon at Carolina.”
You know, the premise of this book is about USC’s wilderness years, the 20 years that the university, especially Carolina football, was not affiliated with an athletics conference. I asked Alan his thoughts on whether USC should ever have quit the ACC in the first place.
Alan Piercy: “My personal opinion is I do think it was a mistake to leave the ACC, certainly in terms of what it did to our basketball program. You had an elite program who was poised to, I mean there's no reason to think that they couldn't have had success on par with North Carolina or Duke long term. You know, you think about maybe McGuire would have still stepped aside in the 1980 time frame, but maybe, you know, Bobby Cremins would have come along or, ah, somebody with ties to the program, you know, a McGuire legacy coach. That's just unfortunately not the way things played out. And we're still, I think, struggling to get back to where we were in men's basketball. Having said that, there's no doubt in my mind that we're better off now in the SEC than we were. You know, we went through that 20 year period and fortunately for us, we landed in the SEC. You know, it almost didn't work out that way. So we were very fortunate that we landed there. And, you know, 30-plus years down the road, there's no doubt in my mind that we're in a better place now.”
As I perused a pre-publication copy of Alan’s book, I was reminded of just how much happened, not only in Gamecock sports, but in the college sports world in general from the early '70s to the early '90s. There were scandals and probations around the country and the same things happened at USC during that era. Fortunately, the highs more than evened out the lows and set the stage for future success.
Alan Piercy: “For for those of us that lived through it that remember those days, it's just a chance to revisit some of those characters to, you know, sit inside Carolina Coliseum and Sarge Frye Field again and just sort of relive those times. Such great characters, such fun stories and not all fun stories. There's some dark stories, too, but I think it's going to be a trip down memory lane for anybody who lived those times and remembers those characters. For the younger fans who have no living memory of South Carolina athletics outside of the SEC, I think it's just an opportunity to sort of have a better understanding of how we got to where we are, and to maybe learn a little bit about, you know, what things were like before South Carolina was in the SEC. And I think it also puts things into perspective. You know, we're going through this massive conference realignment situation right now across the college landscape. It's not the first time that's happened. There have been massive realignments in the past. And so I think it, you know, there's some things in the book that can maybe lend some understanding to how things have gotten to where they are.”
The writer is Alan Piercy, the name of the new book is A Gamecock Odyssey, University of South Carolina Sports in the Independent Era. It comes out Nov. 14. You can find it online at uscpress.com or anywhere books are sold.
That’s all for today. On the next Remembering the Days, we’re going back to the late 1890s when a physically disabled student pleaded his case to be allowed to attend Carolina. Find out what happened then and in the years that followed — next time on Remembering the Days.
I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.