In the years since USC's first basketball season tipped off in 1908, the Gamecocks have played in no less than seven different venues on campus — including an outdoor court in their first season. For many years, games were played in a now-demolished field house that once occupied a spot in the middle of campus.
This college football season is winding down, but college basketball is getting wound up — which makes this an auspicious time to look back at Carolina’s basketball program, in particular connecting the dots on all of the hoops courts across campus where the Gamecocks — men and women — have competed.
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and I’m going to mention seven different basketball courts in the next few minutes. There won’t be quiz at the end, but sometime later see if you can remember all of them.
The story begins in 1908 when USC played its first three organized basketball games.
Now, I’m saying this mostly for fun, but it might be true. I think those first three games could well have been standing-room-only for the spectators. That’s because the three games, which comprised the entire 1908 season, were played on an outdoor court. There might not have been any spectator seating at all.
That outdoor court occupied a small piece of what was then known as Davis Field, the university’s venue for outdoor sports and other activities more than a century ago and located about where the Thomas Cooper Library and the Russell House are situated today.
It would be fair to say that the Gamecocks had an inauspicious start in the sport of basketball. They didn’t win their first game until 1910, their third season, and that victory came against a local YMCA team. But, hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.
1910 was also USC’s inaugural basketball season in the building we now call Longstreet Theater. If you’re a long-time listener to this podcast, you might remember that Longstreet was built in 1855 as a lecture-hall-slash-chapel, but the acoustics were so bad it never served that purpose.
Around the turn of the century, a small gym had been installed in Longstreet’s basement and student science labs were on the upper floors. The renovation of Longstreet in 1910 removed the labs and created a new and improved gymnasium on the building’s second story. It was named the Carolina Gymnasium, and with seating for a few hundred spectators, it would serve as the home basketball court until 1927.
That was the year the university’s next basketball venue was built. Called the Field House, the building could seat about 3,200 spectators, and it was on the corner of Sumter and Devine Streets, about where the Coker Life Sciences Building is located today. The Field House was made of bricks that had been salvaged from an old fertilizer factory in Columbia, and the basketball court inside was a bit unusual.
The court was sunken and surrounded by a three-foot brick wall with a railing on top. Spectator seats were arranged octagonally and hovered above the sunken court. A visiting coach once likened it to playing basketball in an empty swimming pool — with raucous fans cheering and jeering overhead.
As I mentioned, the Gamecocks posted their first basketball win against a YMCA team in the old Carolina Gymnasium in 1910, and they won the first game they played in the new Field House in 1927, beating Florida. The men’s team would go on to win the Southern Conference championship that year, as well.
Women’s basketball at USC began in 1922, and their early opponents included Newberry College, the College of Charleston and even Columbia High School. The team was nicknamed the Pullets, which is a word for young hens. By 1925, the women adopted uniforms with numbers, just like the men’s team, and they also competed in the new Field House.
That Field House was an enormous improvement over the Carolina Gymnasium. It had plenty of seats, in fact more than enough to accommodate the entire student body back then, and even though it was built from recycled fertilizer factory bricks, the Field House was a point of pride on campus.
Even so, the 1920s gave way to the 1930s and '40s and '50s — and the Field House began to show its age. When the university’s enrollment began to boom in the 1960s, it was clear that the Field House was no longer adequate. But it could still be a fun place to watch a basketball game.
Les Clark attended Carolina in the 1960s and remembers going to USC basketball games in the Field House when he was in high school.
Les Clark: “I don't know how you explain it, but you actually felt like you were a participant in that game. You were so close to it. I mean, you could see the players sweating. You could hear the coaches talking. You could hear what was being hollered on the court just as clear as a bell.”
Les says some of the games he went to were sparsely attended — maybe half of the seats in the Field House were filled and the fans were not terribly excited about what was happening on the court. But all that began to change in 1964 when Frank McGuire arrived as the new men’s basketball coach.
Les Clark: “You had to get there, I think they started letting people in three hours before the game. And so if you really wanted to go to a game, you had to get there five hours early to get in line.”
When the Field House was sold out, Les had a special back-door method to get in.
Les Clark: “Now fortunately for me, I don't know if you're familiar with the old Don's Lounge down in Five Points. I hung around Don's a lot, and the ballplayers all came in there, and I got to know several of them. And there were several games where I couldn't get in the game, and I could just go around back and tap on the dressing room window and they would let me in.”
Coach McGuire’s early teams showed flashes of what a powerhouse the program would become just a few years later, and basketball fans ate it up. It’s a wonder the old Field House didn’t burst at the seams from all the noise.
Les Clark: “Once Frank got there and Frank started winning. Then it was deafening because you were in a small, enclosed space. And so 3,200 people could make a lot of noise in that place. And, plus, it echoed. I mean, you know, it wasn't built for concerts or anything like that. So it wasn't acoustically designed.”
There was one game in particular in 1965 that caused absolute pandemonium. USC took down ACC rival and highly ranked Duke University, and every Gamecock fan was thrilled. The Columbia fire marshal not so much. He sent a scolding letter to the university, pointing out the unsafe number of spectators who had crammed into the Field House for the game. That just added fuel to the fire for the campaign to build a new basketball arena.
The university had considered expanding and improving the Field House, but a much bigger plan was hatched instead. Schematics for a massive new facility were unveiled and construction begin in 1967 on what was initially called Memorial Hall but was soon rechristened as the Carolina Coliseum.
The Coliseum, which had nearly four times as many seats as the old Field House, was not expected to be finished until the spring of 1969. But two fires, one in March and one in April of 1968, all but destroyed the Field House. The Gamecocks needed their Carolina Coliseum to be ready for the season opener in the fall of ’68, and somehow the contractor managed to complete the arena just in time.
Just as the 1927 squad had christened the Field House with a win in their opening game there, Frank McGuire’s team did the same thing at the Coliseum, winning their opener against Auburn. They finished the season ranked No. 13 in the country.
Les Clark remembers the winning shot in that opener by John Roche, one of many all-stars from the Frank McGuire era.
Les Clark: “I'm one of probably 32 to 3,400 people who saw the last game in the Field House and the first game in the Coliseum. That first game with Roche hitting that shot in the dying seconds to win the first ball game there over Auburn, that set a tone right there. If we had lost that game, probably most of the rest of that season, that place would probably only been half full. But with him doing that, it just sort of lit the fire right there.”
That win did light a fire. The basketball team won the ACC tournament in 1971 and competed at a very high level for several years afterward. Getting season tickets in the 12,401-seat Coliseum was no easy feat back then.
Women’s basketball became a varsity sport in 1974 and played three of their home games in the gymnasium of nearby Booker T. Washington High School, which had closed that year. They also played two games in the Coliseum and several more in the university’s Sol Blatt P.E. Center. By the late 1970s, the women were playing all of their home games in the Coliseum.
Remember, the women’s basketball squad had been called the Pullets in the 1920s. They were later known as the Chicks and in 1977 they adopted Lady Gamecocks as their new name. Now the two-time national champions are called simply the Gamecocks, which quite possibly is the moniker they should have had all along.
The Carolina Coliseum would serve as home to Gamecock basketball until 2002 when the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena opened. The Coliseum lives on as the practice facility for the men’s and women’s teams. Here’s an interesting footnote — the women’s team played one last game in the Coliseum in 2013 due to a scheduling conflict at Colonial Life Arena. They defeated LSU in that game, which means that the very first game in 1968 and the very last game in 2013 in the Coliseum were both wins for the Gamecocks.
Well, that’s all for this episode but if you want to dig even deeper, check out South by Southeast, a USC sports history blog written by USC alumnus Alan Piercy. For this episode, I gleaned a lot of information from a piece Alan wrote about the Carolina Coliseum, and I’m also indebted to another USC alumnus, Joe Wachter, a huge basketball aficionado who has collected a ton of material about the early days of Carolina basketball.
On the next Remembering the Days, get ready for a high-flying adventure. It’s the history of aviation at USC, which goes back further — maybe I should say higher — than you ever imagined and includes a few barrel rolls and loop-de-loops along the way. Until then, I’m Chris Horn. Forever to thee.