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Remembering the Days — Beat Dook! The first signature win of the Frank McGuire era

Remembering the Days - episode 79

When Frank McGuire arrived at USC in 1964, Gamecock fans knew they had a winning basketball coach. But early in McGuire's second season, the team had three starters who had never played against a conference opponent. Their first such matchup on Dec. 6, 1965 — the No. 3-ranked Blue Devils of Duke University. 


USC’s men’s and women’s basketball teams have been on a tear this season, racking up 50 wins and counting between them with the NCAA tournament just around the corner. It’s a pretty good year to be a Gamecock basketball fan.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re time traveling to 1965 — nearly a decade before women’s varsity basketball came into existence and back when the men’s basketball team was almost always an also-ran in the Atlantic Coast Conference, an athletic conference then dominated in basketball by North Carolina, N.C. State and Duke University.

We’re going to revisit a game that took place in December 1965, a match that no one except perhaps the most rabid garnet-and-black fans thought the Gamecocks had a chance to win against the Blue Devils of Duke University.

Jack Thompson: “There was no way we were going to beat these guys. They got me playing my first varsity, my first ACC varsity game, Harlicka playing his first ACC varsity game, and Frank Standard playing his first ACC varsity game. Three starters against five or six Duke guys that played pro ball when they graduated. We weren't supposed to win.”

That’s Jack Thompson who was the starting point guard for the Gamecocks. Thompson, along with Skip Harlicka and Frank Standard, were among the first USC players recruited out of New York City by Coach Frank McGuire, himself a New York City native with a network of basketball scouts who helped funnel a steady stream of top recruits to Carolina.

Coach McGuire was already a big deal when he was named USC’s head coach in 1964. He had taken St. John’s University to the final four in 1952, won a national championship in 1957 at the University of North Carolina, and he had coached the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors with Wilt Chamberlain when Chamberlain famously scored a hundred points in one game.

Bottom line, Gamecock fans knew their university had hired a first-rate coach. They were just waiting for things to turn around. McGuire’s first season at USC in 1964 had been unimpressive with just six wins, but serious fans knew that was only because McGuire’s own recruits weren’t on the court yet. Back then, basketball players couldn’t compete at the varsity level until their sophomore year, and anyone who had been watching the USC freshmen scrimmages knew that the 1965 season was going to be better.

So Jack Thompson, Skip Harlicka and Frank Standard were all sophomores playing, as Jack pointed out, in their first ACC varsity game on Dec. 6, 1965, when the Duke Blue Devils came to Columbia. Then as now, Duke was one of the blue bloods of the ACC, a perennial powerhouse on the basketball court.

The Blue Devils were ranked No. 3 in the country and were 15-point favorites when they arrived at USC’s old Field House arena that night. Jack remembers walking out of the Russell House earlier in the day when a student stopped him.

Jack Thompson: “This one guy comes up to me. ‘Are you ready, Jack? Are you ready?’ And I looked at him. I said, ‘Ready for what?’ He said, ‘Beating Duke.’ I said, ‘You think we're going to beat Duke tonight?’ He said, ‘Hell yeah you are.’ I said, ‘I hope we don't get beat by 30. I'm just scared we're going to get beat by 30.’ He says, ‘What kind of attitude is that?’ I said, ‘I got to play the game, not you. The pressure is on me and I'm scared.’ And I was  I was telling him the truth. I went back into my bed and I at 3:00, the game wasn't until seven, I wasn't going over til six and I put the blanket over my head. And I just tried to sleep, and I couldn't sleep. I was so scared. I was so scared we were going to get killed."

Joe Wachter was a USC sophomore from Spartanburg and his fraternity brother Bruce Rothman was a freshman who hailed from New York City. The USC-Duke game was their first experience in watching the Gamecocks play an ACC opponent.

The crowd was already in a loud, pre-game frenzy when Joe and Bruce arrived at the Field House. Jack Thompson says he and the rest of the team could hear it from their locker room in the basement.

Jack Thompson: “When I was in the locker room down below you guys where you were, we were underneath you in the locker room. From the beginning of getting there: 'Beat Duke, beat Duke, beat the hell out of Duke.' The whole audience was saying it, signs 'Beat D-O-O-K — beat Duke, beat Duke, beat the hell out of Duke.”

Joe and Bruce wanted to sit behind the Gamecocks team bench, but even though they had gotten there early, the seats were already filled. There were plenty of empty seats behind the Duke bench, so that’s where the two students decided to camp out — much to the chagrin of Duke’s coach, Vic Bubas, who became the target of Bruce’s jeers. Here’s Joe Wachter.

Joe Wachter:  "I'm reserved, quiet. I was brought up to say, ‘Yes ma'am, no sir,’ whatever. And be polite. Kind of hold back. You know, I'm not shy, but I was very reserved. Bruce is, uh, what a lot of people think of Brooklyn. Kind of brash.

"Anyway, we sit right behind Bubas and maybe five minutes a game. Bubas says something. He he curses about a call. Bruce says, 'Oh shut up. You don't know what you're talking about. You're your second rate coach.' And after a few taunts like that, he starts turning around. Bruce keeps this up. He keeps turning around and turning around. And every time he does and Bruce says something, the crowd goes wild. The whole game got more and more, and I'm reserved watching all this. You know, I wasn't used to this, I loved it, I really loved it. And he was Bruce was just being Bruce."

Bruce Rothman: “This was the first game that I was at the Field House. And luckily, Joe said, let's sit behind the Duke bench because the Carolina bench was swamped with people. And so we're sitting behind there, and I was pretty good at razzing him, as Joe calls it.

"I didn't curse at him, but I told him he was a terrible coach, and he glared at me. And, as I say, we were sitting right behind the Duke bench. The players were too busy, they didn't glare at us, but Vic Bubas glared at Joe and myself, and Joe being mild mannered, he was getting blamed because we were together.” 

Never mind, though, what was happening in the stands or with Duke Coach Vic Bubas getting mad about the taunting. The game out on the court was tight and tense. As expected, Duke got ahead by several points, but the Gamecocks rallied back.

The Duke players were accustomed to playing in a hostile environment; they had played in USC’s Field House plenty of times before. But there was something different that night. As the teams traded baskets, Carolina fans began to sense that maybe, just maybe, their team could pull off the impossible — an upset win over the mighty Blue Devils.

Jack Thompson remembers each moment of the final seconds of the game when he hurled a pass to junior forward Al Salvadori.

Jack Thompson: “Salvadori, 6-foot-9, made a huge play, caught a pass from me that he never would catch again in his life. A bullet under the basket, caught it, went up, got fouled and we went from one down to two up with a minute-20 left. First lead in the game. Tense. Adam's apples are getting really tight for the Duke team. Jack Marin, who was later all NBA all Star. He's guarded by Standard and Standard guarded him well. He goes down the foul line extended left side towards the baseline. And he's tense. The clock is coming down. They're down by two. And he throws up this little baby hook, and it doesn't have a chance. Vacendak gets the rebound — offensive rebound. And he banks it in to tie the score.

Imagine being in the old Field House at this point — the score is tied and there’s little time left on the clock. More than 3,300 fans, a capacity crowd, are on their feet, yelling, screaming, ‘Beat Duke, Beat Duke!’ And point guard Jack Thompson, who had been playing brilliantly all night, dribbled the ball down the court.

And it all came down to a final play.

Jack Thompson: “We win this game because I, twice in a row, the first time I faked Berger out so bad. And the second time, as the game is ending, I come up the same side. I can show you this. I've got this on film, I come up the court and I do the same fake that faked him out so bad the first time. And I'm playing chess. He's playing checkers. So I do the exact same fake, knowing that he just saw it and he'll be ready for it. Now he thinks he's got me. He's doing the same thing. Boom, I got this. But I was already a move ahead of him and I did a spin move which I didn't have to do the first time.

And he got so foot-tied up. I can show you him falling on his ass when I go by him, jump up in the air. Marin comes to me, Standard moves under the basket. I hit him real quick. Layup. Game over. We win 73-71.”

Pandemonium reigned in the old Field House. USC students and fans were delirious, intoxicated by the sweet liquor of having beaten the third-best team in the country. The lowly Gamecocks had prevailed. Students lifted Jack Thompson, Skip Harlicka and Coach McGuire on their shoulders.

Bruce Rothman: “We flooded the court. Everyone in the place was on that court. Starting with us.” 

Coach McGuire described the scene to a sports columnist at The State newspaper. “There was just a sea of people,” he said. “I’m black and blue. I never took such a beating in my life, all those hands slapping me.”

And it wasn’t like McGuire’s players had beaten a Duke team that was having an off year. Later that same week, Duke beat UCLA, the No. 1 team in the country, twice in back-to-back games. And Duke made it to the final four in the NCAA tournament in March. Carolina had knocked out a heavyweight contender.

Joe Wachter: “That one game was the most exciting one I ever saw. And the crowd all night long they were going up and down the streets talking about it all night long, and we were just floating on a cloud when it was over and we got to witness it. We got to be right behind the losing team and the coach.”

Bruce Rothman: "The streets were filled up. I can still remember. It was almost like, you know, it was almost like a big national election or something. The streets were filled up. "

Later that evening, Jack Thompson called home to give his folks a first-hand account of what happened.

Jack Thompson: “I'm calling my father in Brooklyn. You know, we beat Duke, and it was — it was story time. It was story land. It was fabled city, you know, it was like this couldn't have happened what we just saw. "

I wish I could say that the Gamecocks went on to win the rest of their games that year — they didn’t, but they nearly doubled their victories from the previous year. And the upset over Duke hammered home the point yet again that USC needed to replace its woefully small and out-of-date Field House. Three years later, USC was playing basketball in the much larger and infinitely nicer Carolina Coliseum, which came to be known as the "House That Frank Built" — a nod to the success that Frank McGuire brought to Gamecock basketball.

Building on the success of the 1965-66 season, McGuire’s teams steadily improved, posting win totals in the mid-teens the next two seasons and notching 20-plus wins in the two seasons after that with several  victories over highly ranked teams. The turning point, though, the signature victory that marked the beginning of USC’s meteoric rise was that early season upset of the mighty Duke Blue Devils in December 1965.

That’s all for this episode, but there is so much more to be said about those early years in the Frank McGuire era. Jack Thompson has plenty of colorful stories, and Alan Piercy, who writes South by Southeast, a Gamecock history blog, plans to tell them. I encourage you to look up Alan’s blog on the web and subscribe.

On the next Remembering the Days, we’re going to celebrate 100 years of USC’s School of Music, recalling the story of how the school was born and how it has made beautiful music ever since. Until then, I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.