Have you ever heard about "the Chicken Curse"? It's the inability of the University of South Carolina sports teams to do something great despite hefty investments. Well, it's finally over. Women won the basketball NCAA tournament this year, and the men went all the way to the Final Four.
It was really sad to be a Gamecock fan for the past thirty plus years, but it paid off. Just when we were about to lose all hope, it happened. South Carolina men's basketball team is in the news again. The football team, which went through a renaissance with Steve Spurrier, but didn't quite make it all the way, fell into the background. Basketball is climbing to the top.
It hasn't always been as bad as in the recent past. South Carolina once possessed an elite basketball program. If you had told a USC fan in 1972 that, within forty short years, most Gamecock fans wouldn't care about men's hoops, he simply wouldn't have believed you. In 1971-1972, South Carolina had a 24-5 team that was eliminated in the regional semi-finals by a UNC team that would go onto the Final Four. The next year, 1972-1973, we finished 22-7 only to be bounced again in the Sweet 16 by the eventual tournament runner-up, Memphis State.
So what happened? How did we progress from an elite program to a laughingstock? It wasn't any one thing, but the death of a thousand cuts. Here is a timeline of some of the most pivotal moves:
1975 - South Carolina hires Jim Carlen as football coach. Why would a football hire impact our basketball team, you might ask? The reason was that Carlen had been promised the full control over all USC sports in his capacity as head football coach and athletic director. Unfortunately, this put Coach Carlen into immediate conflict with Coach McGuire, since McGuire ran all basketball operations. The divided athletic department and the lack of an independent athletic director would make Carlen and McGuire's relationship adversarial rather than collegial. The two men were rivals for political and fan support, and each had different agendas. This state of affairs would weaken both programs, but particularly basketball. Had we had a unified athletic department and a fully independent, strong athletic director, we would have avoided the debilitating political conflict that plagued South Carolina athletics for five ugly years from 1975-1980, and likely would have rejoined the ACC in 1976.
1976 - Secret negotiations between the ACC and South Carolina break down when the ACC demands a hefty "re-entry" fee. McGuire supported re-entry because our basketball fortunes had slid rapidly in the years following our departure. Carlen, however, opposed re-entry because the football team was enjoying on the field success - and accompanying financial rewards - playing as an independent; Carlen felt returning to the ACC would have a negative financial impact without any upside in terms of competition. Eventually, a divided Board of Trustees, combined with the ACC's ungracious demand for a substantial cash payment, all contributed to deny us a detente with our former conference mates. Eventually, we would join the Metro Conference, but that was small potatoes compared to the ACC glory days we forfeited. Had we been able to return to the ACC, we could have reversed the mistake of 1971.
1977 - USC hires James Holderman as its new president. Holderman was in many respects a visionary, with amazing political and fundraising skills, but he was also a deeply flawed and narcissistic individual. One of the many causes he adopted - and ultimately botched - was his decision to back Carlen against McGuire. With the support of influential politicians and Board of Trustees members, Holderman publicly tried to oust Frank McGuire by offering him the athletic directorship of the Coastal Carolina satellite campus in Conway. McGuire - who was under contract - refused to budge. Holderman backed the wrong horse. Carlen would be unable to sustain success, but had McGuire had the full support of the administration, it likely would have allowed him to focus on returning the hoops team back to the glory years of the late '60s and early 70s before the slide became irreversible.
1978 - Having been compelled to backtrack the year before, Holderman and his political allies make a second attempt to depose McGuire by trying to force him into mandatory retirement. This ploy also failed, but more irretrievable damage was done. On a national level, we had signaled to the sports world that the administration would not support its legendary coach; not only that, but we also signaled that politicians and Board members were allowed free rein to meddle and micro-manage the basketball program. Finally, the fan base had to divide between McGuire supporters and Carlen supporters. Distracted and under assault, McGuire's last three teams struggled to mediocre records and no NCAA appearances. It could have been different if McGuire had received the same level of unconditional support from the administration which he received from the fans. To make matters worse, Carlen became openly insubordinate and hostile to Holderman. The situation grew intolerable.
1980 - Having finally wrested control of the athletic department from Carlen, Holderman and the Board were finally able to buy-out McGure by agreeing to pay the (then) insanely high amount of $400,000. In an ironic twist, USC hired former Duke coach Bill Foster to revive our flagging program. On paper, Foster looked like an inspired hire. He had enjoyed success in Durham, arriving there in '74 to revive a team that had slipped from the Vic Bubas glory days; after three lean years, he was able to recruit talent to Duke and the Blue Devils rolled through the '78 NCAA tournament - reaching the championship game (where they lost to Kentucky). Foster also led the Blue Devils to the NCAA's in '79 and '80. Having coached in between Duke legends Vic Bubas and Mike Krzyzewski, Foster is largely forgotten by most ordinary Blue Devil fans, but the ones in the know credit him for reviving a program that was wallowing in mediocrity and paving the way for Krzyzewski. Unfortunately for Carolina, Foster was in poor cardiac health. The other knock on Foster was that he could build a team, but not a program. In spite of his pedigree, he never could duplicate his Duke success at South Carolina - compiling a mediocre 92-79 record over six seasons, and going 12-16 (2-10) in his final year. Foster suffered a heart attack in '82. Would things have turned out differently if instead of Foster, we had gone after a young up-and-coming Northeastern coach? What if we had tried to hire Krzyzewski from Army? Or Rick Pitino from Boston University? Or Jim Valvano of Iona? Each of them was positioned to make a move around this time; you would like to think any of those three would have jumped at South Carolina only a few years removed from McGuire's glory days. Instead we went for the safe hire, Foster, without appreciating his poor health. By 1986, the program was no longer elite, and Foster was forced out after a poor year, not to mention recruiting violations and some scandal involving the sale of complimentary tickets, which got us on NCAA probation.
1986 - When we finally went after a young coach, we landed George Felton. It's hard to find fault with the hire - Felton was a USC grad and a former player under Frank McGuire. He was one of Bobby Cremins' top young assistants at Georgia Tech - at a time when the Yellow Jackets were a perennial ACC contender. He put together a stellar assistant staff, including Tubby Smith and Eddie Payne, and recruited some amazing talent like Brent Price, Jo-Jo English, the Dozier brothers, and Jamie Watson. The players loved him. There were other, young, talented coaches who probably could have been lured to South Carolina in ''86 - notably Rick Pitino (then at Providence), Eddie Fogler (one of Dean Smith's assistants at UNC) and Roy Williams (another UNC assistant). When Felton was fired in May of 1991, it was like a bolt from the blue to most USC fans - he had gone 20-13 that year and had made the post-season (NIT). Athletic Director King Dixon refused to explain why he had terminated Felton. Rumors soon circulated that Felton's drinking had caused a rift with Dixon; Felton's DUI arrest not long after his termination added to that speculation. Whether the rumors were true or not have never been substantiated, but we all believed them at the time and many are adamant about them to this day. Felton went 87-62 during his tenure, making the NCAA's in 1989 and the NIT in 1991. Hardly a return to the glory days. We were now firmly a mediocre program - now 20 years removed from the McGuire heyday.
1991 - Would South Carolina's basketball history have been different if we had hired Fogler, Williams or Pitino in '86 instead of Felton? How could it not have been? By the time Felton was terminated in '91, Pitino and Williams were entrenched at UK and KU, respectively, and Fogler was at Vanderbilt. One would have thought it would be an easy trick to replace Felton quickly - after all, South Carolina had inked a deal to join the SEC and would commence league play during the 1991-1992 season. Unfortunately, what happened was a complete debacle. Fogler turned us down. Larry Brown turned us down. Wimp Sanderson turned us down. It was a fiasco and a national embarrassment, and it basically destroyed Dixon's athletic directorship. The obvious choice in hindsight would have been Tubby Smith - then a top assistant at UK under Rick Pitino - who would take the Tulsa job that same year. By the time we hired Steve Newton of Murray State in July it felt like we had to beg someone to take the job, Everyone was furious at Dixon. But had he hired Smith instead of Newton, who knows what might have changed - even if Tubby had left us for UK in 1997 (instead of leaving Georgia) when Rick Pitino tried his hand in the NBA. Losses and recruiting scandals haunted Newton, who was forced out in 1993 with an overall 20-35 record. I remember Newton pacing back and forth in front of the bench with his bow-legged strut, clutching a rolled-up play sheet in his hand. It was a low ebb. We officially sucked.
1995 - Then probably the worst came: the abortive Bobby Cremins volte-face of 1993, when three days after accepting the USC job he bagged his alma mater to return to Georgia Tech. Yes, it was a national humiliation - and the source of great merriment for Clemson fans, but the rapid hiring of Eddie Fogler was - we thought at the time - actually better for USC. He was a national coach of the year and had guided Tulsa and Vandy to multiple post-season berths, including a NIT championship. And everything seemed to bear out that judgment all the way up to 1998, when we lost for the second consecutive year in the first round of the NCAA's (to the #14 seed Richmond Spiders ); after that, the life seemed to go out of Fogler and he quietly folded his tent three seasons later after a 15-15 finish and NIT first round exit in 2001. So why 1995? Because that's the year Kevin Garnett, originally of Mauldin, South Carolina, became one of the first major talents to forgo college and enter the NBA Draft. While UK fans thought they were a lock to get him, every indication seemed to be that Garnett was leaning to South Carolina if he had decided to play college ball. Had he played even two years for USC, that would have put him on the same floor as the first team All-SEC guard trio of BJ McKie, Melvin Watson and Larry Davis for the '96 and '97 tournaments. With KG's raw talent, South Carolina would have had the guns for a deep run in the NCAA's. Would an Elite Eight or Final Four finish in '96 or '97 changed the dynamic of South Carolina recruiting? I would say absolutely. Would Fogler have lost his drive to coach as he appeared to after the disappointment of the 1999 season? Probably. The knock on Fogler in 2001 was that he had lost interest in coaching, calculated how much money he needed for retirement, and hung up his spurs accordingly.
1996 - This was the year Jermaine O'Neal of Columbia followed Kevin Garnett directly from high school to the pros. He had publicly and repeatedly shown an interest in South Carolina. His impact would have been very similar to KG. Those who think about O'Neal and Garnett playing together... with McKie, Watson and Davis, still feel a shiver up their spines; the two could have won a NCAA championship together. But it was not to be.
2001 - When Fogler resigned, we made a huge run at Tubby Smith. At the time, we thought we could peel him out of Lexington, since the Big Blue fans were upset the Cats had not advanced passed the Sweet Sixteen in three years. Ultimately, Tubby would turn us down, and we'd go to our fall-back, Dave Odom. As much as we may have missed Odom afterwards, 2001 was a great opportunity to reverse the thirty year slide from McGuire's golden age. Odom had coached Tim Duncan and Randolph Childress at Wake Forest, and led the NC school to the ACC championship twice in a row. He was able to build some very good teams at Carolina, but he only managed to win the NIT (twice).
2008 - We hire Darrin Horn instead of Gregg Marshall. Or anyone else. After four years at USC, Horn managed to ruin his hitherto promising career. Things seem hopeless. The chicken curse seemed stronger than ever.
2012 - We hire another Frank, the Kansas State Coach Francisco Martin, who manages to recruit two great SC prospects in the next three years, Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier. The rest is history.