Carolina's disastrous first year in the SEC
A nine-game losing streak, a player mutiny, and a dalliance with hiring a notorious Clemson coach made the Gamecocks a laughingstock.
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Theranos. The flight of Icarus. Florida State head coach Willie Taggart.
The doom of each project foretold by the hubris of its architect. Grandeur of ambition collapsing beneath tools inadequate to the task.
So too might we have remembered South Carolina’s decision to enter the Southeastern Conference, had the Gamecocks’ membership in the league ended after their first, dismal season.
The men’s basketball team went from a 20-win season to its worst campaign in 30 years.
The football team lengthened its losing streak to nine, the longest active string of defeats in Division I-A.
Amid the gridiron slide, football players voted by a 60-24 margin to demand the resignation of their head coach.
Survivors of the Will Muschamp era think they know a thing or two about despair. But the Gamecock fans of 1992 lacked even the comfort afforded by memories of past SEC success. There was no bygone SEC glory to which one might cling. There loomed only the grim prospect of slotting perennially into the bottommost rung of the new conference hierarchy.
After South Carolina opened its inaugural SEC football season with an 0-5 start — capped by a 48-7 annihilation in Tuscaloosa — Paul Finebaum penned a column demanding that commissioner Roy Kramer call an emergency meeting of the league’s executive committee to consider the matter of ejecting USC from the conference.
“South Carolina’s program is a disgrace and a huge embarrassment to the Southeastern Conference and its own state,” Finebaum wrote in the Birmingham Post-Herald.
Before the Alabama game, Finebaum made the wry observation that, “South Carolina has a chance [to beat the Crimson Tide], but only because Alabama might get caught looking ahead to next week’s battle with Tulane.” Insult was piled upon injury the Green Wave went on to lose to Alabama a smaller margin than the Gamecocks did.
To drive out of the Woods, you might need a Ford
The 1992 season was not the first time it occurred to anyone that Sparky Woods should be fired. Calls to replace him were already ringing out even before the inaugural SEC campaign began. Twisting the knife, Finebaum’s recommended course of treatment for South Carolina’s case of terminal ineptitude was this: replace Woods with the man you’ve spent your whole life hating.
“To an outsider, it seems the only chance for survival is to hire Danny Ford to replace Sparky Woods.”
Thirty years later, this might seem like another classic Finebaum troll. But in 1992 the idea of hiring Ford was gaining serious traction among Carolina fans. During a 45-7 loss to Arkansas (fellow SEC debutantes who Finebaum also wanted to expel), there were chants of “We we want Danny Ford!” inside Williams-Brice Stadium. There were apocryphal reports of Columbia-area bumper stickers bearing the message “To Get Out Of The Woods, You May Have to Drive a Ford.”
After the Arkansas loss in Sept. 1992, the phone lines of school president John Palms were overwhelmed with calls for change. The State reported that people representing USC’s interests had been in contact with Ford. A decade before he became the face of gender discrimination in golf, Hootie Johnson was credited as being one of the well-monied boosters in Dr. Palms’ ear about pursuing Ford.
“I think Danny Ford is one of the top five coaches in the country,” Johnson said. “He’s a good person. We’d be lucky to get him.”
By crediting Ford’s character in this way, Johnson was going against the conventional wisdom that Ford had run a dirty program at Clemson. Ford brought the Tigers to unprecedented heights, but NCAA sanctions cast a pall over much of his achievement.
It was exactly this characteristic that made Ford such an appealing figure to USC fans. Part of the reason Carolina hired Sparky Woods in the first place was the hope that Woods’ penchant for running a squeaky-clean program would wash away the sins of the steroid scandal that rocked the final days of Joe Morrison era. But after four years of being well-mannered losers, Gamecock fans were ready for another bad boy.
Mutiny, I promise you
The specter of a Ford takeover diminished somewhat in late September, when Arkansas hired Ford as an assistant. The hiring was made with a view, many correctly speculated, to eventually promoting Ford to head coach. But Ford’s exit from the ranks of the unemployed did not end the peril for Woods. There was still plenty of room for things to get worse.
The bye week that followed the Alabama defeat gave the program extra time to stew in their humiliation. And in the two weeks between games, the mood in the locker room began to curdle. The Monday before the Gamecocks were set to host No. 15 Mississippi State, a players-only meeting resulted in a 62-24 vote to demand that Woods resign.
The team’s censure of Woods left athletics director King Dixon scrambling to resolve the crisis and stave off further embarrassment. Dixon had backed Woods for a contract extension just that August, only to have that request vetoed by President Palms. Now, at a time when Dixon’s own future was in doubt, the coach he’d stuck his neck out for had become a national laughingstock. Dixon organized interviews with coaches and players, and though there was no conclusive resolution to th substantive issues undergirding the majority’s dissatisfaction, the team was back on its normal schedule by Wednesday of that week.
Though the players’ vote was ultimately toothless, their rebuke of Woods struck a nerve with head coaches across the country. Bobby Bowden and Ray Goff were among the sitting head coaches who condemned the Gamecocks’ mutiny. A few weeks earlier, Memphis players staged a boycott of practice to express dissatisfaction with their head coach’s dissatisfaction of the program. The threat to the established power structure was making them squeamish.
“To have a situation where a group of youngsters can dictate what goes on to the head coach,” said LSU head coach Curly Hallman, “that’s a sad situation.”
The threat was amplified by the fact that these player revolts appeared to be working. The Memphis boycott produced a 22-6 upset over Arkansas. And South Carolina staged a 21-6 upset over Mississippi State.
Though the dreaded players’ rights revolution never materialized, a USC winning streak did. A four-game undefeated run and a victory at Clemson were enough to grant Sparky Woods a stay of execution.
The second-half spark did, in the end, come from a guy with a bad-boy image. But it wasn’t the guy Hootie Johnson and company were lobbying John Palms to hire. The spark came instead from a freshman whose nameplate was partially obscured by long, brown hair that cascaded out of his helmet and grew blonder at the ends.
He came from an old railroad town in Central Pennsylvania. A town called Altoona.