COLUMBIA — Harris Pastides became the University of South Carolina’s president in 2008, but he first joined the school’s faculty in 1998. USC’s football team went 1-10 that season and 0-11 the next.
Pastides, an avid sports fan who grew up in Queens, N.Y., memorizing the statistics on the back of New York Yankees baseball cards, would take his wife, Patricia, to USC football games and marvel at what happened there. He didn’t marvel at the quality of play, of course, but rather, at the sizable fan turnouts, despite the mounting losses.
“Isn’t it great, we would say, that the fans are so wonderful up here that they don’t care that much about winning?” Pastides said, recounting conversations with his wife at those games. “They care about supporting the team.”
For years, USC’s fans were tortured. Even in the Gamecocks’ best sport, baseball, they had reached the College World Series eight times, as of Pastides’ promotion to president, and never won it. They did finish second three times.
At least some USC fans, especially those most connected to football, surely began to believe in the school’s so-called Chicken Curse, which supposedly doomed them to fall short forever.
Until they didn’t. In 2010 and 2011, the Gamecocks won back-to-back baseball national championships. This year, they finished second in the World Series as they tried to become just the second team ever to win three straight titles.
A month removed from USC’s loss to Arizona in the championship series, the impact of the past three seasons remains significant.
‘Curse is gone’
They changed the image of USC’s athletic department and the attitude of its fans. They made the Gamecocks’ coach, Ray Tanner, a roundly approved choice to become the school’s new athletic director earlier this month, despite his lack of experience. The 2010 title began a modern golden age of sorts for USC, whose football team had its best back-to-back seasons ever in 2010 and 2011. And as for the Chicken Curse?
“Well, that curse is gone,” Pastides said. “We will not fill baseball, football and basketball venues just by putting a decent effort across. I think the fans expect winning. Not necessarily winning it all or winning it all every year, but they do expect competition at the highest level. Frankly, I’d rather be affiliated with a school like that.”
The face of USC baseball the past two seasons, pitcher Michael Roth, hesitates to boast that he and his teammates so greatly affected their school or even their athletic department.
“You look back and a bunch of people would say that we changed the face of USC baseball and all that, or helped change the athletic program,” he said. “I don’t like to think of it like that, because this baseball program has always been a special program. I don’t think we can take all the credit for that. But I guess it’s nice that people want to give us credit for that.”
Roth cited other factors behind the titles, particularly the palatial Carolina Stadium, which opened in 2009, after lobbying by Tanner. Roth said he knows baseball players at other schools who must work out early in the morning because they share their weight room with other sports. Not so for USC baseball. And Roth believes that significantly affects recruiting the type of players, like USC’s freshmen last year, who could continue the success of the past three seasons.
“I think facilities definitely are involved in a decision (about where to attend school),” he said.
History, though, will acknowledge that few players in College World Series history performed better than Roth and closer Matt Price did from 2010-12, as USC became just the third team to ever play in the CWS championship series in three consecutive years, and the first since 1985.
“I think it’s fair to say that when I travel outside of the state, the things people most know about the University of South Carolina have been the Moore School of Business, the Honors College, Gamecock football,” Pastides said. “But now more than ever, people are saying, ‘That’s the baseball school, isn’t it?’ That’s something I can use to the university and the state’s betterment and to advance us all, because if you get a foot in the door, so to speak, a conversation starter about the World Series, that could lead to many other fruitful outlets.”
The Dugout Club
Pastides wouldn’t need to sell the Gamecocks to Darryl Cooper, who grew up in Greenville rooting for Frank McGuire’s USC basketball teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Cooper enrolled at USC in 1978, and “I spent a lot of time going to baseball games when I quite frankly probably should’ve been in class,” he said.
He became involved in the baseball booster organization, the Dugout Club, in the late 1980s and is now its president. He understands as well as anybody the changed outlook among USC’s fans.
“Especially in football, you always sat there waiting on something bad to happen,” he said. “Did I believe in the Chicken Curse? No. To me, it was always kind of silly. But by the same token, you did always wonder in football, ‘Is it ever going to happen here?’ I think what baseball proved to all the (USC) athletes is that: Yeah, this can be done here. I don’t think there’s any question that it changed (fans’) outlook. It’s done wonders for the fan base.”
Now, there are dreams of a first ever Southeastern Conference football championship this fall, and for once, they seem like more than pipe dreams.
“I think (baseball’s run) made people believe that it’s possible here,” Cooper said. “There was a time period when people didn’t believe it was possible here, especially in football, not too long ago at all.”
But they kept showing up. In 1998 and 1999, Cooper lived in Raleigh, N.C., and would still drive to Columbia for games, and even stay over in a hotel — an investment that often offered little in return. But it is, he said, “what you do. People from other states sometimes I don’t think quite understand why it’s like that and why the alumni and people who support the university just hang on and hang on and hang on.”
The state of South Carolina is rare indeed, with its dedication to USC or Clemson. It is the third-most populated state without a major professional sports team, behind Virginia and Alabama, though Virginia claims a long-standing connection to the Washington Redskins. Nobody in the Palmetto State can realistically think the 17-year-old Carolina Panthers will surpass lifelong allegiances to USC or Clemson.
That’s why the 2010 baseball title meant so much to people like Cooper. That’s why the commemorative poster from that World Series, autographed by USC’s entire team, hangs proudly in his house. Why the two souvenir bottles of red wine from the two titles rest on the mantle above his fireplace, never to be opened.
This three-year era of USC baseball is over now. Maybe the success won’t fade, but most of the faces are gone. Assistant coach Chad Holbrook was promoted to replace Tanner. Roth, Price, Adam Matthews, Evan Marzilli and Christian Walker are already off playing professional ball. When next season begins, just three players on USC’s roster will have had a significant role in a championship — pitchers Forrest Koumas, Colby Holmes and Tyler Webb.
But the Darryl Coopers out there, who suffered through losing and near-misses for so long, will still hang on to the memories. He vividly remembers his fellow longtime fans standing around him at Rosenblatt Stadium in 2010 as they celebrated the first championship, the one that ensured nothing at USC would ever be the same again.
“You don’t take these things for granted,” he said. “To see people acting emotionally, and I was one of them, to see grown men hugging each other and crying, because you were so happy to see it finally happen.”