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Last Call?

USC, Harpootlian, police try to close longstanding Columbia bar run by former Gamecock QB

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  • 12 min to read
THphoto_GroupTherapy-1.jpg

Group Therapy

Some names just ring out more than others.

In Columbia, that’s certainly the case with Steve Taneyhill and Group Therapy.

Taneyhill’s name has reverberated in the Capital City for nearly three decades. The Altoona, Pennsylvania, native took the city and the South by storm in the early 1990s with his exploits on the football field for the University of South Carolina. A cocky quarterback who, at the time, sported a long, flowing mullet, Taneyhill was a sensation for the Gamecocks from 1992 to 1995, leading the school to its first-ever bowl victory and notching a pair of wins over archrival Clemson. 

Nearly 30 years later, his 1992 game against the Tigers at Death Valley — an audacious freshman performance in which he threw for 296 yards in a win, then mocked autographing the tiger paw at midfield after the game — is still lovingly referenced by Gamecock fans. Taneyhill remains the school’s all-time leader in career touchdown passes with 61.

But for the last several years, Taneyhill’s name has been connected not only with USC, but another Columbia institution. Since 2016, he’s owned Group Therapy, the legendary Five Points dive bar on Greene Street that was initially founded in 1978. The bar has been a neighborhood staple for generations of USC students and locals, and was once a favorite stop for members of Hootie & The Blowfish. The band even named its 2019 reunion tour after the longstanding watering hole.

If, as the joke goes, Columbia is a drinking town with a football problem, then Steve Taneyhill owning Group Therapy forms a sort of perfect circle of the city’s enduring pastimes. He is on the Mount Rushmore of USC quarterbacks, and Group Therapy is on the Mount Rushmore of Columbia bars.

But now the storied bar with the storied owner finds itself at a crossroads, as a number of entities are joining forces in an effort to effectively shut down Group Therapy.

On Feb. 11, there will be an administrative law hearing before Judge Shirley Robinson where a number of entities are set to formally protest the renewal of Group Therapy’s licenses to sell alcohol. 

A group of residents from neighborhoods near Five Points, represented by the law firm of firebrand state Sen. Dick Harpootlian — himself of a resident of nearby Wales Garden — have been successful in legal challenges the last two years that have led to the closure of several bars in the nightlife district, and they’ve now set their sights on Group Therapy. The neighbors are arguing, among other things, that Group Therapy is a public nuisance that has served alcohol to minors. 

The Columbia Police Department is coming after the bar, citing more than three dozen incidents at or outside Group Therapy over the course of a year and calling the establishment “a constant drain on law enforcement services.” The Department of Revenue also wants to block the bar’s ability to sell alcohol, citing a September incident in which they found a person with marijuana on them in an office in the building.

Revenue is seeking to block the bar’s liquor license and its beer and wine permit, according to court filings.

And even USC, the school for which Taneyhill tossed all those touchdown passes, is setting its sights on closing Group Therapy. The school has formally filed a protest against the bar, saying it poses a risk to the health and safety of students.

Harpootlian says he recognizes that Group Therapy still holds a nostalgic pull for some older residents. But he also insists it’s no longer the charming restaurant/bar that was once a Hootie haunt, and that it is now part of a liquor-soaked party culture in Five Points.

The hellraising attorney also dismisses the idea that the bar should get any special treatment because Taneyhill owns it now.

“He hasn’t been the quarterback at Carolina for 25 years,” Harpootlian tells Free Times. “His exploits for the Carolina football team were something that was recognized at the time. But in terms of that giving him any ability to run an establishment like Group Therapy? It doesn’t give him any more credibility than anybody else.”

‘Not Your Daddy’s Group Therapy’

Since 2018, Harpootlian and local residents have steadily chipped away at the nightlife culture in Five Points. Popular college bars like The Roost, The Barn, The Horseshoe and Cover 3 have all closed their doors over the last 18 months, either because of the loss of their liquor licenses or, foreseeing a court tangle with Harpootlian and the neighbors, choosing not to renew them.

And now Group Therapy — often referred to simply as “Group” by locals — is next on the hit list.

As it has battled the bars in Five Points, Harpootlian’s firm has often wielded a section in the S.C. Constitution that says restaurants that sell liquor by the drink must “engage primarily in the preparation and serving of meals.” It’s a strategy that will once again be at play in the fight over Group Therapy’s liquor license. 

“Now, this is not your daddy’s Group Therapy,” Harpootlian says. “It’s a totally new ownership with a new business plan. I went to Group Therapy years and years ago, when they had bands and a place where you could see someone like Hootie & the Blowfish. That’s not what it is anymore.”

Chris Kenney, an attorney from Harpootlian’s firm who will be handling the case in court, claims Group Therapy is, among other things, a “public safety risk” and a “nuisance.” He also says he doesn’t believe it meets the food service threshold it needs for a liquor license.

“We don’t believe they are, in fact, in the business of preparing or selling meals,” Kenney says. “I think the evidence is going to show that this is really a nightclub that happens to have a kitchen. We don’t think they are eligible to have a liquor license.”

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Steve Taneyhill chats with a patron at his bar Group Therapy in Columbia’s Five Points in 2017.

Several messages left for Taneyhill were unreturned. But his attorney — former state representative and current CNN pundit Bakari Sellers — tells Free Times Group Therapy is different than other bars that have shuttered in Five Points in recent years. He touts its long standing in the community, the fact that it’s open seven nights a week — some college bars are only open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights — and its menu of food offerings.

“Group Therapy is not a fly-by-night bar,” Sellers notes. “It has been an establishment in Five Points since ’78. It is a place that actually serves food and is not only open on weekend nights. I think Dick has been trying to root out places that don’t even have a kitchen and aren’t really serving food. 

“I think it is disingenuous to try to root out a true small business that is a true restaurant/bar.”

(Anecdotally, on a recent night this Free Times reporter went to Group Therapy, grabbed a beer and asked if food was being served. A bartender presented a menu featuring a list of bar food staples — chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, etc. I had the cheese fries.)

But the question of how much food Group Therapy serves is far from the only battle the Greene Street establishment faces as it fights to keep serving drinks. The bar is also staring down opposition from entities that are challenging it, one way or another, on the grounds of public safety.

And one of them is the school for which Taneyhill once performed so marvelously on the football field.

‘It’s More Than a Conundrum’

In the last couple of years, as Harpootlian and neighbors have battled to calm the party vibe in Five Points, they’ve had USC as an ally, as the university has formally opposed the liquor licenses for a number of the bars that were targeted in court. The school has cited public safety and excessive drinking by students — many underage — in its opposition to some Five Points bars.

But, with the hiring of new President Bob Caslen last summer, there was a hint there might have been a new attitude brewing toward the longtime college nightlife district from the university. In an introductory press conference in July, Caslen — the retired  superintendent at West Point — laid out a number of objectives he wanted to accomplish, including improving graduation and job placement rates, and beating Clemson in sports (something Taneyhill, notably, was fairly adept at). 

Caslen also intimated he was willing to check out Five Points at night and “have a beer” with students.

But, six months later, USC is among the entities that have formally filed a protest to Group Therapy getting a renewal on its liquor license. 

In protest paperwork filed in December with the Department of Revenue, USC says its opposition “is primarily based on multiple public safety incidents at this location as well as concerns shared directly by state regulatory and law enforcement agencies” during a meeting about safety in Five Points. The filing also says USC is worried about “the potential risk the establishment poses to the health and safety of our student population.”

The Columbia Police Department also has filed a protest of Group Therapy. According to September documents signed by police Chief Skip Holbrook, the department claims it responded to Group Therapy 38 times from July 2018 to June 2019 for incidents that were “directly associated with the business.” Free Times reviewed police reports from a host of those incidents, which ranged from fights outside the bar to underage drinking to people getting caught using fake IDs, and beyond. 

“This location is a constant drain on law enforcement services on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights,” Holbrook wrote in the protest paperwork. “Their lines and volume of patrons cause a significant overcrowding issue as their patrons fill the sidewalks and commonly spill out into the roadway. [Officers] have to maintain a constant presence at or near this location because of the volume, as well as the significant amount of fights and civil disturbance calls associated to the business.”

USC spokesman Jeff Stensland says that Caslen heard about safety concerns in Five Points in some of his earliest interactions with Columbia residents and USC alumni. 

“Since that time, he has had the opportunity to speak with various stakeholders to develop a more complete picture of the dynamics at play in Five Points, including lack of food service at many establishments, underage students being served and medical transports due to alcohol overconsumption,” Stensland says.

The USC spokesman also says Caslen took an eye-opening visit to the nightlife district during Halloween weekend last fall.  

“A couple things stood out, including the sheer volume of students amassed in such a small geographical area, as well as the problems caused as students traversed through the adjacent neighborhoods late into evening,” Stensland notes.

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Group Therapy

Looking to shut down Group Therapy — a storied business owned by one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play at USC — would seem to be a somewhat risky move, at least in regard to optics, especially for a new university president whose arrival in Columbia was wobbly. 

The selection of Caslen — via a deeply split 11-8 vote from the school’s board of trustees — came amidst protests from some students and faculty, many of whom were upset about Caslen’s lack of experience running a research university and the influence Republican Gov. Henry McMaster wielded in the selection process. The school is being monitored by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools after accreditors found “evidence of undue influence” from the governor, who is an ex officio member of the board. 

But Stensland says Group Therapy’s status as a more than four-decade-old business and the fact that a former Gamecock quarterback owns it didn’t play into the school’s decision to try to get it shut down.

“Group Therapy’s long history and current ownership had no bearing on the decision to join the protest, which was solely based on concerns shared by partner law enforcement agencies,” he says. “Ideally, those safety issues wouldn’t exist in the first place, and it’s not the university’s desire to see establishments doing things the right way get shut down. 

“We do feel compelled to take a stand when we learn that student safety may be jeopardized.”

But the university’s take on the matter doesn’t sit well with Columbia attorney Joe McCulloch, a resident of the University Hill neighborhood perched just above Five Points. While McCulloch doesn’t represent Group Therapy, he has done legal work for a number of popular bars in Five Points, including Jake’s, The Bird Dog, The Cotton Gin and Pavlov’s.

McCulloch says USC bears some responsibility for the proliferation of students partying in Five Points. Enrollment on the Columbia campus has grown by 24 percent in the past decade — an additional 7,000 students — so it stands to reason, McCulloch offers, that there are more students heading to the iconic nightlife district.

“Without any question, there is a problem of humanity, how many kids the university has,” McCulloch says. “It’s kind of like having a house with two bedrooms and you decide to have a lot of children. So, they end up playing in the neighbors’ yard. That’s not the neighbor’s fault. That’s the university’s fault, and that seems to be lost in this conversation.”

McCulloch also is quick to point out that, at exactly the same moment USC is working to shut down Group Therapy, it is, for the first time, allowing beer and wine sales at Gamecock football, basketball and baseball games. The alcohol sales at ballgames were authorized in a December vote from the school’s board of trustees.

“As they are talking out of one side of their mouth about the evils of alcohol, they are now renovating the football stadium and their other athletic facilities to make sure they get to sell as much beer and wine as they can,” McCulloch says. 

The fact that USC is among the entities coming after Group Therapy, while also now peddling alcohol at its athletic events, isn’t lost on Sellers, the attorney representing the bar in the upcoming hearing. And he also took a swipe at the school’s ham-handed process of hiring Caslen last year.

“It’s funny, Williams-Brice, in practicality, is the stadium that [Heisman Trophy winner] George Rogers and Steve Taneyhill built,” Sellers tells Free Times. “Now they are going to try to make an extra million dollars in sales [from beer at ballgames], but they don’t want Steve Taneyhill to make a living with his bar. It’s more than a conundrum. 

“It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way politics is. And the university has proven themselves to be pretty bad at politics recently.”

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Inside Group Therapy

Meanwhile, Department of Revenue is arguing that Group Therapy is not suitable for a liquor license or a beer and wine permit because, according to paperwork it has filed ahead of the February hearing, the bar was “in violation of permitting a criminal act on the premises.”

Specifically, the filing alleges that, in September, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agents went to Group Therapy for an alcohol inspection. 

An agent reportedly smelled marijuana and went to a door in the business marked “employees only.” When he got inside the door, the agent reportedly encountered four people, one of whom allegedly had some marijuana in a backpack. The filing says the agent then spoke to a manager at the bar, and “issued an administrative violation for permitting a criminal act on the premises.”

Sellers downplayed the marijuana instance.

“Listen, if you want to start shutting people down for someone having marijuana on them in the back office, I’m not sure any restaurant in Columbia would be open,” the attorney says. “And half the patrons wouldn’t be able to show up either.”

‘Shave the Faces Off Mount Rushmore’

During the last two years, the battle pitting college bars in Five Points against older residents of nearby neighborhoods and the university has been a near constant headline-generator in Columbia.

But an effort to shut down Group Therapy — one of the oldest bars in the city — feels different. It’s an establishment that has been part of the tapestry of the Capital City for more than 40 years.

 

But Kenney, the attorney from Harpootlian’s firm who is handling the upcoming hearing, says the legend of Group should have no bearing on its alcohol license status.

“The question suggests that if an establishment has nostalgic value that that somehow is a consideration to be weighed along with all the other legal criteria,” Kenney says. “The reality is that is not a factor to be weighed. Period.

“Look, their business model is by and large the same as every other college bar we have protested and shut down,” the attorney continues, “which is ‘We are going to put a huge number of young people into a small space and serve a huge quantity of cheap liquor between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. That’s the business model.”

McCulloch, the attorney who has represented Five Points bars in the past, laughed when told of Kenney’s comment that Group’s longstanding renown in the community doesn’t play a factor.

“Maybe Chris would shave the faces off Mount Rushmore if it seemed like you didn’t need that anymore,” McCulloch says. “I think we ought to be thinking carefully about whether you kill off iconic places because it doesn’t suit the elderlies up the hill.”

But some residents of nearby neighborhoods remain strident in what they see as an effort to clean up Five Points. University Hill resident April Lucas is one of the intervenors in the Group Therapy case and is being represented by Harpootlian’s firm.

Lucas says University Hill has often seen trouble stemming from Five Points, particularly as students traverse to and from the party hub late at night.

“I’ve seen vandalism,” Lucas says. “I’ve personally seen a lot of public urination. My neighbor has a security cam, she caught two people having sex on her car on College Street.”

Lucas adds that she’s aware of the tradition of Group Therapy. But she also insists it’s not the restaurant/bar of yesteryear that some may remember.

“In the case of Group Therapy, it certainly is an iconic business,” she says. “It has been there a very long time, though the current owner has not owned it for a long time. But, what we have been able to discover is it is getting a very rough crowd. So, it’s not the same. … For someone who was in college maybe 20 years ago, it’s not the same place.”

Lucas says she’s met with Taneyhill, and notes that he “loves the university as much as anybody.” She adds that she found the former USC quarterback charming.

“He’s a nice guy, but he is in a business that is not savory,” she says. “I’ll just put it that way.”

Despite the swell of opposition Group Therapy is facing, Sellers remains defiant, and thinks the bar has a good shot at coming out on top in the upcoming license hearing.

“[The opponents of Group] are just trying to stifle small business, and they want a good PR story,” Sellers says. “I don’t blame them. Everybody is playing politics now, and that’s unfortunate. My job is to go in and represent somebody who has been doing work and abiding by the law.  

“We are not going to shut down.”  

 

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