For Gamecocks 25 years later, SEC membership ‘in our DNA’

The South Carolina women's basketball team has won the SEC Tournament each of the past two seasons. USC opens this year's event Friday in Greenville. (File/David Quinn/AP)

COLUMBIA — Then as now, the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees had a less-than-sterling reputation for keeping secrets.

Art Smith, USC’s president in the early fall of 1990, knew as much. So when the school’s board approved a motion to accept an invitation to join the Southeastern Conference, it was only a matter of time before word got out. Late that afternoon, Smith telephoned SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, who asked when the Gamecocks wanted to hold their official announcement.

“Tonight,” Smith told him. “And have you here.”

And thus began a rush to get to Columbia for a press conference that would alter the state of USC athletics, which had been without a conference home for its flagship football program since 1971. Kramer arrived from Birmingham about 15 minutes before it began, and recalled how brightly the full moon shined over Williams-Brice Stadium when Smith “enthusiastically” accepted an invitation for USC to become the league’s 12th member.

“One of the great scenes I can remember during my lifetime,” Kramer said.

That evening of Sept. 25, 1990, was a landmark moment for a USC athletic department that has since won 19 conference championships, and earlier this year received a $31.2 million check as part of the SEC’s annual revenue sharing program. What a contrast to the previous era, when USC competed in the Metro Conference in most sports, was a football independent and subsisted primarily on what money it generated itself.

While those first steps into a new league were unsteady ones — the men’s basketball team was blasted by Kentucky in the school’s inaugural SEC contest in 1991, while the football squad started 0-5 in its first SEC season in 1992 — in the 25 years since USC has unquestionably emerged as a richer and more competitive athletic program because of its membership in a conference that set standards in the areas of expansion and television rights.

“It has been a magnet for advancing, it has been a magnet for student applications, for competing, for keeping up,” school president Harris Pastides said prior to a panel discussion commemorating the 25th anniversary of USC’s entry into the SEC. “It’s who we are. It’s in our DNA now.”

In the summer of 1990, USC was one of several schools exploring the possibility of a new home. The SEC announced at its spring meeting that its presidents had approved accepting candidates for expansion, with one caveat. “We were not going out to recruit anybody,” Kramer said on the panel, which also included former commissioner Mike Slive and current commissioner Greg Sankey. The SEC wanted schools similar in nature to those already in the conference, with a full component of women’s sports, with good facilities — and perhaps most importantly, which were willing and able to join the league.

Some of the schools in play at the time — which according to news reports from 1990, also included Texas, Texas A&M, Florida State and Miami — had football programs with existing conference tie-ins that made it difficult for them to change leagues. For the Gamecocks, who had been roaming the wilderness of football independence for nearly two decades, that wasn’t a problem. Where other schools waffled, USC leaped.

“I don’t know what would have happened if we’d have waited a long time,” said Kramer, who retired in 2002. “But we didn’t wait very long.”

When it mattered most, being a football independent worked in the Gamecocks’ favor. So did the fact that USC’s leadership enthusiastically pursued SEC membership, while some other schools — most notably Miami and Florida State — were more divided on the prospect. A Pandora’s box was opened after Penn State joined the Big 10, so the SEC moved quickly to add Arkansas as its 11th member in August of 1990, and one month later welcomed USC.

“Obviously, they were interested,” Kramer said of the Gamecocks. Smith and then-AD King Dixon “were very cooperative in the process,” he added. And the SEC presidents seemed to favor USC, one of them even remarking to Kramer, “I like it when their team runs out through that smoke,” referring to South Carolina’s “2001” entrance prior to football games.

Looking back, taking USC over the Texas schools — one of which would join the league years later — seemed an odd decision. But the old Southwest Conference had yet to collapse, and at the time, SEC presidents were less concerned with markets than fit. “There was never a regret,” Kramer said. “There was never a concern that we took South Carolina in. They were competitive, and they had a great fan base.”

USC’s football game this Saturday — at Missouri on the SEC Network — is a product of the continued growth the conference enjoyed under Slive, who also cleaned up a league once riddled with NCAA infractions. At USC, SEC affiliation helped attract coaches like Ray Tanner, who won two national baseball championships before becoming athletic director.

“Did it make a difference? Absolutely,” said Tanner, who left North Carolina State for USC in 1996. “When I had an opportunity to be a part of the Southeastern Conference at the University of South Carolina — it doesn’t take much time to make that decision.”

A quarter-century ago, South Carolina was an athletic program best known for walking away from the ACC. In the time since, it’s hired better coaches, built improved facilities and fielded more competitive teams. And so much of that goes back to one night 25 years ago, when a full moon illuminated a hastily called press conference in a corner of Williams-Brice Stadium, and the Gamecocks joined the SEC.

“To me,” Pastides said, “that identity is intertwined.”