COLUMBIA — Todd Ellis remembers the dust choking him and his teammates, the broken glass and unfarmed rocks turning their ankles and sticking their flesh.
Just another winter football workout at South Carolina.
“There was no turf in there, there was dirt,” said Ellis, USC's quarterback from 1986-89 and current football radio voice. “Your nose and eyes took two days to clear up. It was brutal.
“So they got it pretty good these days.”
Decades of USC football being placed wherever it could be among Columbia’s metropolitan and campus sprawl ends next week when the doors finally open at the $50 million Cyndi and Kenneth Long Family Football Operations Center. The entirety of the football program will be located in one place for the first time.
The ops building, the indoor practice facility and the practice field are all at the southwest end of Gamecock Park, with Williams-Brice Stadium only in use on gameday. No more walking back and forth from the stadium to practice, no more stopping traffic, no more having football, the front porch to the university, require six stops to get the full experience.
“Thank goodness,” coach Will Muschamp said. “I’d like to know how much time I’ve spent walking across Gamecock Park in my life.”
Muschamp’s tenure has mostly seen the half-effect of what USC players and coaches experienced for years. His office was in the north end of the stadium, the locker room was in the south; everybody would drive to practice, dress and then wait to cross Bluff Road, where a tram would cart the players to the field while the coaches mostly walked.
It’s nearly a staple of Bluff Road to have a police car, lights flashing, in the middle of the street adjacent to the stadium every morning from August to December. That’s to stop four lanes of traffic so the players can cross. Before the new practice fields were in place, USC had to cross Bluff, then National Guard Road, to get to the old field.
“Just the better setup of what it’s going to be over there. How our meeting rooms are right close to the coaches’ offices, so it’s easy access just to talk to them,” quarterback Jake Bentley said. “Not have to make those walks across the street, stop traffic, people honking their horns at us wanting to get to work. Going to be nice.”
And it wasn’t that long ago that if it rained or was too cold to practice outdoors, players had to jump in their cars or perch on their scooters to get to the indoor field, approximately 1.6 miles away. There was turf in there, unlike when Ellis played, but it was a 60-yard field since the school’s tennis courts were in the other half of the building.
It’s considered a minor miracle that no player was ever hit by a car crossing from the stadium to the old field, or that none ever got in a serious fender-bender on their way from Williams-Brice to the indoor field.
“We lived at the Roost, dined there, had a study area and lounge,” said Tommy Suggs, quarterback from 1968-70 and Ellis’ radio partner. “Practice was at the Rex Enright Center. We dressed there and had our practice field there.”
The field was between the Enright Center (The Roundhouse) and covered the area currently used by USC’s track and the softball stadium. Leading to The Roost, the former athletic dormitory, football was sort-of contained. Players only had to leave to go to class, but the stadium was still over a mile away.
Throughout the years, players had to go to class, go to the stadium to dress, bus to the Roost practice fields, bus to the stadium after, and then have to go back to campus for study hall at Wardlaw College, across from The Horseshoe. Then the practice field was moved to the National Guard Armory field on Bluff, leading to the sojourns across the street to practice, and the dreadful setup whenever it rained.
Now? Players can report to the Long Center in the mornings and eat, get taped, dress and practice. If it rains, the indoor facility is 50 feet away. They’ll have to leave to go to class, but study hall, the training table and places to rest are all at the ops building.
There are still a few graphics to paste on the walls, a few bugs to work out, but on Jan. 7, all of the everyday gear and the coaches’ offices will depart Williams-Brice and head across the street. It’s been a long time coming.
“A parent, guardian, an uncle, an aunt, they want to come on campus and say, ‘What are you going to do for my son?’” Muschamp said. “When they see this facility, it’s impressive. And they see the investment, they see we’re serious about it, we’re serious about winning a championship because you can’t just talk about it, you have to show people and be about it.”
Rising senior defensive end Shameik Blackshear posted a farewell message on Twitter Monday. He will graduate in May and play his final year of eligibility elsewhere.
Blackshear never fulfilled the promise he showed as a top recruit, a knee injury and a gunshot wound in 2015 hindering his development. He did start the Belk Bowl.