"In May of 1995, Phil Hopkins, recently elevated to the head coaching job at Western Carolina, needed to fill two full-time assistant positions on his staff.
From a crowded field of applicants, two young candidates stood out. One had spent three seasons at Hopkins' alma mater, Gardner-Webb, and was hungry to make the leap to a Division I program. The other, born and raised in the serendipitously named Hoopeston, Ill., worked with Hopkins as a graduate assistant at Indiana State.
Together, Phil Hopkins and his hand-picked assistants, current Ohio State head coach Thad Matta and current Gamecocks assistant Orlando Early, took Western Carolina to unprecedented heights. During their lone season in '95-96, the Catamounts won their first-ever Southern Conference Tournament, and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Their careers converge again Saturday, when South Carolina faces Matta's #2-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus (2:00 p.m. EST).
"I learned so much from them," said Hopkins, now the athletic director and basketball coach at Walhalla Middle School in Walhalla, S.C. "We were three different personalities, all striving and working for the same goal. We picked each other up.""
Brittany Lane, Spurs Up Blog