It’s been 25 years since the University of South Carolina accepted the invitation to join the Southeastern Conference. The opportunity to join the premiere conference not only transformed Gamecock athletics, but the university as a whole. “There have been so many wonderful things that have happened in athletics in the history of the university, but certainly joining the SEC has to be on the list as a very special time in our history,” said Athletics Director Ray Tanner. “It’s been so instrumental for our student-athletes and our university to move forward over the last 25 years.”
“I was very proud,” said former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, whose time in office began in 1990. “You just immediately knew this was going to be big economically for the university, the city and the state. I remember emailing the rest of the SEC mayors to encourage the visiting teams to bring a lot of folks to Columbia when they played here. We had events in the Vista to welcome folks from the other teams.”
The invitation was accepted on September 25, 1990, and South Carolina would begin competing in the league the following year, with football beginning conference play in 1992. The SEC had not expanded since it was created 58 years earlier. South Carolina had been a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference from its inception in 1953 until it withdrew on June 30, 1971. South Carolina eventually joined the Metro Conference on April 14, 1983, but that league did not include football.
“It was not only a good geographic fit, but a good personality fit,” said former Athletics Director King Dixon. “Our folks get along in the Southeastern Conference. In any sport, it’s about who is standing last, but when it comes taking up for other teams in the conference and sharing things, there is no other conference like the Southeastern Conference. It’s a family conference run by people who are very interested in the life of the student-athlete and giving them the finest opportunities to compete.”
The Dominos Begin to Fall
The foundation of SEC expansion was actually laid a few years earlier after a series of lawsuits over television rights for college football, and it was determined that it would be up to the conferences to maximize their television exposure and revenues. In addition to South Carolina, there were many other eastern schools that were still independent in football including Notre Dame, Penn State, Boston College, Cincinnati, Florida State, Louisville, Memphis, Miami, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
King Dixon had been on the job as Athletics Director since the fall of 1988. As he looked at the priorities and needs of the athletics department at the time, he understood that conference affiliation would become extremely important to the future of South Carolina once the dominos began to fall after Penn State was among the first major independents in football to make a move.
“To become a member of a family conference like the SEC is one of the greatest things that could have happened for South Carolina,” Dixon said. “When Penn State joined the Big 10, that’s when a lot of other college and universities started looking around to see what the others were going to do. With (coach) Jim Carlen, (Heisman winning running back) George Rogers and later coach Joe Morrison, football was growing and growing, and Gamecock fever had taken over. My job was to seek conference affiliation to provide a revenue stream at that time to help protect all of the other sports.”
On May 31, 1990, the SEC presidents voted to authorize expansion, and identified South Carolina, Texas, Texas A&M, Florida State, Miami, and Arkansas, which would become the 11th member of the league in July of that year, as potential members. The geographic footprint for television advertisers would play role, and South Carolina was one that could fill a void in the SEC.
South Carolina was a very logical choice and it proved to be an extremely positive choice for the conference, both athletically and academically.Roy Kramer, Former SEC Commissioner
“Our university presidents at that time were very interested in institutions that were very similar to our institutions that were in the SEC,” said Roy Kramer, SEC Commissioner from 1990-2002. “That means they had a full complement of men and women’s athletics programs, and that their facilities matched favorably with the facilities the other institutions had at that time, and also that they had the same kind of a fan base. Certainly South Carolina fit that in every respect.
“Geographically, South Carolina made a lot of sense because it was strategically located and would fit in the eastern division and the scheduling issues with divisional play. As a result, South Carolina was a very logical choice and it proved to be an extremely positive choice for the conference, both athletically and academically.”
Having 12 schools was vital as the SEC planned to take advantage of a NCAA rule that allowed conferences with a dozen members to organize as two divisions and play a separate conference championship game. Kramer and the SEC presidents understood that a championship game would create a package far more attractive to television networks.
“It turned about to be a very positive thing for the conference,” Kramer said. “The championship game had been utilized in the lower divisions, but not in what we now call the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. I had a little concern that people wouldn’t accept divisional play in the conference, but as it turned out, that proved to be one of the strong positives because it kept a lot of people in the mix for that conference championship game late in the season. It certainly increased the excitement as well as the exposure for the Southeastern Conference television audience. It proved to be an enormous success from a television standpoint and a fan standpoint.”
The Call is Made
Kramer met with officials in Columbia on September 20, 1990. On September 25, the Gamecocks received their official invitation.
“We had an extensive visit for a day or two on their campus,” Kramer said. “I reported back to our presidents, and they felt very positive about South Carolina and we extended that invitation.” Johnny Gregory was working as a special assistant for governmental relations to (then) university president, Dr. Art Smith. He was in the president’s office when the call came with the invitation to join the SEC.
“I think it was around 11 o’clock in the morning,” Gregory recalled. “The commissioner asked ‘if we called you at five o’clock today and offered you membership into the Southeastern Conference, would you accept?’ Dr. Smith said ‘yes.’ I apologized to Dr. Smith for being there and so rudely listening to the conversation, and he told me it was fine and that he wanted me to listen to it.”
“We called them and told them we would not make any announcement until they talked to their people,” Kramer said. “South Carolina’s president called back within a half hour and said ‘we’d like to make the announcement tonight at 7:30 in the football stadium. Can you be here?’ This was at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, so we had to quickly arrange for a charter to get our people from the conference out there in time for the announcement. So it did not take them long to respond. They were interested from day one, and I never thought they would not accept it.”
“We jumped at it,” Dixon said. “The SEC shares the wealth and splits revenues between the schools, so it was a good thing to do. We were accepted with open arms.”
That jubilation was not only felt by the university and its fans, but by the business community as well.
“It was a source of great pride, and the source of a lot of opportunity that people saw,” Coble said. “Since then it’s expanded beyond football. Look at what’s happening with women’s basketball. Whether or not that would have occurred if the university was not in the SEC, it’s hard to say. It had a great economic impact on Columbia. We did a lot of work over the years to take advantage of visiting teams and their fans coming to Columbia. The SEC has been a big boost on that.”
Prior to the announcement, some wondered what would happen if the SEC didn’t offer an invitation and if South Carolina would look at joining another conference, but Dixon said South Carolina had one mission.
“I don’t go into a fight expecting to lose,” Dixon said. “We would have continued to have looked for conference affiliation and very possibly something else, but it was not going to be the ACC. We didn’t have a fall-back plan. We went after it with everything we had and made sure it worked. We really didn’t have to do a hard sell. They were looking to expand, and they thought South Carolina would be a great fit.”
“We were and still are the flagship (university) for South Carolina,” Gregory said. “We were the largest school in the state and had more alumni than anyone else around. We have been blessed with good people running the athletics department, and we were blessed with the tenure of Paul Dietzel, who came in here and taught us how to think big. I tell everybody, Coach Dietzel made us a Gamecock nation, and before he got here, we were a Gamecock village. He made us think big, and I think it improved our standing not only in the southeast, but across the country as well.”
Life in the League
Since joining the SEC, South Carolina has won 19 regular season or conference tournament championships in team sports sponsored by the league, and all six of South Carolina’s national championships have also been won since joining the SEC. While some sports were ready for competing at the SEC level right away, Dixon knew that most people would be looking first at how the football program would fare.
“I was speaking to our football coach at the time, Sparky Woods,” Dixon recalled. “I knew this would be a great opportunity to make a name for the University of South Carolina, and I asked him what he saw when looked down the tunnel for the future. I’ll never forget, he said ‘Coach, the tunnel just got a lot longer.’ Sparky came in with a young staff and they accepted the challenge. They knew it would take a while to compete.”
South Carolina’s first home contest as a member of the league against an SEC school was October 4, 1991 as the Gamecocks hosted Alabama. Gamecock football began play as a member of the conference in the fall of 1992. The football program got off to a slow start, dropping its first four SEC contests that year before knocking off Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Tennessee in consecutive weeks.
With the competitiveness in every sport in the Southeastern Conference, recruiting was one of the early challenges along with facilities. However, being in the SEC made it possible to not only attract top level student-athletes, but also invest money into those facilities.
“That’s part of being in a conference like the SEC,” Tanner said. “You’re going to make progress to compete and put your student athletes in a position to be successful at a high level. The commitment was made at the time, and we continue to make strides today. We’re not finished in trying to improve the opportunities and resources for our student-athletes.”
“We’re very competitive down here,” Dixon said. “We knew we’d hold our own. We knew it would take some time to be able to recruit student-athletes across the board that we needed for each of our sports to be competitive in the Southeastern Conference.”
“I felt they would be competitive from the beginning,” Kramer said. “They proved that they were, and they are a very competitive member of the conference now across the board in all of their programs. That was something our university presidents were very much interested in. They had that kind of commitment and they certainly demonstrated that and proved that with their success.”
The opportunities for student-athletes at South Carolina continue to soar, including the increased exposure provided by the SEC Network. Those involved back in 1990 knew that moving into the SEC would have a great impact on the University of South Carolina, and that impact continues to be felt today.
“Unquestionably,” Dixon said. “When I think about what has taken place, not only with the athletics facilities, but with the tremendous facilities on campus for the university, it’s just wonderful. The University of South Carolina right now is one of the leaders in the Southeastern Conference for facilities. Had it not been for the SEC, I don’t know where we’d be across the board. Athletics has to work with the University to chart the course for the future.”