South Carolina was on top of the college basketball world last April as the women’s program won its first NCAA National Championship and the men’s team made its first appearance in the Final Four. In addition to the hard work by coaches and student-athletes to elevate the programs, South Carolina Athletics has been committed to investing in basketball to not only help the two programs on their rise to success, but to also help in sustaining it.
“When you have people the caliber of Frank Martin and Dawn Staley as your basketball coaches, I knew we had a great chance to be successful,” said Athletics Director Ray Tanner. “We just had to give them the tools necessary for them to recruit. This included upgrades in the practice facilities, locker rooms and in Colonial Life Arena. There is no doubt that all of this has helped take our programs to another level.”
“Outside of building Colonial Life Arena, the investment we’ve made in basketball in the last three years is unprecedented,” said Executive Associate Athletics Director Jeff Crane. “With the support of the athletics director, the University president and board of trustees, and the donors, it’s a clear message that we want a successful men’s and women’s basketball program. The support we’ve had across the board for basketball is as much about recognizing the success while also recognizing what the potential is. We can win here. We can win here big in basketball.”
In the last three years South Carolina has invested more than $14 million in building and renovating basketball facilities. That includes major renovations to the Carolina Coliseum to transform the former home of Gamecock Basketball into a practice facility, complete with two and half basketball courts, locker rooms, a new weight room and hydrotherapy room, and an athletic training facility. Additionally, both programs now have newly renovated office space. Colonial Life Arena also underwent numerous upgrades, including a new court, graphics throughout the arena, updated suites and courtside seats, new digital ribbon board signage, and a state-of-the-art video board, while new trophy cases that will house the National Championship trophy and the Final Four trophies are in the design phase.
“Ray [Tanner] worked his tail off to create better opportunities for the way we try to conduct our programs,” said men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin. “We’re making progress, and we have the right people in place. If it wasn’t for him, what’s been done wouldn’t have gotten done. He’s the one who figured out how to push and make it happen. ”
The ability to provide the best facilities ties into the Gamecock Promise which is committed to the idea that South Carolina student-athletes will receive a championship experience in all facets of their time at the University.
“It’s specifically helped in recruiting,” women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley said of the recent enhancements. “When you’re recruiting high level student-athletes, you need a ‘wow’ factor to go along with a winning tradition. It has really allowed us to showcase our program, not only from a basketball and athletics perspective, but when they come and visit, they’re blown away by the amenities that we have and the upgrades that we’ve had over the past few years.”
While education, coaching staff, and tradition are some of the factors that may go into a recruit’s decision, first impressions on a campus visit can have lasting effects.
“That’s what kids look for nowadays,” Staley said. “When I was being recruited, I just worried about the basketball and where I would live. Now, they want plush places to live. They want great eateries. They want electronics in their lockers. They want it all. We are at a point where we’ve surpassed some of our competition, whereas five to seven years ago, we were behind the eight-ball in terms of facilities.”
There are actually two very good basketball teams that call this home and that they play for the University of South Carolina.Frank Martin
Belief in the Vision
When Ray Tanner became the athletics director at South Carolina five years ago, the two basketball teams and the indoor volleyball team were sharing the same practice court, which became problematic, especially when Colonial Life Arena was not available due to other events taking place there. Tanner went to the school’s administration for permission to renovate the Carolina Coliseum, which required the facility to be taken off-line for some time during construction. Now the basketball teams have their own facility, while volleyball now has complete access to its competition facility.
“I think it’s not a surprise that we’ve actually had a place to practice in for the last two years, and we’ve set school records for wins in back-to-back years,” Martin said. “I think that goes hand-in-hand.”
“In addition to the courts, the women’s team now has the office complex in the one facility all to themselves adjacent to the Coliseum, and the men’s offices are in the Coliseum,” said Chief Operating Officer Kevin O’Connell. “Each of them has access to two practice courts in the Coliseum as well as Colonial Life Arena. Also, the student-athletes can walk across the street from 650 Lincoln (residence apartments) to the Coliseum and to Colonial Life Arena. Volleyball and men and women’s basketball each have their own training rooms, too. They have a branded new weight room facility and hydrotherapy room.”
“That’s the beauty of it for the parents and the student-athletes,” Staley said. “If they want to get up and go for a workout or get some shots up at any time, it’s accessible to them. That’s truly an appealing thing when you’re sitting in someone’s home talking about it, and then when they come to campus and see the close proximity that we talked about. We walk with them when they get here from the dorms to both gyms, and they always comment about how convenient it is.”
Winning and having great coaches help others see the difference facilities can make in building a world class program. The facilities projects could not have been completed to the scale that they have been done without the support of generous donors.
“As the success came, donors were more interested with what they could do to help the program,” Crane said. “The donor dollars allows us do things quicker and at a higher level. Without those dollars, we’re not near where we are today with facilities and our basketball programs.”
“Raising the dollars is the biggest challenge,” O’Connell said. “We’ve had so many needs. We try to address a lot of different areas. We systematically try to address those needs all the way from housing, to a practice facility, to the game day presentation. Our donors have really stepped up to help us. These were donations specifically for our basketball programs.”
Addressing those needs comes after detailed conversations with administrators and coaches.
“We have a lot of input in what we want our recruits and parents to be able to see,” Staley said. “We’ve been around the country and in and out of a lot of arenas, so we know what other people have. We know what’s attractive in our eyes, and we know what’s attractive in the young person’s eyes and their parents. Everybody has been very inclusive of our opinions and our vision.”
While the coaches and student-athletes do their part to separate their teams from the competition on the floor, the commitment to facilities is just another tool that creates a competitive edge.
“We have to look like our competition,” Crane said. “When a prospective student-athlete comes to our facility and compares us with other schools in our league or in our region, we have to look like they look, or better, to an extent. The student-athletes that are coming into our programs now have options to go to a lot of different places. Having facilities that are comparable is even more important than it was in the past because we’re recruiting bigger, better, faster, and stronger student-athletes than we ever have. That’s what success allows you to do.”
The $4.2 million for the video board and the ribbon board came from South Carolina’s new contract with IMG. The $4 million for the renovations to the Carolina Coliseum and everything else on the list came from donor (development) dollars or athletics department operating funds.
“Our fans create such an incredible atmosphere for our arena,” Staley said. “So much so that it overpowered what we may have lacked before in our scoreboard. To see what’s up there now, along with our fan base, it’s just going to create an incredible experience on all levels. It’s going to add a boost to the game experience. I can’t wait. You can’t help but to look up at it. I can’t wait for our fans to experience it during a game.”
Some of the upgrades noted will certainly benefit the fans and their experience of Gamecock Basketball as well, and that support can help the teams on game day. Additional graphics throughout the arena tell more about the history of South Carolina basketball.
“This building (Colonial Life Arena) is as good as any building for basketball in our conference,” Martin said. “Before, it had no personality. Now it’s starting to have a flavor that there are actually two very good basketball teams that call this home and that they play for the University of South Carolina. We’ve made tremendous progress.”