What a difference a few decades make.
USC Aiken's men's basketball team is getting ready to play in the Elite Eight of Division II. The team has arrived at the cusp of hoops immortality as it works its way toward a national championship game.
Won't that be something if the Pacers bring home the trophy as the top team in the land in Division II?
Under the leadership of Coach Vince Alexander, the Pacers have been elevated to that rare place in the stratosphere of collegiate sports where they are a force to be reckoned with year after year.
They play in an arena – yes, an arena, not a gym – that is the envy of much larger schools. They have support of the campus and the community. They regularly play in front of crowds of 1,500, 2,000, 2,500. The noise inside the Convocation Center is so loud at times, that thinking requires great concentration and talking to one's neighbor is impossible.
But things were not always this way for our local team. Roll your calendar back nearly 50 years and take a look at what USCA basketball was like in the infancy of the program.
I was fortunate to play on the USCA team in 1966-67 and 1967-68. The university itself was housed in Banksia, the downtown structure that is now home to the Aiken County Historical Museum. Classes were taught in the sitting rooms and bedrooms of the mansion that occupies a full city block in downtown Aiken.
Obviously the school did not have a gym for its basketball team. That along with the golf team were the only two sports teams USCA fielded at the time. Practices were held twice weekly at the Kennedy Junior High (now Kennedy Middle School) gymnasium. It's not that we were so good that we needed to practice just twice a week, we had to work around the school's schedule as well as that of our coach.
The coach was Dr. William Carr, a local veterinarian, who donated his time and basketball knowledge to try to mold us into a team worthy to take the floor.
Typically we played on Saturday night. We played some games at Kennedy, some at the Aiken Junior High gym, located where Trinity Lutheran Home now sits. And on rare occasions we played at the Aiken High gym – the old one, not in the James Taylor building.
USCA was in a league with the other branch campuses of the university – Beaufort, Coastal, Florence, Lancaster, Salkehatchie, Spartanburg, Union. We played each of the other teams twice a season – home and away – and then had a tournament to determine the season champion.
When I introduce myself to the communications classes I teach at USCA, I tell them that I am a former USCA basketball player. That usually grabs their attention for a moment. And then I tell them I averaged 17.5 points in my playing career. Those who are sports savvy then raise their eyebrows and look at me with new regard – until I tell them the rest of the story.
“Seventeen and a half points – per year.”
I was no star. In fact, I wasn't good enough to make my high school team, but I was good enough to be on the USCA team. That is all that is needed to show the caliber of the team we had in those years. And our team was in the middle of the pack in our league.
There were no scholarships – we were truly student-athletes. Sometimes guys missed games because they had to work at their part-time jobs. Our uniforms were blue – we had just one uniform, not one for the road and a different one for home games. Our nickname was the Rebels. We played in borrowed gyms before sparse audiences – one could not really call them crowds.
The noise level in the gyms during those games was not much greater than the sound of a dribbling ball and the tweet of a referee's whistle. There were enthusiastic cheerleaders, but they didn't have a hard job because there weren't that many people to cheer for us.
None of us would have predicted that decades later the USCA team would have evolved into what it is today. If today's Pacers could see film of the team we were back then, it would be a great source of amusement. Fortunately, no one filmed our games.
Today the games are occasionally on TV and always available on the Internet. The players come from across the country and are top-notch hoopsters. The coach is a full-time professional and has assistants to help him.
Yes, much has changed in USCA basketball from the team I first played on 47 years ago. The basketball program has advanced light years to its present status at the top of the Peach Belt Conference and into the Elite Eight. It's the difference between peach cobbler and the peach pit. Compared to today's team, we were the pits. But without the pit, there is no peach tree, no peach and no peach cobbler. Our era was the beginning, today's team is the culmination.
Go Pacers. Bring back a championship trophy.
Jeff Wallace is an alumnus of USC Aiken and a retired editor of the Aiken Standard.