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August 13, 2013

Top 15 stories since 1998

To celebrate GamecockCentral.com's 15th Anniversary, we're putting together some fun lists of "Top 15" things -- players, coaches, events, etc -- that Gamecock Central was there to either help cover, celebrate or just plain commiserate.

Today's installment is the top-15 South Carolina sports stories since 1998 involving the Gamecocks. Bear in mind these are just my opinion, but I did begin covering USC professionally in 1999, so I hope I have some notion of what were the biggest stories. To be as unbiased as possible, I present them in chronological order. Enjoy!

1) December 1998: Lou Holtz is hired.

Of course, for someone to be hired, someone else had to be fired, and few would put up much of a fight anymore than Brad Scott didn't deserve to go after a 1-10 season in 1998 in which the bottom fell out of the program in ways even the most pessimistic USC fans couldn't have thought possible.

And then, of course, it got worse - despite hiring Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz on Dec. 4, 1998, the Gamecocks go winless his first season with an offense so anemic that in nine of the 11 games the Gamecocks scored 10 points or less.

And yet, the hiring of Holtz itself signaled a turn in the fortunes of how South Carolina was perceived, both externally in terms of unprecedented national media attention and internally with a much-needed "culture change" that made believers out of the players who stuck through the winless 1999 and set the stage for an 8-win 2000 season that culminated in the Outback Bowl win over Ohio State and sparked what was then the best two-year run (17 wins) in school history.

Say what you will about Holtz' final three seasons - 2002 (5-7), 2003 5-7 and 2004 (6-5) - that ended with three straight losses to Clemson, no bowl and an embarrassing brawl with Clemson, but the man put USC on a map it had not been on before and squarely in the national college football consciousness. Without Holtz, there is no Steve Spurrier. Simple as that.

2) 2000: USC baseball wins first SEC title.

In his fourth season since being hired, Ray Tanner's Gamecocks caught fire early, stayed hot and stormed through a regular season to a school-record 56 wins and SEC-record 25-5 conference mark (only just eclipsed by Vanderbilt in 2013).

The 2000 season marked the entrance of South Carolina as a national power under Tanner, and the team itself, with starting pitchers "The Killer B's," featuring Golden Spikes winner Kip Bouknight (17-1, 2.81 ERA), Peter Bauer (13-2, 3.11 ERA) and Steve Barber (9-2, 2.95 ERA, 15 saves) leading the way.

While Tanner would only claim three outright SEC titles (2000, 2002 and 2011), the success that followed the 2000 season has been matched by no one in the nation.

Since 2000, South Carolina has won more games and SEC games than any other SEC team, has the most College World Series appearances of any SEC team from that time, is the only school to reach an NCAA Regional every season since 2000 and has the most NCAA Super Regional appearances. Oh yeah, and there's those two national titles and two national runners-up.

3) January 2001: Outback Bowl, USC 24, OSU 7.

When your entire school history has produced just one bowl win, any bowl win is significant. When that bowl win comes in a New Year's Day bowl against a national powerhouse and caps a remarkable turnaround season after going 0-21 over the previous two years, it's even more remarkable.

The 2001 Outback Bowl marked the apex of South Carolina's love affair with Lou Holtz. Forgotten were the three-straight losses to end the season, including a 14-16 defeat at Clemson. Forgotten was the 0-21 horror. Forgotten was the time when South Carolina fans goats could be gotten with bumper stickers (with tiger paws on them) that said things like, "Honk if you've won a bowl game."

No, this was a new era, this was a high point, this was some kind of magic. Ohio State? And to basically run them out of the building with their own castoff in Ryan Brewer, starting for a suspended Derek Watson? Yes, please, more of that, please.

South Carolina fans would get more of that, and the very next year against the very same team, but that's as far as Holtz could take the program, as the kind of internal discipline that characterized his early teams eroded and the results suffered accordingly.

4) March 2001: Eddie Fogler retires.

When A.D. Mike McGee hired Eddie Fogler from Vanderbilt in 1993 in the wake of the Bobby Cremins here-today, gone-tomorrow fiasco, it was immediately hailed as a coup. And it was. By his fifth year, the hard-nosed Fogler had kept the state's elite talent home and earned the school's first SEC regular season Championship in a men's sport.

After monumental back-to-back NCAA first-round flops, however, the state was not producing the elite talent it had in recent years, and Fogler, a no-nonsense recruiter, was paying the price of not being able to enjoy the kind of relationships with AAU coaches needed to secure players in a changing recruiting environment. In the three years after 1998, Fogler's teams went 8-21, 15-17 and 15-15, leading to a confrontation with McGee about what realistic expectations were for the program. McGee said an NCAA trip once every three years. Fogler said no way and quit in March 2001, taking with him "my dignity, my integrity and my sanity." That, and a healthy $750,000 buyout for the remaining three years of his contract.

The importance of his SEC title in 1997 cannot be overestimated. The excitement it generated in a program that had more or less festered since leaving the ACC was rekindled, and the Frank McGuire Arena became an intimidating place once again for opponents to come. His success demonstrated that the Gamecock fan base is as passionate about basketball as ever, it just needs something - anything - to cheer for. Fogler brought that, and did it with integrity and intensity.

5) 2002: Baseball finishes as the national runners-up to Texas.

After two-straight years of agonizing one-run losses to Louisiana Lafayette and Stanford in the NCAA Super Regionals, the Gamecocks finally broke through to Omaha - and promptly fell on their face in an embarrassing 11-0 shutout loss to Georgia Tech.

What happened next, of course, is legend. South Carolina fought back. With wins against Nebraska and revenge against Georgia Tech, the Gamecocks faced arch-rival Clemson, having to win twice to advance to the winner-take-all championship game. The two victories against the Tigers in Omaha that year, 12-4 and 10-2, stand as probably the biggest wins over the Tigers in any sport at any time. Clemson had won three of four in the regular season against the Gamecocks and were positioned as the bracket favorite before a loose Gamecock squad routed them twice to establish a post-season dominance over Clemson that the Tigers yet to stop some 11 years later.

A loss in the championship game to heavily favored Texas followed, but the underdog spirit of the Gamecocks - and Tanner's mastery of rival Clemson and coach Jack Leggett - was firmly and forever established.

6) November 2004: The brawl.

It is the darkest chapter in the modern era of the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry. It is the saddest exhibition of behavior by a Gamecock football team in memory, perhaps in school history. It is forever a blemish on Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz' record.

I don't care what you say, USC started it and Clemson finished it. Not only did the Gamecocks lose - yet again (Holtz was a pathetic 1-5 against the Tigers) - on the field, 29-7, but they lost in an even worse way in a brawl that showed just how much Holtz had lost all control of his players and his program. The brawl kept the 6-5 Gamecocks out of a bowl, and Lou Holtz resigned immediately after (though news of his intention to resign after the season was leaked the week before the game).

Fortunately, some good news followed that bad news in the form of No. 7.

7) November 2004: Spurrier is hired.

Yeah, this guy.

Hired on Nov. 23, 2004, Spurrier's firsts at South Carolina are getting too many to list.

But I'll try.

First 11-win season (2011). First back-to-back 11-win seasons (2011, 2012). First finish in a top 10 poll (2011). First top-10 finish in the BCS standings (2011). First back-to-back finish in a top 10 poll (2011, 2012) and the BCS standings (2010, 2011). Highest national finish in school history (No. 8, 2012).

First six-win SEC season (2011). First time going undefeated against the SEC East (2011). Graduates a senior class with the most wins in school history (34, from 2008-11), then topped that (the 2012 class won 38 games). Recorded longest streak of consecutive weeks in the top 25 in school history (47 weeks and counting). First time the school has won six straight road games (2010-11). First time school has signed nation's No. 1 player (Jadeveon Clowney, 2011).

First time defeating Georgia, Tennessee and Florida in same season (2010 and 2011). First SEC East title (2010). First time beating the No. 1 team in the nation (Alabama, 2010). First win in Gainesville (2010). First win in Knoxville (2005). First coach to take team to four-straight bowl games. First coach to take team to six bowl games.

Highest team GPA on record (Fall 2012, 2.918). First coach to have five straight seasons with a First-Team All-American. First coach to post five straight seven-plus win seasons. First coach to be bowl-eligible in eight consecutive seasons.

And, for good measure, he's the winningest coach in school history (66 and counting). Are we done here? Good.

8) July 2005: Eric Hyman is hired to be USC's AD.

Say what you will about Hyman, but his immediate economic impact on the university and subsequent impact in terms of facilities is unparalleled in school history. The heights the athletic department as a whole reached across the board are unprecedented, and he literally changed the face of USC athletics with the Rice Administration Building, the Dodie Academic Enrichment Center and the accompanying Athletics Village and much, much more.

His hires were above average. Dawn Staley has been a home run, and while he struck out with Darrin Horn, he again cleared the fence with Frank Martin.

There's no arguing that Hyman ruffled feathers to change the way the athletic department was run, alienating a lot of long-time boosters who liked things the way they were. But compare the stadium and facilities now to what they were in 2005, and there simply is no comparison. While often coming off as brusque, Hyman's positive impact on USC will last a long, long time.

9) February 2010: Marcus Lattimore signs with USC.

People cite Stephon Gilmore as the key to the turnaround of USC's football fortunes, but they are wrong. It is the signing of Marcus Lattimore and his immediate impact on the running game that has led Spurrier and the Gamecocks to the heights they now enjoy.

Before he signed, the team was coming off another 7-5 campaign in which they went 3-5 in the SEC. Lattimore's freshman year? How about the second-best season in school history with nine regular season wins, five SEC wins and an SEC East title. How about 183 yards against Georgia, 184 against Tennessee and 212 against Florida? Yeah, Lattimore will always be the man in Columbia and is probably the most beloved Gamecock of them all. Was he the best pure back? No. Was he the most successful, and was his leadership the most respected? Yes, and yes.

10) June 2010: Baseball wins the national championship.

Simply, the greatest moment in USC sports history. Only a football national championship can compete, and even that would come second for many fans because 2010 was the first, the hardest, the longest waited-for, the most coveted, the most special. Nothing else in USC sports history comes close, even, to the moment Whit Merrifield's single dropped into the green grass of short right field in Rosenblatt Stadium to score the winning run. Nothing.

As a moment, as a fan, for me personally, I have never felt better, never had more exuberant joy, never had something so powerful happen that kept a smile on my face for weeks. Never had South Carolina won such a high-profile national championship. Never in a men's sport had the words "national championship" and "South Carolina" been uttered. And the way the team did it, once again battling back from the loser's bracket, once again beating Clemson - twice! - and once again proving Ray Tanner was the best baseball coach in the country.

11) November 2010: USC wins the SEC East

It seemed like it would never happen. When South Carolina joined the SEC in football in 1992, the traditional powers of Georgia, Tennessee and Florida - aka the Big Three - seemed unstoppable, and for the next 18 long and painful years, that was the case.

Sparked by a sensational freshman tailback in Marcus Lattimore and a host of other talent from successful recruiting classes coming to fruition, the 2010 Gamecocks proved they had arrived in the SEC East, sweeping the Big Three for the first time in school history and adding a convincing win over the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide on national television for good measure.

Though a stupefying loss to Kentucky the week after the Alabama game and back-to-back losses to end the season to Auburn in the SEC Championship game and Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl dampened a bit of the enthusiasm, there's no question 2010 set the stage for the football success the school is enjoying now, and winning the SEC East still stands as the signature conference accomplishment for Steve Spurrier at USC.

12) June 2011: Baseball wins back-to-back national championships.

How could anything be better than the 2010 national championship? Only doing it again, this time from the winner's bracket, this time with an SEC Championship in tow, this time against SEC-East rival Florida.

Proving 2010 was no fluke, the 2011 team screamed through the regular and postseasons toward a destiny it would not be denied. Having closed out Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the Gamecocks opened TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha in the same fashion - as champs, this time not just for the year, but with the back-to-back titles and an unprecedented run of NCAA tournament wins, but for the ages.

13) March 31, 2012: Frank Martin is hired.

Easily the biggest basketball hire since Eddie Fogler, and possibly a better one than that. Frank Martin exudes confidence and passion, and his record of five-straight NCAA Tournament appearances at Kansas State is nothing short of remarkable.

With a cupboard left bare from a team that won just 10 regular season games the year before (and only two in conference), Martin somehow coaxed an even weaker squad to 14 wins, four in conference play. And what did he do after that? Went out and busted his butt on the recruiting trail, signing seven players, including national top-43 player Sindarius Thornwell, to begin the rebuilding process and renew excitement in a program whose fan base had been tortured with awful basketball for more years than they'd like to count since the program's only conference title in 1997.

With a nucleus firmly in place for the future, there's little doubt that the grand-slam hire of Martin will be one of the best hires in program history.

14) January 2013: The hit.

How can a hit in a football game be one of the biggest stories of the past 15 years?

When it's the hit. When you can say "the hit" anywhere in the college football world and people know what you're talking about. When it has been viewed something like five million times on YouTube and won the ESPN Play of the Year.

That's when. When every one of those five million or so views (I'm counting the multiple YouTube versions, by the way), every one of the seemingly five million stories and every one of the five million questions asked about it represent the best publicity this school has ever gotten.

"The hit" will live forever, well beyond the next 15 years, and in terms of the stories on this list with impact nationally, it may be No. 1.

15) January 2013: Back-to-back top-10 finishes.

It had never happened in school history that a football team finished in the top 10 in the final AP poll. That happened in 2012. So it obviously hadn't happened that the football program had finished in the top 10 in the AP poll two years in a row. That happened in 2013.

The heights that South Carolina has achieved - a preseason top 10 ranking, also the first in school history - and enjoys now are unprecedented. There simply is no precedent. Four straight wins over Clemson. Back-to-back bowl wins over national powerhouses in Nebraska and Michigan. The top player in the nation and a Heisman Candidate in Jadeveon Clowney. More publicity and exposure than the school has ever enjoyed - all of that is USC's miraculous present.

And I say "miraculous" because any USC fan over the age of 30 can remember times so bleak, seasons so painful and teasing so unmerciful that they still haunt one's nightmares. No more. Where the program sits now is a place it has never been before, and the view, I have to say, is pretty sweet. Enjoy it.

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