By Frankie Mansfield
Doug Liperote remembers seeing the news of USC’s hiring of Frank Martin scrolling across the bottom of the small TV in his office – and he remembers leaning back in his chair and laughing in excitement. He’d been here before.
It was in the mid-1990s when USC hired Eddie Fogler, or 2002 when Dave Odom came in. Even the 2008 hiring of Darrin Horn had an optimistic excitement for the Gamecock fan of over 20 years. Yet one after another, time and time again, they didn’t quite work out.
“Yea, I’ve been through this a few times before,” Liperote says with a grin. “But what you don’t do is give up.”
Call them Gamecock Agonistes, the basketball fans who’ve ridden each wave of optimism with every new coach, only to come crashing back down to reality a few meager seasons later.
Last month, a smiling USC Athletics Director Eric Hyman stood at the lectern in the Frank McGuire room in the Colonial Life Arena and told fans and media, “Today is a great day to be a Gamecock.”
For about $12 million, USC had just hired Martin, who’s never had fewer than 21 wins in a season, to be basketball coach for at least the next six years. Very quickly, the hopes once again inflated to dangerous heights.
“Gamecock fans are going to back their coach,” said lifelong fan Carlton Thompson, the stamping, cheering icon known as “Baseline Jesus.” “If it feels like we’ve been here before, it’s because we have.”
‘Up and down, up and down’
When Liperote moved to South Carolina in 1991 from New York, his neighbor, he says, was “the original optimist when it comes to Gamecock sports.”
He remembers his neighbor crowing about the 20-win season the Gamecocks just had and how they were primed for another good year. USC won 21 games total in the next two seasons, as Liperote says, his “first real taste of Gamecock basketball.”
In 1993, excitement built as news reports said the Gamecocks were set to hire Bobby Cremins, a former standout Gamecocks point guard who gained national status as Georgia Tech’s coach.
Liperote remembers being at a friend’s wedding when word began to spread that Cremins was staying with Georgia Tech.
“We did some drinking that night at the reception,” Liperote said.
Eddie Fogler filled the void, and over the next few years coached USC back to significance. The Gamecocks won the SEC regular season title in 1997.
The excitement and success was short lived, however, as the Gamecocks stumbled into the new millennium with losing records and Fogler’s resignation.
“It’s like, just when you start to believe in what’s happening, the rug is pulled out from under you,” Liperote said. “Back to square one.”
Soon, fans were talking about maybe luring Tubby Smith from Kentucky. Dave Odom, who had been coaching at Wake Forest, was hired instead.
Thompson says he thought USC had made the safe decision. Liperote says fans were more excited for a fresh start and to see what would happen, rather than excited for the coach himself.
Within five years, Odom had coached the Gamecocks to four 20-win seasons, a trip to the NCAA tournament and two NIT championships. But two lackluster seasons later, Odom resigned.
“It really was just up and down, up and down,” Liperote said.
Next was Darrin Horn, a young up-and-comer whose success at Western Kentucky gave fans hope. Four seasons later, a 60-63 record, no NCAA tournament appearances and one of the lowest home attendance averages in a decade prompted Hyman to make yet another change.
On March 27, Hyman introduced Martin, who coached Kansas State to prominence, to a room packed with excited fans and intrigued media.
Women’s coach Dawn Staley said it was probably the biggest hire in the program’s history.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, Martin’s friend and former mentor, said Martin would be a great fit.
For years of uncertain optimism and an almost Sisyphean struggle, the Gamecock Agonistes finally had their big hire.
Martin says that instead of expecting it, he will earn the fans’ respect so that once again they can get back on board.
“We got a saying, B.F.I., both feet in,” Martin said. “We want every player both feet, we want every staff member both feet in, we want every administrator both feet in and we want our fans both feet in.”
Thompson’s cheering with fans in the back of the room and the smile that grew across Liperote’s face told the story – again.
“I sense the same optimistic feeling,” Liperote said. “But I feel more certain this time.”