Since the University of South Carolina began playing football in 1894, it has established a record for consistency that few other schools can match. Nor would they want to. "Name me one major school in the country besides us," says Gamecock Coach Jim Carlen, "that has never won more than seven games in a season."
Actually, the 1903 Gamecocks went 8-2, but killjoys point out that two of the wins were over the local YMCA, which sort of taints the achievement. And there are those who believe that South Carolina's true high point came in 1906, when the Board of Trustees banned football for a year. The Gamecocks have gone to only three bowls, none a major one, and lost in all of them.
But that was yesteryear. This season a new and shiny era was to dawn for South Carolina. The athletic department was so sure, it put out bumper stickers that read: THIS IS NEXT YEAR. Carlen has one on his refrigerator at home. A few of the preseason polls put South Carolina in the Top 20. No wonder, because 18 of 22 starters were back from the '78 team. "We're mighty good," said Carlen.
But when the talking stopped and the playing started last Saturday in Chapel Hill against North Carolina, South Carolina was mighty bad, losing 28-0. Said Carlen afterward, "It's still next year."
Perhaps it will be yet, because the Gamecocks do have the makings of a good team—certainly their best ever, with Quarterback Garry Harper, Tailback George Rogers, Linebacker Scott Wade and far more depth than South Carolinians are accustomed to. But later this season the Gamecocks also face the likes of Notre Dame, Florida State, Georgia and North Carolina State.
Still, if anyone understands how to deal with adversity, it is Carlen, who has signs about it all over his office. After all, when he was little, his grandmother told him if he didn't drink or hang around the pool hall in Cookeville, Tenn., she'd give him a Rolls-Royce when he turned 18. She died when he was 14. Such untimely turns of events can get to you. Like last year, when Carlen lost his starting left guard, Fred David, for the last four games of the season. David hurt his knee jumping off the bench in celebration of a one-point win over Mississippi. The Gamecocks, 4-2-1 at that point, finished the season with a 5-5-1 record, beating only Wake Forest in those final four games.
The factor that may most severely test Carlen's resourcefulness as he tries to build a winner is that South Carolina is a school where the clashes on the playing field pale in comparison to what goes on in the athletic department offices. At one point in 1977 the Gamecocks had three athletic directors, including Carlen. Last week the Board of Trustees, in a byzantine action, fired veteran basketball coach—and athletic director for basketball only—Frank McGuire, effective at the end of the next season. At the same time the board made him vice-president for public relations. However, McGuire rejected the trustees' action and says he'll keep coaching at South Carolina as long as he wants to. The board also said that Carlen must give up either his athletic directorship or football coaching in 1983, when his contract expires. They say he can't handle both jobs. Carlen says it's just more proof of how foolish the trustees are. Besides, he thinks it might be good to be well clear of South Carolina in '83, what with the Gamecocks scheduled to play Southern Cal and Notre Dame on successive Saturdays.
Amid all the commotion, Carlen gathered his players at practice last week and told them, "Don't you worry about Coach Carlen. If they try to take my job away, they'd better back up to my house in a Brinks delivery truck with the money neatly stacked." The players cheered. In 1978 the university told Carlen he could not be the athletic director because there was no job description for it on the school's organizational chart. That one went to the lawyers and Carlen won. But victory didn't come cheap. Last week he thumbed through his checkbook until he found the right stub and pointed. "Look, I spent $3,800 of my money to represent myself against my own university," he said.
All this understandably irks Carlen, because he came to Carolina in 1975 primarily to be athletic director. "There was $16,000 in the athletic fund when I got here," he says. "Now there is $1.7 million. Last year we gave the general university fund $250,000, and you know what? This little ole president we have [Dr. James B. Holderman] didn't even say thank you. Know what he said? 'Can I count on this every year?' " Carlen refers to his life in Columbia as coping with the "controversy of the month." Of his multiple troubles, a friend says, "What Jim has to remember is friends come and go but enemies accumulate."
For his part, Carlen insists that he doesn't create controversies. "I just get dragged into them," he says. Indeed, everyone seems to at South Carolina. In spite of such distractions, Carlen is a proven builder, and that's his strength. He coached for four years at West Virginia, guided the Mountaineers to a 10-1 record in 1969 and did everything but beat Penn State. He coached for five years at Texas Tech, had an 11-1 mark one year and did everything but win the Southwest Conference. Now he fully intends that South Carolina will soon win at least eight games. "I've always won," he says of his lifetime 85-56-6 record. "So nobody will be surprised when I win at South Carolina."
Yes they will. For while the university may be making trouble for him, he makes trouble for himself with his sometimes blunt, often tactless mouth. He knows it, but says, "Some people have a hard time adjusting to the truth. And that's what I deal in. I have the guts to do what most people know is right but are afraid to do." He has been known to tell promising high school quarterbacks who are leaning toward South Carolina, "Son, you can't throw a lick." This can discourage a prospect.
"My biggest weakness is that I care too much about my players," says Carlen. He likes to be the stoic, benevolent, patriarchal type. Just before Saturday's game, he told his boys, "You've worked yourselves to death. Now go out there and win, just because you deserve it." Apparently North Carolina Tailback Famous Amos Lawrence was more deserving, as he dazzled the Gamecocks by rushing for 134 yards and scoring two touchdowns. "I hurt for my kids more than I hurt for myself," said Carlen when the game was over. "Of course, I hurt for myself an awful lot."
Now in his fifth year at South Carolina, Carlen knows it's time to win big—to date, he's 23-23-1—and the fans are thinking that way, too. Witness the bumper sticker seen around Columbia that the athletic department didn't print Up: CARLEN '79: BE GOOD OR BE GONE.