SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In the South, it's hard to find a place that's not overrun with SEC this or ACC that. There are very few cities and towns down here that don't bleed some weird color. But tucked into the upper nublet of South Carolina, at the intersection of two important Interstate highways, that's anchored by two Division I schools south of the Red Line. It may be halfway between Clemson Tigerland and Gamecock Central... but Spartanburg is Hoops Nation through and through, y'all!
On Saturday morning, we made our way east across endless Tennessee, across difficult North Carolina mountain passes (only so because an October rockslide closed Interstate 40, forcing travelers onto treacherous one-lane threads), and down I-26 to a little place they call the Sparkle City. And even through a gunmetal-colored afternoon fog, Spartanburg was shining bright. We passed through the outer perimeter, golden arches and Krispy Kreme signs in full glow, and descended into the city center. We were just barely on time for a 3 p.m. tip at Wofford College, home of the Southern Conference's Terriers. Wofford, established in 1854 by Methodists as a liberal arts institution, has a campus typical of those you'll find all across the 12-team SoCon. (The SoCon is, in fact, headquartered in Spartanburg!) There's an inner core of structures that date back over a century, with wide green lawns and narrow footpaths and trees that resemble licorice sticks at this cold time of year. In amongst the antique pieces are new and modern buildings for science and technology, symbols of progression and continued prosperity.
Tucked into a corner of campus is Benjamin Johnson Arena, where Wofford's basketball representatives play. It seats a little over 3,500. Even though it's only three decades old, it has that classic fieldhouse feeling -- it's tight and intimate, and you can smell the wood oil.
Wofford -- and let's be honest here -- is probably the last school you come up with when you try to run through the entire SoCon dozen. The Terriers have had a long line of ordinary seasons since joining Division I in 1995, have yet to break .500 for a season, and have naturally never appeared in the NCAA Tournament. But in recent years, Wofford has broken through for some Mid-Majority headlines in the non-conference part of the season. On December 19, 2007, the team scored a historic Red Line Upset at Purdue, topping the Boilermakers 69-66. This season, they struck again, upending Georgia of the SEC on the road by 3.
For the most part, though, it's been a humble program. The official slogan for the 2009-10 season is the very ordinary and straightforward, "Let's Go." (Already?) On the far wall of the BJA, there's a warning to all dark-jerseyed enemies who dare to enter.
Saturday's opponent was Navy of the Patriot League, and the Terriers showed the kind of promise that signals a potential breakout season. For one, its newly-retooled defense is dogged, particularly in the junkyard sense of the word. The white-clad Woffords met the Midshipmen with a tough, fast-switching man-to-man, forcing the visitors into poor decisions and tons of turnovers. In a quick hour and 45 minutes, Wofford dispatched the visitors 73-62 for its fifth win against six defeats. Then, as the Navy players started walking off the floor, the P.A. announcers called them back. The band played "Anchors Aweigh" as the Midshipmen stood rigidly at attention; it was a completely unnecessary, but fantastically classy gesture.
After the game in an early-arriving twilight, the campus was quiet and empty. A short walk to the student center revealed that many students were gathered around television sets to watch Appalachian State, their SoCon brethren, in the American-style football playoffs. Wofford may not win a whole lot, but the people there are endlessly respectful to their opposition.
Two days later (in equally miserable weather), we went to visit Wofford's close southern neighbor, the University of South Carolina-Upstate. While the Terriers are a relative newcomer to Division I, USC-U is just taking its first baby steps. The school changed its name from South Carolina-Spartanburg in 2003 (too many syllables), and switched its team nickname from the Rifles, under which they won the 1982 NAIA national championship. Attempting to carve out their own sporting identity, they went with the colors green and black instead of the official state-school colors of Gamecocks red and black.
Now, the Spartans just began their third year in the top flight, and while they were fortunate enough to find a league home with the Atlantic Sun, they won't be eligible for the conference or national postseason until 2012. It's been a tough haul, as they've only earned 17 victories in two seasons-plus. That's one more than Wofford's take from last season.
The contrast between Wofford and Upstate is immediately apparent when you drive on campus. There's none of the SoCon stone and ivy here; in keeping with the A-Sun's crop of newer schools like North Florida, Florida Gulf Coast and Kennesaw State (Upstate was founded in 1967), the school is a well-planned complex, with identical architecture, two-lane roads, and everything oriented around convenient parking.
And it's possible to park your car right near the Hodge Center (for free), and it takes less than 30 paces for you to make your way inside. The G.B. Hodge Center (named for the local politician who started the school as a two-year nursing school) is one of the few arenas in Hoops Nation where the outside hallways and concourses are nicer than the area of play itself.
That's not necessarily a knock against the school; it just wasn't built with Division I in mind. The young universities of the Atlantic Sun generally sprung up from the ground in a matter of years, instead of organically growing over decades and centuries like the Woffords of the world. If the Spartans start winning, I'm sure that the school will upgrade the facilities.
But that doesn't appear to be happening anytime soon. Upstate is 1-7 to start the season, with a league victory against Stetson its only bright spot. On this night, another of the A-Sun's newbies, Florida Gulf Coast, came in and played ball control to break a 24-game road losing streak. An Eagle junior named Reed Baker, a Michigan transfer, shot the lights out for 27 points, and not even the 34-point effort of Spartan guard Josh Chavis (which included a school-record 10 3's) could overcome the attack. The visitors held off a late charge and won 86-82.
The small but spirited student section didn't mind too much, though. They spent the evening cheering on their cult hero, 7-foot-3 German import Nick Schneiders, and thrilling to each and every blocked shot -- in this game, seven! -- even the one that he made with his head. Schneiders has really changed his look since we were here last, during Upstate's first Division I season in 2007-08. He had close-cropped hair then, a clean-shaved face. As a senior, he's grown wild hair and a beard, and has transformed himself into some sort of outsize Dirk Nowitski.
We'll just call him "Big Jesus," though.
One question remains about all of this Spartanburg basketball business, though. Why don't Wofford and Upstate play each other? Politics and hem/hawing have denied the city of Spartanburg a true city game, a chance to see which team is the king of the court. Why not? Can't we get this done? Who do we have to call?
If you were a Spartanburger (no, really, that's the correct naming convention), you would probably go to Fatz Cafe a lot. There are two locations for this legendarily folksy Mid-South hangout, and approximately 1000 signs and billboards directing you to those two locations. You might have your kids in Upward (the boys in basketball, the girls in cheerleading); that might be a household name over the south now, but it started out right here in Sparkle City. You'd probably go up to Gaffney to do your outlet shopping. If you really wanted to take a trip, you might take the Amtrak Crescent, which will take you all the way to either New York or New Orleans. But why would you want to leave? You're in Spartanburg!
Spartanburg natives will tell you that Seventies classic country-rock legends Marshall Tucker Band hail from the city, and remind you that they're still making music and that they're still great. Whatever happened to flute-rock anyway?
Choice Bally Pic of the Moment: Here's Bally in Spartanburg, on press row at Wofford with a collectible cup featuring the school's spartan motto. Let's Go!