By Jeff Owens
South Carolina men's basketball coach Frank Martin will never forget the feeling when he and his team walked onto the court in Greenville, S.C. in March and saw a sea of garnet filling Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
"When we walked on the court for that Duke game, the sea of garnet in the stands was incredible," he said. "The passion that we felt coming from the stands was unbelievable."
That passion and fan support helped propel Martin's Gamecocks to a monumental upset over Duke and a spot in the Sweet 16 in Madison Square Garden.
A week later, in the city of legendary Gamecock coach Frank McGuire, Martin's team beat Baylor to advance to the Elite Eight. With former Gamecock basketball legends like Kevin Joyce, Mike Dunleavy and Alex English watching, they knocked off SEC rival Florida to make the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Martin remembers the surreal feeling when the Gamecocks celebrated the greatest moment in South Carolina men's basketball history.
"I'm on the floor and it's like, 'Holy Cow, this is really happening,'" Martin said. "And I'm watching people my age, I'm watching 18-year-olds, I'm watching my mom and my wife, Darius Rucker, Jadaveon Clowney and everyone is crying. And I'm sitting there and all I can think of is, how powerful is this? What an unbelievable ride these kids have taken all of us on, of all age groups and all walks of life, and we all have one common bond, and that's the South Carolina Gamecocks."
Martin's story summed up the enthusiasm and excitement Thursday night at the My Carolina Alumni Association's annual Season Preview.
With former Gamecock great and current football radio play-by-play man Todd Ellis serving as MC, Martin, head football coach Will Muschamp, new baseball coach Mark Kingston and Athletics Director Ray Tanner entertained a large group of alumni and helped prepare SC fans for the 2017-18 sports season.
The passion and enthusiasm of Gamecock fans was the theme of the night.
"I appreciate your enthusiasm, your passion and your willingness to support our student-athletes financially and with the loyalty you have exhibited over the many, many years," Tanner said. "Don't ever think for a moment that your presence and your voice doesn't matter to our coaches and our student-athletes."
Tanner, who won two national championships as South Carolina's head baseball coach, said he experienced that passion many times.
"I was in that dugout for a long time and I remember certain games when I wasn't sure I could get my team in position to win," he said. "I wasn't sure that I was going to make the right decision. But I was sure when I looked up in the stands that you weren't going to let us lose. There was great comfort in that and I appreciate that."
The 2016-2017 sports season was one of the best in South Carolina history, with Dawn Staley's women's basketball team winning the national championship, Martin's team reaching the Final Four and several other Gamecock teams making the NCAA Tournament.
South Carolina is the only Division 1 university in the country to finish in the top four in football, men's and women's basketball and baseball in the last 10 years.
It had five teams make the Elite Eight last year — both basketball teams, both golf teams and women's soccer. The Gamecocks won their 16th and 17th SEC championships (women's basketball and women's soccer) in 25 years and finished 21st in the country in the all-sports Learfield Directors Cup rankings, the highest since 2002.
"We are chasing them," Tanner said. "Remember the day when they said we weren't going to win very much in the SEC? We are making some noise."
The Gamecocks are also getting it done in the classroom, ranking No. 1 in the SEC with 379 student-athletes on the academic honor roll. South Carolina athletes had a 3.23 GPA in the spring, the 21st consecutive semester with at least a 3.0.
"We are winning and we are graduating our student-athletes at a very high rate," Tanner said.
Muschamp hopes to continue the tradition with the 2017 football season, which hopes to improve on last year's 6-7 record when it opens the season Sept. 2 against NC State. The Gamecocks wrapped up training camp this week and turn their attention to the season-opener.
"I like our work ethic and I like our buy-in and I like the culture of our program," Muschamp said. "… Really, it's about the culture of your program. The work ethic has been so much better with the players understanding the expectations … the expectation of where we want to go and what we need to do to get there.
"We're still in that building process but I've been very pleased. There has not been a day when I walked out of practice when I didn't think we had gotten a little better and improved."