USC Upstate … Remembering the 1982 NAIA National Champions

Dick Cox

March 03, 2023 at 11:03 am.

Longtime sports journalist and Lindy’s Sports contributing writer, Dick Cox, was an assistant coach for three seasons (1979-1981) for the USC Upstate Spartans, known then as the USC Spartanburg Rifles. The following season, the Rifles won the NAIA national championship. That entire team was recently inducted to the school’s sports Hall of Fame. Cox shares that championship team’s story with Lindy’s.

Hall of Fame Saturday at USC Upstate in Spartanburg, SC was a special day for me as the 1982 USC Spartanburg men’s basketball national championship team was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. It was special to me because I was an assistant basketball coach at the school for three years, and the year that I left to take head coaching job, the team won the NAIA national championship. After 41 years, it was great to see and catch up with some of my former players and to relive the memories.

That 1982 national championship team had to overcome many obstacles, and defied the odds to win the title. Back in 1982, the USC Upstate Spartans were known as the USC Spartanburg Rifles.

The Rifles defeated their arch-rivals the College of Charleston, 54-52, in the conference championship game to advance to the national tournament in Kansas City, MO. The national title game was a David versus Goliath story as the 26-5 Rifles (26-5) stunned the No. 1-ranked 39-0 Biola,CA Eagles (39-0) by a 51-38 score.

In 1982 USC Spartanburg was a small commuter school with fewer than 2,000 students. There were only four on-campus buildings and some classes were held in motel rooms about a mile down the road from the campus. There were no dormitories, so the athletes had to stay in an apartment complex down the highway from the main campus. The school had no food service, so players had to eat breakfast at the Peach Blossom restaurant and had a choice of Shoney’s or The Peach Blossom for lunch and supper. We had the pregame meal at Shoney’s on game day. Where you ate often depended on if you were on full or partial scholarship.

There were no NILs back then, so a lot of players were on work study programs for their expense money. One of the players’ job was to drive the shuttle van that transported players from the apartments to their classes and to meals. Some other players officiated the school’s intramural sports.

One of my jobs as assistant coach was to distribute the meal money when we played away games. Players received $10 for lunch and $15 for supper. Often players would eat cheap fast foods or just skip meals altogether and keep the money. Players also received money to do their laundry.

Back then we would travel to away games in two school station wagons or two school vans. There were no chartered buses, no shoe contracts. The school bought players one pair of tennis shoes that had to last the entire season. There were no letter jackets and player received a letterman T-shirt. The national championship team was the first ever to receive letter jackets.

Our school was a branch University of South Carolina, but people made fun of the school, calling it “The Branch.” The Rifles/Spartans never had much success until Bill Hinson was hired as their head coach. He brought in a very talented first recruiting class that went on to win the national title their senior year.

Included in that class were Mike Gibson, who was selected the MVP of the national tournament and went on to be the No. 1 draft choice of the Washington Bullets in the NBA Draft that year. Wendell Gibson, starting wing on the championship team, was the Washington Bullets second round choice that same season. Both of the Gibsons were named to the All-American team. James Holland, the Rifles point guard, played for the Harlem Globetrotters with the legendary Curley Neal. Holland is now Associate Commissioner of the Big South Conference. Other members of that team went on to be ministers, teachers, coaches and successful businessmen.

USC Spartanburg Rifles were the first basketball team to ever win a national basketball championship from the state of South Carolina. Hinson left after two seasons to take another job and Jerry Waters was hired to take his place.

On Waters’ first day on the job as head coach, he was sitting with me watching the players work out for the first time. After about 30 minutes, Waters turned to me and said, “I thought you told me there were players here! I left better players where I came from!” Two years later they we won the national championship.

Today USC Upstate is an NCAA Division I University that is a member of the Big South Athletic Conference. Upstate now has 15 NCAA Division I sports teams. It has nearly 5,000 students, with 1,300 new graduates per year and about 30,000 alumni. The University has come a long way since the days of that championship team.

Chances are not very good that USC Upstate will ever repeat the fairy tale story of the 1982 championship, but who knows? No one ever thought it could be done the first time. The alumni and people from the city of Spartanburg, look back now and enjoy the memories and stories of the 1982 men’s basketball national championship team.

USC Upstate Basketball: Hall of Fame 1982 Men’s National Championship Basketball Team