BY THE TIME the demolition crew finishes its work, the headquarters of University of South Carolina athletics for more than a half-century will be only a memory — and those who worked at the Roundhouse in recent years will shed not a tear.
Officially named the Rex Enright Athletic Center, the distinctive building on Rosewood Drive had become a sad caricature of the gleaming structure that opened in the mid-1950s with pomp worthy of a coronation. Those halcyon years will be lost in its obituary.
Indeed, the Roundhouse — coming down piece by piece today and eventually facing the wrecker’s ball — could be analogous to baseball great Willie Mays. Do fans remember the wondrous Willie who sparkled for so long, whose catch in the 1954 World Series is the stuff of legend, or the over-the-hill Willie whose skills diminished so markedly, whose performance in the 1973 World Series evoked pity?
“Times change,” said Johnny Gregory, captain of the 1968 Gamecocks, Columbia attorney and a mover-and-shaker at his alma mater through the years. He used his position, tight end, to illustrate.
He played at 168 pounds. Twelve years later, Willie Scott “weighed 240 and ran faster than I did.” Now? “The tight ends can be up to 280 and run faster than Scott.”
“That’s like the Roundhouse,” he said. “There are a lot of positive memories, a rich history, and its legacy should not be considered a negative. Times change, and the university needed a new administrative building for athletics.”
No one disputes the need to abandon the building on Rosewood Drive. Termites, a leaky roof and leaky ceilings, mold — “even snakes and possums and all kind of bugs,” said Emily White, a Roundhouse fixture from 1967 until her recent retirement — made its razing inevitable.
“Every (athletics director) for years wanted to move, move, move and Eric (Hyman) was finally able to do something about it,” said White, administrative assistant to every USC athletics director from Paul Dietzel to Hyman. “They did all the renovating and once when they were changing the lobby, Jim Shealy said, ‘It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.’ ”
The challenge, Gregory said, centered on convincing the decision-makers that coaches and administrators needed a quality working environment and that was a hard sell. Why put money in a building that the department wanted to abandon? “The practice and playing areas got all the attention,” he said.
Thus, “there was a lot of tearing down walls and then tearing down the new walls,” said John Moore, the No. 2 man in the athletics department for more than 25 years. “We tried to do the best we could with what we had.”
GOOD IN ITS DAY
Just as the palatial Rice Center that now houses USC’s athletics was born of necessity, so too was the Roundhouse. Until the mid-1950s, the entire department was shoehorned into the swimming pool building behind Longstreet Theater.
“Coach (Rex) Enright had his office on one side of the pool and the secretary and assistant coaches had space on the other side,” said Don Barton, a USC historian who served as tennis coach and sports information director before branching into the public relations field. “If they wanted to have a staff meeting, they had to go across Sumter Street and use one of the dressing rooms in the old (basketball) Field House.”
Comparing college athletics then and now, obviously, is apples and oranges and a Barton story tells why. In his sports information days, he remembered “coaching” the freshman basketball team for the second half of a game at Clemson; head coach Frank Johnson went to the locker room to prepare players for the varsity game and the freshman coach, a graduate student, could not skip class to make the trip.
The original Roundhouse magnified the differences, too. In addition to a few offices that surrounded a meeting room in the center of the building, the structure contained a dormitory with bunk beds for visiting teams in non-revenue sports and a hotel-like room for the visiting head coach. The second floor included locker rooms, showers, the training room and space to store equipment.
“It was a multi-purpose building and it served its purpose,” White said. “It was a good building in its day.”
Moore, who came to USC in 1975, pointed out that the university did not have as many sports as today and, he said, “We didn’t need as many offices as they need today. For example, Ron Smarr was the (men’s) tennis coach, and he was also a physical education instructor, so he had his office (in the P.E. department). Don’t forget; this is before we had women’s athletics, too.”
The football team had moved to the stadium by the time women’s athletics came under the department’s umbrella, and the second floor was remodeled to accommodate the growth.
“We always needed more space, and those were pretty good digs back then,” Moore said. “In those days with money tight, it didn’t take much to satisfy us.”
Alas, White said, the Roundhouse eventually “was so run down.”
‘LOTS OF SKELETONS’
The old building soon will be gone, and if plans come to fruition, the area will become part of the long overlooked track and field complex. But the memories always will be there.
“Lots of skeletons in that building,” said White, who was privy to so much history.
Added Gregory: “Some great names worked in there and a lot of important decisions — most of them good ones — were made there.” He paused and added, “There were a lot of stories there that will never be told, too.”
Gregory, who headed the department “for all of 29 days” between Bob Marcum and Dick Bestwick, can verify one of the many snake stories. “I came out of the office and headed down the hall, and Emily asked me where I was going,” he said. “I told her the rest room. She said, ‘Be careful; they killed a snake in there the other day.’ I didn’t use that rest room.”
White came to work one morning and found a snake in the doorway outside her office. “That,” she said, “caused a big uproar.”
In his undergraduate days, Gregory recalls the players being summoned to the meeting room in the center of the building. Before the powers-that-be could announce that head coach Marvin Bass had resigned to take a job in Canada, the door burst open and the strangest sight appeared.
“This guy came in who must have weighed about 140 pounds and he had this 10-gallon hat pulled down low on his head,” Gregory said. “We’re sitting there in stunned silence and the guy said, ‘I guess you’re wondering why I called this meeting.’ We didn’t know what to think. It was (then-assistant Lou) Holtz. He was a sight, wearing that 10-gallon hat. The silence turned to laughter.”
There’s no laughter at the Roundhouse today. The noise coming from the old place on Rosewood now is the pounding of the demolition crew’s hammers and the screaming of drills. And there are no tears.
Soon all that will remain will be the memories, and what memories they are.