In 1993, Wofford was ready to make a bold move.
Much of the 1980s had been spent trying to find a home for the athletics program, as life in the NAIA was becoming a bigger challenge each season. Scheduling was a constant struggle and finding opponents that could be considered peer institutions in the classroom was an issue, which made for an uneven playing field.
“The academics and athletics programs should be complementary,” says Harold Chandler ’71, trustee emeritus. “Success in one should reflect on the outcomes you see in the other.”
Chandler was heavily involved in 1987 when college leaders began a new strategic planning task force to improve quality. The athletics program was one of the topics of research and discussion. Joining the NCAA would mean consistent academic standards, but it would also mean the commitment of additional financial resources and facilities as well as conference alignment.
“The reason for the move was academic,” says Dr. Danny Morrison ’75, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation and a current Wofford trustee. Morrison served as director of athletics at Wofford from 1985 through 1996. “At the time, the NAIA really did not have the same minimum academic standards that the NCAA did. We felt like the most parallel track with the NAIA at the time was NCAA Division II. We knew we might stay Division II for a long time, but we also knew that it was our foray into the NCAA. Then we would be in a position to move within the NCAA.”
Wofford enjoyed several years of moderate success at the NCAA Division II level as an independent. The Terriers made the playoffs in football and men’s and women’s basketball. The college was following the “To Improve Quality” strategic plan, launched in 1988. That plan called for the college to revisit athletics planning in five years. In December 1992, the Board of Trustees created the Athletic Planning Team, which was later named the Athletic Task Force. This group was composed of trustees, faculty, athletics staff, students and community members. They presented their findings the following May (1993).
“We had a really broad-based committee that looked at everything,” says Morrison. “Early on there was some sense that maybe Division III would be a good fit because of the number of smaller private colleges and universities there, but we also looked at geography, marketing, national exposure and non-scholarship versus scholarship.”
After reviewing the pros and cons of each division, it was the overwhelming consensus of the task force that Division I would “provide as much stability in our athletic picture as possible” (from the final task force report)
“I wish I could tell you that I was clairvoyant, and we would end up in Division I-AA, but I really didn’t know. Frankly, I wanted us to be there,” says Dr. Joe Lesesne, Wofford’s president from 1972 to 2000.
“The deciding factor was alignment with similar schools academically,” recalls Crystal Sharpe, a member of the task force and the women’s basketball coach at Wofford from 1984 until 1995. “The men’s basketball team had been very successful at Division II, and the women’s team made the playoffs and hung a banner as well shortly after the decision was made. Still, it was an academics decision more than an athletics decision.”
The final report from the Athletic Task Force included seven recommendations for a successful move to DI, including adding women’s soccer, women’s golf and outdoor track; building a wellness center; creating a full-time position for an intramural director; improving athletics facilities; and increasing funding for Title IX compliance.
“It was a very bold recommendation at the time,” says Morrison. “We still didn’t have the facilities that we would need, and we really didn’t have the funding that we would need, and yet, we had some really talented coaches, some committed staff and generous supporters who understood what we were trying to do. They made it all possible.”
Lesesne jokes that Morrison gives him too much credit. “It was bold, but I had a lot of other people in the boat with me. I knew that the future chairman of the Board of Trustees Harold Chandler ’71 and Jerry Richardson ’59, also a trustee at the time, weren’t going to leave the college in a bad place.”
The Board of Trustees approved the move and a three-year implementation plan that would end with Wofford competing in NCAA Division I athletics starting in the fall of 1995. The hurdles related to facilities, scholarships and conference affiliation remained in place, but not for long. Richardson was awarded an NFL franchise. An opening in the Southern Conference became available, and Homozel Mickel Daniel left the college a $12.5 million estate gift that launched the Daniel Challenge for endowed scholarships. With those coinciding events, Wofford was suddenly in position to see the impact of the bold move.
“Mr. Richardson had been working on bringing a team to the Carolinas since 1986,” recalls Morrison. “The team was announced in October of 1993. We had studied every training camp in America, and we knew what was needed. The good fortune was that the college had already identified very similar things in the 1987 ‘To Improve Quality’ plan.”
In 1994, the Carolina Panthers agreed to hold training camp in Spartanburg and at Wofford beginning in the summer of 1995. National media attention followed.
In 1995, the Richardson Physical Activities Building became the athletics hub of the campus. Baseball, basketball, football and soccer had offices in the building. There were athletics training and conditioning spaces as well as a fitness area, racquetball courts and a dance and aerobics studio to serve the entire student body. The facility received updates in 2008 and in 2018, the most recent of which was an addition to the athletics training room to include a hydrotherapy suite.
“The practice fields and the Richardson Physical Activities Building were designed to host an NFL football team, so everything was up to that standard. It was a huge recruiting tool for us,” says Richard Johnson, director of athletics. “As we grew and became more and more competitive, additional facilities took us up another notch.”
Gibbs Stadium was opened on Oct. 5, 1996, led by a gift from Jimmy and Marsha Gibbs with support from the Spartanburg community. “They made it possible for us to have what I still think is one of the greatest stadiums in the country,” says Mike Ayers, head football coach from 1988 to 2017.
Snyder Field was renovated and became the home pitch for men’s and women’s soccer. The lower practice fields were expanded to provide three surfaces to be used by football, soccer and the Carolina Panthers. In 2004, Law Field was completely rebuilt and became Russell C. King Field at Switzer Stadium, returning baseball to campus for the first time in nearly a decade. The Joe E. Taylor Center was added in 2009, providing a home for the athletics strength and conditioning program as well as office space for several sports. The Taylor Center is also the site of the rifle range.
“We had a team that worked hard on the facilities piece of the puzzle,” says Morrison. “Roger Milliken and Woody Willard ’74 were instrumental in the purchasing of the properties where Gibbs Stadium and the practice fields are now. That and the important closing of the road would not have been possible without the excitement of the Panthers.” (See the Back of the College Neighborhood story in the Summer 2020 Wofford Today for more information about the area where some of the college’s athletics facilities now stand.)
The Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium opened in the fall of 2017 as another jewel in the crown of top-notch athletics facilities. It’s the home to men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball and houses women’s lacrosse locker and office space as well as athletics video services. During its first two seasons, the University of South Carolina, Harvard University, University of North Carolina and Georgia Tech have all competed against the Terriers in the main 3,400-seat arena. This new facility also provided the opportunity to renovate Benjamin Johnson Arena into a campus recreation and fitness center.
The newest facility, Jerome Johnson Richardson Hall, which opened in the fall of 2020 on the site of the former Andrews Fieldhouse, contains a baseball locker room and a golf suite with two simulators and a putting studio along with offices and meeting space. The top two floors provide housing for 150 first-year students.
Another aspect of the move to Division I that made it such a bold decision was doing so with limited resources. A lot of money was needed for the move, not just for operations and facilities, but for scholarships as well.
“Once we made the decision to move to Division I, we knew there was going to be a financial challenge,” says Chandler. “There were some skeptics — I would say more off-campus than on-campus — but there were some skeptics in that broader audience. Quietly buried in that broader audience, however, were a handful of leaders who stepped forward with a plan and personal commitments. That then began to ignite a wider base of support.”
According to Morrison, the college began to put a major emphasis on endowed scholarships, and Lesesne decided to use the Daniel bequest to incentivize the creation of new funds.
“Again, Joe Lesesne was brilliant in recognizing that the Daniel gift could transform all areas of the college if he put the dollars into a matching program,” says Morrison.
Raising the funding for new buildings was also a challenge.
“Most people think the Panthers funded the Richardson Physical Activities Building and the other physical improvements to athletics facilities, but that’s not true,” says Morrison. “They provided something just as vital with their commitment to bring training camp to Spartanburg. We only had one chance to get the training camp here, and the city of Spartanburg and the Wofford community rallied.”
According to Morrison, George Dean Johnson ’64 was a catalyst as was Bobby Pinson, who led fundraising efforts. “So many people recognized that this was an extraordinary opportunity for Spartanburg and for Wofford,” he says.
While the college was raising funding for new facilities, athletics teams still needed scholarship support.
“There is no doubt that the Wofford faithful who contributed through the Terrier Club were difference makers,” says Ayers. “They afforded us a chance to go out and recruit, and as our capacity to offer scholarships increased so did our ability to compete.”
The Southern Conference
The final report of the Athletic Task Force recommended that Wofford compete for up to 10 years as an independent while searching for a conference home. College leaders, however, already had their eyes on the Southern Conference.
“The Southern Conference was showing some signs of possible changes,” says Lesesne, who believed the conference aligned well with Wofford academically, athletically and geographically. “As soon as we made the decision to move to Division I, we began to lay the groundwork to gain membership.”
In 1995, Marshall University announced it would be leaving the Southern Conference. This provided the opening Wofford needed.
“Initially we were willing to make the move as an independent, which would have been brutal,” says Morrison.
Academic peers Davidson College and Furman University were already members of the Southern Conference. The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute, comparable in size, also were members.
“We had done our homework, but it didn’t look like there were going to be any openings,” says Morrison. “Fortunately, our bold move positioned us to get lucky.”
When Marshall left, the Southern Conference needed another college or university to compete in football. It was already considering the addition of two public universities — UNC Greensboro and the College of Charleston — that did not play football. Wofford was within the conference’s geographic footprint and could offer football, academic rigor and Division I facilities.
“Wright Waters was the commissioner of the Southern Conference at the time, and he and his colleagues came up with a mix of public and private that made for a wonderful fit for the Southern Conference,” says Morrison.
The Terriers haven’t looked back.
There were no recommended milestones or benchmarks mentioned in the final report of the Athletic Task Force to judge the success of the move to Division I. However, 25 years after the move, it’s clear that the bold move also was the right move.
During the first weeks in September 1995, the Terriers played their first NCAA contests in football, men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball. Later in the fall, the men’s basketball team took the court against the University of Missouri, Vanderbilt University and North Carolina State University. That semester of DI competition was the culmination of years of research, planning and work.
“It was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as it maybe should have been because of a couple of things,” says Johnson, who was the men’s basketball coach at the time. “Number one, I went in with my eyes wide open. I knew what I had, and I knew who I was playing. I knew we were going to generate the revenue, and I knew we were going to take our lumps. But I also knew that Joe Lesesne and Danny Morrison knew that too.”
Johnson explained that at first it was about small victories and a commitment to improvement. The Terrier football team captured the college’s first conference championship in 2003. Additional team titles followed for baseball, men’s soccer and men’s basketball. Wofford also had individuals win championships in golf, rifle, women’s cross country and men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track.
“We didn’t win a lot of games, but we were competitive the very first year,” says Morrison. “There was a lot of pressure in the high-profile sports of football and men’s basketball, and I still marvel at the incredible job that Mike Ayers, Richard Johnson and later Mike Young did in leading those teams. They started a tradition of excellence that Jay McAuley in basketball and Josh Conklin in football and their assistant coaches are continuing today. I think if someone were to look back on it, they would say that it’s been a pretty remarkable 25 years. It’s a good example of how risk and progress are complementary variables.”
Ayers looks back and says it was absolutely a success. He and current head coach Josh Conklin hold 10 NCAA FCS playoff appearances between them. “From the get-go, we understood that the college’s academic standards came first,” says Ayers.
Chandler agrees. “There is empirical evidence that the move has been a substantial success,” he says. “Our boldness athletically has created a national platform for our academic program.”
“I don’t think we would be at the place where we are today as an institution without the visibility that our move to Division I gave us,” Johnson says. “The athletics program helped the college increase enrollment and expand out-of-state applications. The college community became more diverse and more selective because of NCAA Division I recruiting efforts, and five NCAA men’s basketball tournament appearances and five Southern Conference championships in football certainly boosted the college’s brand awareness.”
“We found a place where our student- athletes could play and our college could be associated with other colleges and universities with similar aspirations. The student body could enjoy the excitement of Division I competition, and this would help us recruit more good students. It was all about improving quality,” says Lesesne. “It was a bold choice that has continued to pay off.”
Wofford now has a broad-based athletics program with 19 competitive teams, 50 full-time athletics staff and coaches and 200 scholarships. The athletics endowment has grown to $45 million, and during 2019, the Terrier Club raised $1.9 million in scholarships for Wofford student-athletes.
We can’t wait to see what the next 25 years will bring.
by Brent Williamson