50 Years of Basketball
Posted on June 28, 2018 by
Back in January, the University of South Alabama retired the jersey numbers of men’s basketball stars Jeff Hodge and Junie Lewis. “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” they were called back in the day. Lewis’s desperation pass to Hodge, who then sank a last-second field goal to beat Alabama in the 1989 NCAA tournament, is the high point for men’s basketball at South. This year, the program is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The beginnings of the program — in fact, of all the Jaguar athletic programs — may be traced back a little further.
It was March 31, 1965. The USA Board of Trustees, “at the request of the student body,” unanimously approved the jaguar as the official mascot, and black and gold as the official colors. Yes, black and gold.
(The colors would be changed to red, white and blue in June of 1967.) The school had a mascot and official colors. Now it needed some teams.
It would be a little more than a year later before basketball became an official topic of discussion. The board’s executive committee, meeting on a Sunday morning in the new campus cafeteria, listened to committee chairman Ernest Cleverdon as he provided an overview of the athletic program. According to the meeting minutes, there was “considerable discussion” about “pressure from the community” to launch a football program.
Football would have to wait a few decades, but President Frederick Whiddon suggested a less-costly alternative. Basketball. Committee member Sen. Ray Lolley moved that the University hire a “first class” basketball coach (to be paid by the Physical Education department) and award ten basketball scholarships for the 1967-1968 season, and ten more the following season. And so it was that a basketball program was unanimously approved on May 22, 1966.
The “first class” coach was Rex Frederick. A former star at Auburn, where his jersey number was retired in 2006, Frederick’s first team — the first University of South Alabama basketball team — consisted entirely of freshmen. Victories over the freshman teams of Auburn and Southern Mississippi highlighted a season of ten victories and 15 defeats in that 1967-1968 campaign, which included a 4-4 mark against other freshman teams.
Success came quickly for the Jaguars. Their third season brought USA’s first winning record, and a 22-win mark followed in 1973-1974. Throughout the Southeast, institutions similar to South had also developed competitive basketball programs, but they lacked one thing. A conference.
So in 1976, USA became a charter member of the six-team Sun Belt Conference. It didn’t take long for the Jaguars to make an impact. The 1978-1979 team became the league’s first to win all of its conference games, and would win its first of three straight regular-season conference titles. The squad also became the first USA basketball team to play in the NCAA Tournament, which then was limited to only 40 schools. That team featured Ed Rains and Rory White, the first two Jaguar basketball players to have their jersey numbers retired.
Fast forward to 1988-1989. Under the leadership of second-year coach Ronnie Arrow, who would become the winningest coach in the program’s history, the Jaguars roared through the season, winning their first conference tournament title and culminating with “the shot that rolled the tide.” Two years later, another Jaguar team would run the conference table, taking both the regular season and tournament titles and making another NCAA appearance.
A similar stretch between 1996 and 1998 saw back-to-back 20-win seasons, with two more conference titles and NCAA appearances. After another Sun Belt championship and NCAA showing in 2005-2006, the Jags two years later won a school-record 26 games en route to one more NCAA tournament. Ironically, the NCAA game was a loss to Butler University, the alma mater of head coach Matthew Graves.
Pictured here are the original Jaguars — the first basketball team at the University of South Alabama. On May 22, 1966, the USA Board of Trustees unanimously approved the hire of a “first class” basketball coach and 20 scholarships to be awarded over a two-year period. Photo courtesy of The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.