And we drove there.
Much of the country rooted for little Winthrop against mighty Notre Dame in 2007. And there I was, 2,600 miles from Rock Hill, the rumpled coffee-swilling rule-breaker with then-sports editor Gary McCann.
I broke all media rules. I was the worst homer in sports, which is filled with homers. I cheered for Winthrop in the press box. I called other teams dirty names and tried to trip their mascots. I interviewed their fans and whispered I hoped their hair fell out.
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In that moment, Rock Hill was a national darling because Winthrop was. Winthrop won and much of America cheered. Then Winthrop lost and we drove home and life went back to normal.
Come on, Winthrop. Make us all proud and put us out there on the national stage again.
Especially, me. Now, I have no connection to Winthrop except as a fan, like many of you.
But if Winthrop wins three games, as host of the Big South basketball tournament in Rock Hill Thursday, Friday and Sunday, the university re-enters the royalty of college sports and the NCAA men’s Dvision I tournament. Winthrop’s nine appearances from 1999 through 2010 when the team was a power put the school and Rock Hill on the map.
“Winthrop makes us proud -- all of us,” said Doug Echols, Rock Hill’s longtime mayor and the retired commissioner of the South Atlantic Conference. “Winthrop’ is so valuable to our community. Sports is an incredible unifier. The exposure for the school and the city, the community, has been amazing. Winthrop is Rock Hill’s team.”
Not Charlotte’s team. Not South Carolina’s team.
When Echols travels on city business across the country, he said countless times people told him: “Rock Hill, you guys have Winthrop.”
The past three years the team made it to the Big South finals and lost heartbreakers. But this year the games are at home. Pat Kelsey, Winthrop’s coach, has been so close. Through a Winthrop video on Twitter, Kelsey told Rock Hill that only together, with support from a throng of fans, and the students and alumni and community, can the team accomplish its goal of playing in the NCAA tournament.
More than the team will win; Everybody wins.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” Kelsey said.
There is no way for Rock Hill, or Winthrop, to buy the national television publicity an NCAA tournament berth brings, Echols said. The cover of The Sporting News when Winthrop beat Notre Dame. Winthrop and its pep band were on the Today Show after that big win.
Shane Canup, now an instructor at USC Upstate, was a Winthrop freshman in 2007. He would later be the Big Stuff Eagle mascot. He flew to Oregon in 2007, took a train to Spokane, and rode a rented bicycle around town because he was so broke from the trip. But he saw his Eagles.
“The whole country watched Winthrop. Everybody knew us,” Canup said. “Incredible trip. Incredible experience. People still remember it.”
All Winthrop has to do is win three games. That would mean a chance to go to the tournament and take the rest of us along for a dizzying journey of joy and fun and community and shared passion -- and America looking at Rock Hill.
At the game there are no rules of decorum. Politicians and school trustees yell until they are hoarse. Echols is one of them. All badger referees and call them cheatin’ lyin zebras. Professors and students and alumi and fans are in it together.
Donald Trump has declined to pick a presidential NCAA bracket this year. But Echols picked the Big South bracket for The Herald. Echols is fearless.
“Winthrop. It is their year and they are our team,” Echols said. “They are going to win it right here in Rock Hill, for all of us.”