COLUMBIA -- As Dave Odom's tenure at South Carolina ended -- fittingly, with another close loss to a high-profile opponent -- the speculation once again began in earnest.
Who will be the Gamecocks' next basketball coach?
It would be logical to assume that athletics director Eric Hyman, after researching potential candidates for the past two months, watched the NCAA and NIT selections with as much interest as the millions of folks across the country who are filling out their office pools. By doing that, he could know right away which coaches got into the postseason and which didn't, thereby ending their seasons and allowing him to make the first steps toward contacting them.
This is Hyman's first major coaching search since he took over in 2005 and he will approach it the same way he approached the major construction plans for USC's facilities -- calmly, methodically, not prone to hiring who "experts" say is the best candidate just because they say it. But the questions remain.
What's more important when looking for Odom's successor? Does Hyman go after a proven X's and O's coach or a talented recruiter? Does he hire to fill a demographic or does he concentrate on finding someone with ties to the state and/or program?
And more prevalent, is the USC job desired among the country's coaches? Is it possible to build a contender, more than 35 years after the high mark of the program?
Odom leaves the Gamecocks with a funny reputation. There is no question he was excellent among the public and media and strived to repair the long-ago burned bridges between the current program and its glorious past.
The problem was, he was never hired to be a nice guy or an ambassador. If Odom had kicked a few chairs or thumbed his nose at the memories of the program's past stars, it wouldn't have been good -- except if he was winning. Steady improvement within the program, NCAA tournament berths and conference championships overcome a lot of bad PR.
The wins weren't easy to come by for several reasons. One, Odom, as he did at Wake Forest, many times recruited projects instead of players. Many of them -- think Carlos Powell, Tarence Kinsey, Tré Kelley, Brandon Wallace -- became solid players. Most of them -- Antoine Tisby, Ousmane Konate, Keving Palacios, Dwayne Day -- never lived up to their potential.
Odom has previously admitted that when he went to the quick-fix solution, recruiting from junior colleges, it was a bad mistake. But he also said after finishing his home schedule two weeks ago that recruiting to USC for basketball is a hard sell.
And losing seasons are only part of the reason why.
"We are the northern and most eastern school away from the center of the SEC -- Birmingham, heading toward ACC basketball," Odom said. "That is a factor. It's not a factor in football because SEC football is generally considered to be better than ACC football.
"I don't know that ACC basketball, and I've been in both leagues, is better than SEC basketball, but the perception is."
Odom pointed out that in this age of "SportsCenter," potential recruits believe what they see on TV. During basketball season, a teenager in South Carolina can flip on the TV and odds are he's going to see a Saturday afternoon ACC game, not Arkansas and LSU tussling live from Baton Rouge.
The ACC is considered by most to be the top basketball league in the country and Odom said recruits have no choice but to hear it. If the recruit hails from South Carolina and has been saturated in ACC hoops his whole life, he obviously knows there's one ACC school in-state and five more within three or four hours.
"That's something that needs to be addressed to the SEC office," Odom said. "They need to give South Carolina some help. Once you get past Atlanta, going west, the ACC is no factor. But we're where we are. There needs to be more concern."
What was missing
Odom proved, with more than 40 years in the game, he could coach basketball. He did it his own way, which worked at Wake Forest but didn't work in Columbia.
Critics pointed at the non-success and mentioned maybe Odom wasn't young and intense enough to coach at USC. Odom was hired at age 58.
The search seems to be targeting young candidates, at least among the early speculation. It's been reported that Oklahoma's Jeff Capel (33) and USC have a mutual interest in each other and Virginia Commonwealth's Anthony Grant (41) and former Winthrop head man Gregg Marshall (45) have also been rumored as candidates.
To find a record of success when hiring a young coach, Hyman just has to look south to Gainesville, Fla. Florida coach Billy Donovan was just past his 30th birthday when the Gators called him to take over. Twelve years later, the program has built itself into a power and has won the past two national championships.
Part of that success was Donovan's ability to get on the floor and practice with his players in his first few years. That kind of hands-on approach, showing kids how he wanted the system run, put Florida in the national championship game just four years after he was hired.
"Coach Odom and his staff have done a fairly good job while they've been here, but I think everybody's ready for them to take that next notch up," said BJ McKie when he returned to Columbia for his part of the season's centennial celebration. "And I think they have a young group, they're talented. I think with some fresh faces in there, this program could take off."
McKie was part of the program's only SEC championship in 1997 under coach Eddie Fogler, who was hired in his mid-40s and had a fiery personality. That season and the next was the last time the Gamecocks were a force in the SEC.
Odom was known for getting a lot out of his team when it came to the SEC tournament, but his regular seasons were a combined 41-71.
The glory years
"Expectations can be a tough thing and maybe the teams that we played on at South Carolina created some expectations that, even after the '70s and the '80s and the '90s and in the current generation, one could have a basketball program that is constantly in the top five or top 10," said perhaps the program's finest player, John Roche, when he returned to Columbia this season. "I think as you can see, only a very few universities are able to do that."
That's true. The criticism of every coach that followed Frank McGuire was they couldn't repeat what McGuire did, however unreasonable that may seem.
The fans want a return to those days from 1968-71, when McGuire's boys strutted around Columbia as the kings of the campus and the princes of college basketball. They played hard on the court and even harder off it, bringing a swagger born on the playgrounds of New York and turning the Gamecocks into perennial contenders.
Roche was the leading man, two-time ACC Player of the Year and perhaps the most revered Gamecock athlete ever. The mystique of him, founded after his career was over and he stayed away from Columbia, put him on a pedestal forever.
Odom was instrumental in getting Roche reconnected with the program and while Roche was in town, he spoke of how amazed he was at his still-on-top status within the program's lore, and the respect he has for Odom.
He also spoke of the confidence he and his teammates showcased and why it's missing at USC. Knowing he and his fellow players would win a game was a lot more helpful than hoping they could win.
"I certainly think you need confidence, that's for sure," Roche said. "Maybe not always need the kind of confidence the way we would sometimes display it. But confidence comes from being successful. We started to win some games and that improved our confidence and we knew we had a lot of talent in the program at the time."
Confidence comes from winning, which may have been the biggest obstacle for Odom to overcome. USC won at least 20 games in four of Odom's seven seasons, but in three of them, the Gamecocks hit or passed the plateau because of deep NIT runs. During the regular season, the biggest win streak of his stay was eight games, during the NCAA tournament year of 2003-04.
On the other hand, USC twice had losing streaks of four and five games from 2004-07. During the heyday, USC's longest losing streak was two games.
"Our team played at the university at a very unique and special time, when interest was very high," Roche said. "We had some very fine teams. That was a period of time when coach McGuire was able to recruit some outstanding talent in a short period of time. The next coach will find that challenging."
"It feeds on itself," Odom said. "The reverse is also true. Certainly at a place like South Carolina, you want to try and win as many of those close games as you possibly can. History has not been kind to us."
Whoever gets the job is walking into a stocked cupboard. The Gamecocks only lose Day, an underachieving senior, and return the starting five they finished the season with and their top five scorers. Guard Devan Downey was a consensus first-team All-SEC selection and has two years remaining while forward Mike Holmes made the all-freshman team with a second-half surge.
The question is if Hyman can find a coach who can combine the elements he has on the team with his coaching style to produce an immediate winner, taking advantage of the roster; if there's a coach who is young, intense, a great recruiter and a great game-planner; and if there's a high-profile coach who would want to come to USC. With a two-month head start to research candidates, it's a good bet Hyman has a list of targets and he'll begin picking up the phone as soon as the targets' seasons are over.
Odom will stick around until the new coach is hired and then head to his North Carolina beach house, perhaps waiting for a call from East Carolina or biding his time until he wants to return to the game in some capacity. He leaves as USC's third-winningest coach but also with the memory of boos from his own fans during the last season.
That seemed to define the program -- will there ever be a time when the Gamecocks' rabid fan base forgets the moments of glory because the current product is re-living it?
"With a new coach coming, there'll be a little bit of a push," Odom said. "More excitement, the team will be a year older. I think the enthusiasm will return, I do."