Winthrop men’s basketball will raise another NCAA Tournament banner Friday night before the 2017-18 season opener.
The Eagles have played in 10 NCAA Big Dances and the program is easily the historic best in the Big South Conference. Ten men will be at the Coliseum Friday celebrating the 40th anniversary of the school’s first men’s basketball team that launched it all.
The Eagles didn’t actually play until the 1978-79 season. But the team was formed the year prior around a nucleus of transfers from Newberry College. None of them knew that their coach Nield Gordon had interviewed with Winthrop during the winter of 1976, accepting the job as the former all-female school’s athletic director and first men’s basketball coach.
Gordon was leaving behind a Newberry team that had just gone 36-1, losing an upset in the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament in Kansas. Newberry had 11 of 12 players returning and was eying a national championship. But when Gordon called sophomore Dave Hampton to talk, it wasn’t about that. It was about Winthrop.
Hampton, Rick Reise, Bennie Bennett and Ronnie and Donnie Creamer, 6-foot-11 twins, followed their coach, leaving Newberry for Winthrop. Hampton signed the first Winthrop men’s basketball scholarship.
It wasn’t a popular move at Newberry, nor at Winthrop.
The new men on campus met mixed reactions from a sea of female classmates. Winthrop’s transition to a co-ed school was in its infancy and not everyone was thrilled about the change in dynamics. But Gordon credited his players for making integrative efforts, supporting the women’s basketball team at their games and gamley taking dance classes. Picture the Creamer twins in leotards.
The first year of the team was a probationary year so there was no competitive schedule. Winthrop played some preseason scrimmages but its main action came from the Rock Hill city men’s league. Gordon split the Eagles’ 15 players split into two teams and they met in the finals. The team was reunited for the South Carolina state recreational tournament, which Winthrop also won.
When the team began playing competitive games the following year, the 1978-79 season, it was at Sullivan Middle School’s cozy gym. Gordon’s goal was to reach the NCAA Division I level, but the Eagles started in NAIA. Bennett scored the program’s first basket in its season-opener at Wingate. And there was a very tense return to Newberry, during which some of the school’s football players stepped on the court to fight Winthrop’s players.
The Eagles went 25-10 that first year, a promising start for a program that wouldn’t experience sustained success for another 20 years. But the Coliseum was built five years later and Winthrop stepped up to NCAA basketball in Gordon’s ninth year, 1985.
It will be in the Coliseum’s spacious environs that Winthrop will recognize its first team on Friday during the Southern Illinois season-opener.
The team is losing members. Rock Hill native and post player Tim Raxter passed away just last month and Bennett was tragically killed in a car crash in 2016. Gordon is 87 and has had multiple hip and knee surgeries. That makes these gatherings even more important for the remaining players.
The group has its own plans of course, thanks to Hampton, who has long been the team’s social hub.
The group will eat and drink at Burgers & Barley, which used to be known as “Daddy’s Money” and was the their hang-out 40 years ago.
“Gotta’ eat the Shrimp Boat,” Hampton said. “That’s on our list before we go back.”