By Drew Daniels Edited by Nick McCormac Feb. 18, 2009
When new South Carolina men's basketball coach Darrin Horn wanted to give students an identity, he asked for a few good soldiers.
He got the "Garnet Army."
And student attendance has been on the rise at USC home basketball games ever since.
Streaking down the open court, guard Zam Fredrick catches the precision pass from forward Mike Holmes, takes two steps and scores at the buzzer. A sea of students wearing garnet, black and white camouflage screams in celebration.
Before the season began, Horn talked with USC sports marketing director Eric Nichols about how to increase student involvement at games.
"Coach really wanted to connect with students to give them an identity and something to get excited about," Nichols said.
In November, Nichols, student body President Andrew Gaeckle and some USC students worked on what to name the student section. Out of about 200 suggestions, they picked Garnet Army, partly because of nearby Fort Jackson, one of the Army's biggest basic training bases.
"Our student fans are vital to the atmosphere in our arena. We want them out and we want them loud," Horn said.
Eighteen-thousand screaming fans stand as one as music blares over the announcer's voice. Guard Devan Downey emerges from the locker room to thunderous applause as jumping students wildly wave Gamecock towels and flashing red lights.
Ads in the campus newspaper, The Daily Gamecock, announced the Garnet Army. It was introduced at a pep rally at the Colonial Life Arena before the Jan. 21 game against Florida. The first 750 students got free T-shirts with the garnet, black and white camouflage.
Sophomore Dillon Smith, recently dubbed "general" by game announcer and TV anchor Curtis Wilson, said the Garnet Army's sense of unity and renewed excitement helps make the arena intimidating for SEC teams and other opponents.
"From that first Florida game when it was announced, it was just crazy," Smith said. "Everyone looked the same, everyone was there two hours before the game and everyone felt like they were a part of something."
A little more than 900 of the 3,000 available student seats were filled for the Jan. 10 game against Auburn. But attendance more than doubled to 2,906 students at the next home game, the one against Florida and the army's opening night. Student attendance has stayed above 2,500 at each game since, including a nearly sold-out game against Georgia.
And since the Garnet Army's introduction, the basketball team has remained undefeated at home.
Forward Evka Baniulis catches the pass with a wide-open look at the basket. As he rises to take a three-point shot, so do 2,900 students' arms as they exclaim, "Three!"
Marvin Hobson, who has attended games for six years, can't remember the last time he was so excited to see the Gamecocks play.
"When the Garnet Army starts cheering, getting loud and hollering, it makes me want to get loud and join them," Hobson said.
Smith and his two roommates, also "generals," said they enjoy leading cheers and hope they can be examples for how enthusiastic the students should be.
"We just took the charge so others would follow," Smith said. "People have to realize that players do feed off the drive of the student section, so when we're pumped they are going to be pumped, and when we're down they are going to be down or most likely struggling," he said.
Baniulis said the cheers of his fellow students really do provide a boost.
"When we get down, to see them over there in the shirts and cheering, it really helps," he said.
The Garnet Army rushes to the court to greet center Sam Muldrow as he high-fives as many people as he can after the win against Georgia. Players and students together raise their right hand as the alma mater echoes through the arena.