COLUMBIA, S.C. — There is a song being played on local radio stations and it is growing in popularity. It is a heroic tale of a man coming down from the mountains to lead a people out of darkness.
Or, in this case, a university.
The song is "Sparky Rock" and the subject is Sparky Woods, new football coach at the University of South Carolina.
"Down from the mountains in the Appalachian land, "Came a young coach with the future in his hand. " . . . To lead the fighting Gamecocks on to solid ground."
A heavy burden for anyone, but considering where this school has been, solid ground is long way off.
King Dixon II, that wonderfully-named athletic director, is not the sort to let pointed questions break his rhetorical stride. Dixon attacks the subject head-on.
"Traditionally, South Carolina has been involved with controversy, regrettably," Dixon said.
Just as regrettably for South Carolina, the controversy never seems far removed. It has been almost a year since former player Tommy Chaikin sold his story to Sports Illustrated for $4,500, telling of widespread steroid use among the football players at South Carolina, especially from the years 1984-87.
Chaikin estimated that more than 50% of the team had used the muscle-building drugs, with the knowledge of the coaching staff. He also alleged that more than a third of the team had used cocaine.
The article led to a grand jury investigation, which eventually led to the sentencing earlier this month of three former South Carolina coaches who were found guilty of having used and distributed steroids in the school's athletic department. Several Gamecock players were given immunity in return for their testimony.
Although steroid use might not have made the Gamecocks unique in college football, Chaikin's allegations certainly made the team infamous. Students from opposing schools chanted, "Steroids! Steroids!" in the stands at South Carolina games. The school was thoroughly embarrassed.
That was not the extent of the trouble, however.
Last season, players were arrested for possession of narcotics, were involved in campus fights and suffered academic difficulties.
On the field, circumstances were not much better. The Gamecocks started well, going 6-0 and climbing to eighth in the national rankings, but lost three of their last five games. Their season ended with a 34-10 defeat by Indiana in the Liberty Bowl.
The cruelest blow, however, fell Feb. 5, when Coach Joe Morrison died of a heart attack at 51, after having just played racquetball. Morrison, a popular coach, had been known as the Man in Black and Black Magic, after his habit of wearing black clothes on the sidelines during games.
Suddenly, Dixon, who had been on the job less than three months, had to deal with that tragedy and hire a new coach. He chose Woods, from tiny Appalachian State in Boone, N.C.
Much is expected of Woods, 35. Foremost among his mandates is to scrub clean the image of the program he inherited. Already on the job six months, Woods knows the difficulty in this.
"We didn't develop this reputation overnight," Woods said. "We are not going to get rid of it overnight."
Woods has begun on an upbeat note. The Gamecocks won their season opener at home against Duke, 27-21, in a game dedicated to Morrison's memory, then came back last Saturday and tied Virginia Tech on a late field goal. But Woods is in a delicate position: How much of Morrison's tradition should he preserve, and what should he exorcise.
Reporters regularly stream through Columbia, seeking to learn how the team and school have coped with their renegade image. The questions have never stopped, but few involved in the athletic program today were around during the height of the scandal.
"Eighty-five percent of these guys weren't even here then," said Gamecock quarterback Todd Ellis, who was here during the Chaikin episode. "I feel sorry for them, always having to answer for people before them."
Part of that can be explained by personnel turnover. South Carolina has had three athletic directors in 12 months. Woods brought seven coaches with him from Appalachian State and the athletic department has a new look from head to toe.
Woods has even changed the uniforms. Morrison had 10 to 12 uniform combinations of the school colors, garnet and black.
Woods has simplified things, a constant theme of his. Gone are the seven stripes on the helmets. Gone are the stripes on the pants. Home jerseys will be garnet with white, and road uniforms will be all white. Everyone will wear black shoes. He has taken both the "Gamecocks" off the front of the jersey and the player name off the back.
"We are a team first," he said.
Woods said his most difficult challenge with the team has not been on the field, where there exists a common language, but off the field, where common ground is hard to find.
"I'm more concerned about keeping trouble away from my players than I am my players getting in trouble," Woods said. "I'm interested in the company the players keep."