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Furman, Wofford and the making of a modern rivalry

Furman and Wofford have emerged as two of the most consistent programs in the Southern Conference and write their next chapter Saturday in Greenville

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 13 Furman at Wofford
Furman and Wofford are jockeying for position in the SoCon. They enter Saturday’s showdown separated by two games in the standings.
Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Step foot into any greasy-spoon, South Carolina diner and you’ll find patrons of the establishment donning one of the state’s two iconic logos: Clemson’s prominent white paw print or South Carolina’s celebrated fighting Gamecock.

It may not be as widely known that the Palmetto State is home to what is branded as the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry,” which has nothing to do with the Gamecocks or the Tigers. Separated by fewer than 30 miles of I-85 interstate, there is no love lost between the Wofford Terriers and Furman Paladins.

Both schools have enjoyed success on the gridiron, which culminated in some epic fall clashes. While it’s still a slugfest when these two schools meet on the football field, the Deep South’s oldest rivalry has developed into quite a showdown in hoops. The Southern Conference has enjoyed tremendous growth in basketball over the last decade, and these two programs have been catalysts for this revival.

However, prior to the 2010’s, these two programs were mere basketball afterthoughts.

Decades of Despair

Misery. Heartbreak. Hopelessness. These are just a few words that could be used to characterize the experiences shared on the court by these two programs spanning the three decades from 1980-2010. While the schools share some similarities as private, liberal arts, South Carolina institutions, they have entirely different stories pertaining to their history on the hardwood.

Wofford didn’t make the jump to Division I athletics until 1995 as an Independent. In 1997, the Terriers found a permanent home in the Southern Conference. As to be expected, Wofford had to persevere through some growing pains. Richard Johnson, who is now the school’s athletic director, was the head coach tasked with leading Wofford through their transition to D1. Under Johnson’s guidance, the Terriers were stuck in futility, failing to notch as much as a winning season.

The history of Furman basketball is both lengthier and more erratic in comparison to their Palmetto State foes.

Living in a day-and-age where nostalgia for previous decades is at an all-time high, no one relates harder to this nostalgia than Furman basketball fans. Furman hoops reached a level of success in the 70’s that it hasn’t been able to replicate since. After legendary coach Joe Williams arrived in 1970, the Paladins made the NCAA Tournament five times in eight seasons. The pinnacle was in 1974, when the Paladins made a run to the Sweet 16.

The Paladins made the NCAA Tournament again in 1980 but have not been to the Big Dance since. While the bulk of the conference enjoyed significant growth throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Furman got left behind. Since 1980, it has only appeared in the Southern Conference championship game twice (2002 and 2015).

Upon Wofford’s arrival to the conference in 1997, these two programs were resigned to being Southern Conference punching bags for the better part of a decade.

Detail. Toughness. Screening.

Sometimes, all it takes for a program’s trajectory to change is to hit on one head coaching hire. Wofford basketball is a testament to this claim.

Wofford’s fortunes took a drastic turn at the conclusion of Johnson’s tenure in 2002, when the Terriers gave Johnson’s protege, Mike Young, the arduous task of righting the ship in Spartanburg. Some fans perhaps questioned the calculus behind the decision to anoint an assistant that was a part of Johnson’s fruitless regime.

But looking back on the decision nearly two decades later, the appointment of Young was arguably the best decision ever made by Wofford’s athletic department. Young’s tenure required early patience, but once the culture was established, Terrier hoops experienced an ascent beyond the wildest dreams of even their most loyal supporters.

The first third of Young’s tenure at Wofford was characterized by more mediocrity. In his first six seasons, the Terriers still couldn’t get over .500. Despite some more calls for change, Wofford stayed the course with Young.

It took time, but Wofford finally scored a winning season in 2009, then the Terriers took a monumental step forward in 2010. In a season that was a precursor for a brilliant run, the Terriers rode a 13-game winning streak to their first ever SoCon Championship and NCAA Tournament berth.

Young’s program continued to soar to new heights, securing four more trips to the Big Dance over the next 10 years. However, the crown jewel of Young’s run at Wofford was 2019. The Terriers enjoyed a 30-win season, highlighted by a rout of Seton Hall in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Forget being one of the nation’s best mid-majors, Wofford’s 2019 squad was one of the best teams in all of college basketball. Wofford didn’t lose a single conference game, finishing the gauntlet of SoCon play with a flawless 18-0 mark.

The team clearly had a surplus of talented players, but the group was spearheaded by Fletcher Magee. Magee left Spartanburg with a long list of accolades, including the NCAA D-1 record for 3-pointers.

Magee is currently playing professionally in Montenegro. He described the keys to Young’s success as “detail, toughness, and screening.”

These pillars are the foundation for a brand of basketball that makes life miserable for the opposition. While today’s game loves to glorify isolation and independent shot-creation, Young’s brand gives more glory to those who create for others. Success in Spartanburg wasn’t dependent on high-flying athletes, rather specific players that could conform to the program’s unique identity.

“[Young is] just such a smart coach in the way that he knows how to utilize the players that he has,” Magee said. “He puts them in the spots that are going to help them and help the team the most. With coach Young, he has his way of playing … but at the end of the day he tailors everything to the players.”

Following 2019’s dream season, Young was named the head coach at Virginia Tech. His disciple, Jay McAuley, was handed the keys in Spartanburg. While the program is still working towards getting back to the NCAA Tournament, McAuley’s Terriers remain consistently competitive in a loaded SoCon.

Flipping the Script

While Wofford kickstarted their rise to national prominence, the Paladins were still stuck in purgatory. Current head coach Bob Richey certainly didn’t sugarcoat things, admitting the program was in less-than-ideal shape when he first arrived in Greenville as an assistant coach in 2011.

Richey has done a prodigious job at turning Furman into one of the SoCon’s most consistent programs, but he also almost wasn’t here to enjoy any of this. Before becoming the program’s head coach, Richey was an assistant at Furman under Jeff Jackson and then Niko Medved.

The latter should be a name very familiar to college basketball junkies. In 2013, Medved was tabbed as Furman’s next head coach after Jackson was fired. Such is the nature of the beast of the coaching carousel, Richey, then just 29-years-old, assumed he would be collateral damage as most new coaches bring in their own assistants. But Medved was different, and Furman basketball is now in a better place because of it.

Similar to Wofford, Furman’s fortunes took a turn when they hit on a coaching hire. Medved got Furman rolling, and by his fourth year, the team was one of the SoCon’s best. Medved parlayed his quick turnaround into the job at Drake, and he now leads a Colorado State program that’s in position to make the NCAA Tournament. After Medved left Furman, Richey was named the replacement.

Richey said he is indebted to Medved for providing him the opportunity to remain on staff in 2013. Five years into Richey’s tenure, Paladin fans owe these same sentiments to Medved. Not even 40 years old yet, Richey boasts a conference winning percentage of over .700 and has developed a firm loyalty to the program that he’s played such a crucial role in building.

“The two things I learned the most from Niko, one is the defensive schemes that we use … the second thing is true culture,” Richie said. “What he taught me is that this [culture] really matters, but you have to get to an authentic version of it.”

Five winning seasons later, it is as clear as ever that Richey has found what an authentic culture looks like for Furman basketball.

Richey added that he’s been able to develop a rare degree of continuity at Furman by targeting high potential individuals, or what he refers to as “HPIs,” on the recruiting trail. According to Richey, the ideal candidate for Furman basketball arrives on campus with a “hunger, humility and a resolve.”

In a society obsessed with instant gratification, Richey presents an old-school personality that sees value in the grind. Richey doesn’t obsess over the immediate impact a player will have, rather what the player can become.

“I think college basketball is still about impact,” he said. “It’s still about development. You still have to make sure you coach this year’s team at the same time that you coach next year’s team.”

All of the vital qualities of Richey’s ideal model of program construction are evident in Furman’s current on-court product. The Paladins have an 18-10 record and a 10-5 mark in SoCon play, good for second in the conference. This is a veteran-led group highlighted by a senior trio of Mike Bothwell, Jalen Slawson and Alex Hunter. Furman’s senior core is a perfect manifestation of everything Richey and his program try to sell on the recruiting trail.

All three players have stuck around and are now the backbone of a roster that is one of the SoCon’s best. In addition to this cast of seniors, the team also has a group of young talent developing in Marcus Foster, Joe Anderson, Garrett Hien and JP Pegues. This crop of youth ensures Furman will remain in a strong position in the coming years.

While Furman is undeniably in a great spot right now, there’s still an elephant in the room. The program remains in a NCAA Tournament drought that has now lasted over four decades. While Richey obviously wants to achieve that breakthrough worse than anyone, he also refuses to let it define where the program is today.

“Everybody likes to talk about the burden, but negativity sells,” he said. “It’s going to happen .. it’s one of those situations, you have to stay in the moment. The only thing that matters is what this team does in Asheville. One team soon is going to have the courage to go up there and get it done.”

When you combine Richey’s steadfast confidence in the culture he’s built with his program’s keen system of player development, Furman’s return to the Big Dance seems like a matter of when, not if.

Saturday’s Showdown

While there is no love lost for these two teams when they meet on the court, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry still finds ways to represent everything that’s beautiful about college athletics. Wofford’s McAuley shared a bench with Richey at Furman under Medved, and Richey continuously affirmed that the family ties remain important beyond the confines of the rivalry.

The teams will meet Saturday at noon ET in Bon Secours Wellness Arena in downtown Greenville, S.C. Furman trounced Wofford 75-50 in Spartanburg last month, so the Paladins enter Saturday as considerable favorites. Both teams remain in favorable standing in SoCon play on the eve of the conference tournament, and a win on Saturday could serve as a significant momentum boost for either.