Jerry Waters arrived at USC Spartanburg in 1980 to take the reins of a fledgling men’s basketball program. By the time he left in 1997, the small-town Georgia native had established the program as a regional powerhouse and cemented his status as a coaching legend at the university and beyond.
Waters, who died in December, was the winningest men’s basketball coach in university history. The teams he led during his tenure at Upstate won an NAIA National Championship in 1982, three NAIA District Six Championships and two Peach Belt Athletic Conference Championships. From 1989 through 1993, the program carried on a 50-game winning streak.
At Upstate, Waters compiled an overall record of 364-133 (.732) and was named the NCAA Division II Coach of the Year in 1991. During his 47-year career, which included 25 years at the high school level and 22 years at the collegiate level, Waters accumulated a 859-299 (.742) record.
"When Coach Waters came in, he really instilled a great deal of discipline,” says James Holland, ’82, a USC Upstate Hall of Famer and a key member of the 1982 National Championship squad, who now serves as a senior associate commissioner for the Big South Conference.
“You don't understand what's going on at the time,” Holland says. “You just think this guy is being a tough guy and a mean guy, but really, he is instilling discipline and direction for the team and pushing everyone to be their best. I give Coach Waters a great deal of credit for his leadership with the direction of the program at the time."
The road to success
Sports buffs know that victories typically do not happen immediately for new coaches, especially at the collegiate level. It takes time for their ideas and methods to take root. It takes a few recruiting cycles for coaches to acquire the players who not only best fit their vision, but who demonstrate a commitment to it by being stellar on and off the court.
Success came almost immediately for Waters at USC Spartanburg. During his first season, he led the team to the NAIA National Tournament.
“I always wanted to climb the ladder, as any young coach would,” Waters recalled in a 2020 interview with USC Upstate Athletics. “When the opportunity
for the USC Spartanburg job came, it was a chance for me to be at a bigger school. I took that job and everything went well from there.”
While the accomplishment of his inaugural season might have been satisfactory for some coaches, Holland said it wasn’t enough for Waters.
"Any time you're competing on a team, you always want your next year to be better than the previous season," Holland says. "Going into Coach Waters' second year, there was a great deal of focus on the fact that we didn't accomplish the ultimate goal the year before. It would have been easier to just say we went to the national tournament his first year, pat yourself on the back and get complacent. But Coach Waters made us feel like there was a lot of unfinished business out there."
Holland says the team’s mindset wasn't necessarily to go in and win the national championship. Rather, just go further than the previous year.
"I can't speak for everyone on the team,” Holland says. “But for me, coming back after my junior year where we won our first game and lost our second game at nationals, it was OK if we could win two games. That would have been an improvement from the previous season.” Cleveland notes the buzz surrounding the team that year.
"You had to show up to the games early to get a seat,” he says. “The gym was packed and they were turning people away … We were the junkyard underdogs from Spartanburg and that's just kind of how we played. We weren't the fanciest team out there, but we played hard and won and the community rallied around us."
As the team headed to Kansas City for the second consecutive year to face teams they had never played before, they frequently repeated their season mantra: "No Ifs."
"Odell credits me with that saying, but I never really thought about it, because at the time I was just living it," Holland says. "It was very simple. Toward the end of the game, no matter what the situation was, we would come together and I would say, 'Hey fellas, no ifs.’ Basically, I meant exactly that. When the game was over with, we didn't want to go back in the locker room and talk about what we coulda, woulda, shoulda done to win the game.”
By the time the team reached the tournament championship, facing an undefeated, nationally ranked Biola team, the phrase had become a battle cry.
Legends and legacies
Holland is credited with the final blow that secured the championship for his side. He drew a key foul on a layup and made his free throw.
"I think our mental toughness, along with Coach Waters' coaching ability, the team's commitment, and James Holland's leadership is what allowed us to win the national championship," says Cleveland. "We may not have been the best team ability-wise, but we had the biggest hearts. We weren't afraid, we believed in each other and played for each other and I think that made all the difference."
In 1997, Waters left USC Spartanburg to become the assistant coach at the University of Georgia.
After UGA, Waters joined MacIntosh Academy in Georgia, where he served as a middle school guidance counselor, athletic director and golf coach for one year before taking over the boys’ basketball program at Pinewood Christian Academy.
Waters returned to the Palmetto State to coach at Chapman High School. His teams made the state playoffs three out of his four years in charge. He retired from coaching in 2012.
“The reason Coach Waters was so successful in every transition is the fact that he wanted people who would win,” Cleveland says. “He wanted to put the best team forward because above everything else, Coach Waters wanted to win. That's how I think he was able to transition from a USC Upstate to a University of Georgia to a high school, because he was brilliant."
"If you look at his history, Coach Waters won at every level everywhere he went, and that's not just happenstance. There's something a person has in them that they can create in others – pushing people to get outside their comfort zone just enough without pushing them away or breaking them," Holland says. Waters was inducted into the USC Upstate Hall of Fame in 2000. He also co-authored the book “Born to be a Coach” with Cleveland, who directed and produced a video with the same title. "As I think about the players that played for me over the years at every level, I always think about them as people,” Waters told USC Upstate. “I want to know something about their background because all of them are different and I always want to know as much as I can about them. I always want players who want to give of themselves and be a part of something bigger than themselves."