SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Jerry Waters, the winningest men’s basketball coach in USC Upstate history who led the Spartans to the NAIA National Championship in 1982, died Tuesday, Dec. 1. He was 76. Below is a feature on Coach Waters that was set to be included in the next issue of the UP Magazine.
The Lasting Legacy of Coach Jerry Waters
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.
The teams that Waters 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 an 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 that not only best fit their grand designs, but express their belief in the system 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 says. “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.”
For his second season, Waters added another USC Upstate Hall of Famer, Odell Cleveland, to his roster. Cleveland was previously part of a high school team that won a state championship under Waters’ tutelage.
“When I graduated from Lake City Community College, my grandfather, who raised me, and I decided that Upstate would be the best place for me,” Cleveland says. “We had a couple other options, but my grandfather believed that Coach Waters was probably the best person for me at that time.”
Heading into Waters’ second year, Holland says the team’s mindset wasn’t necessarily to go in and win the national championship. Rather, just go farther 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.”
Some sports writers in the state even went so far as to say the team was better than those at much larger schools, including the University of South Carolina and Clemson.
“Of course, we never played, so you never know. But, at the same time, we felt like we had a pretty good team,” Cleveland says.
“We had a very good and confident team,” Holland says. “There were very few games we played where we didn’t believe we were going to win before the game started.”
Those feelings changed as the team headed to Kansas City for the second consecutive year to face teams they had never played before. The mantra the team lived by that season was “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.”
Holland explains that the phrase grew stronger as the season progressed, and became a battle cry at the national tournament as the Rifles found themselves in the championship facing an undefeated, nationally ranked Biola team.
“We had a seven- or eight-point lead coming down the stretch and it was free throw time,” Holland says. “They were fouling us, they were pressing us and we couldn’t turn it over, we had to get rebounds.”
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.
“We had a lot of success at Pinewood doing what I had done throughout the rest of my coaching career, which was getting the best players and putting them in the best position they were suited for and running a lot of the same plays I ran at the college level,” Waters says. “Over the seven years I was there, we won three state championships. Nobody would have ever thought that would have happened.”
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. When it came to basketball and the X’s and O’s, he was just 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.
Cleveland says the lessons he learned from Waters have stayed with him all his life. “When the game was on the line, Jerry Waters didn’t flinch,” Cleveland says. “People ask me all the time how I deal with so many stressful situations and it’s like, OK, what do you do with three seconds on the clock? That’s the difference between winning and losing a state championship.”
Waters was inducted into the USC Upstate Hall of Fame in 2000. During the past few years, he authored the book “Born to be a Coach.” The book was co-authored by Cleveland, who also 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 says. “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.”