Guest Post: The Death of Joe Morrison, 28 Years Later

The Sumter Item - February 6, 1989
The Sumter Item – February 6, 1989

Long-time friend of TRC and former Garnet and Black Attack contributor @FeatherdWarrior reflects on the anniversary of the death of former Gamecock head coach Joe Morrison.  

Today marks the 28th anniversary of the death of Joe Morrison, probably the Gamecocks’ most successful football coach until the advent of Steve Spurrier nearly two decades later. Morrison’s death came as a shock to everyone and led to the eventual hiring of Sparky Woods as head coach – another tragedy, depending on whom you ask.

Not too long ago I came into possession of a copy of The Sumter Item from the day after Morrison passed away. The paper contains the AP’s account of Morrison’s death as well as his career. Most of what Gamecocks fans remember about Joe Morrison begins and ends with the 1984 “Black Magic” season, but it’s interesting to get a sense of atmosphere surrounding USC’s football program at the time. It’s also interesting to see what kinds of stories were in the news back then. I’ve transcribed the article about Morrison’s death below the line, and I’ve also included some of the other headlines from that day immediately below. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

Dooley won’t run for governor – “Vince Dooley’s run for governor is over, less than two months after he announced retirement as the winningest coach in the history of the football-proud University of Georgia.”

Father advises Sanders to leave – “If Barry Sanders’ father has his way, the Heisman Trophy winner won’t return to Oklahoma State for his senior season.”

Kentucky board supports investigation results – “Members of the University of Kentucky board of trustees who attended a briefing on the school’s response to 18 NCAA allegations against the men’s basketball program said they supported the results of a 10-month independent investigation.”

Lakers are back, thanks to Jabbar – “The Los Angeles Lakers are back in sync, largely due to the improved play of Kareem Abdul Jabbar.”

Soviets out of Afghanistan; guerrillas close in on Kabul – “The last Red Army convoys abandoned their garrisons and headed north for home today, Soviet officials said, bringing to an end a nine-year adventure that cost more than 13,000 Soviet lives.

Bush heads for Canada this week – “Canadians looking for assurance that their country won’t be ignored by Washington now that a free trade agreement between the two countries is in place should be cheered by President Bush’s visit to Ottawa this week.”

Heart Attack Claims USC’s Morrison

COLUMBIA (AP) – South Carolina coach Joe Morrison, who brought the Gamecocks into the national spotlight with success on the football field and controversy off it, dies of a heart attack after playing racquetball with three friends. He was 51.

Morrison had been playing racquetball at Williams-Brice Stadium for about a half-hour with defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, attorney Edward “Punky” Holler and businessman Ken Wheat before he suffered what Providence Hospital spokeswoman Dawn Catalano called a “massive heart attack.”

Morrison, who had a history of heart problems, was taken to Providence, arriving at 8:44 p.m. alive but unconscious. He was pronounced dead at 9:04 p.m.

Morrison was not feeling any pain but did have a “small, funny sensation near his elbow” after playing racquetball, Athletic Director King Dixon said. But when the players shook hands they noticed Morrison’s hands were “awfully cold,” Dixon said.

Dunn called trainer Terry Lewis, who in turn contacted the team doctor, who checked Morrison’s pulse and heartbeat, Dixon said.

“I think they were well within the range when the doctor got there. But they prevailed upon Joe to spend the night in the hospital to have a complete check, which Joe agreed to,” Dixon Said.

First, however, Morrison decided to take a shower. But during the shower, he collapsed. He was found there by one or more of his playing partners, who began performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the coach, Catalano said.

Morrison, a smoker, underwent a surgical procedures for removal of a blockage in a coronary artery in March 1985.

Dixon said Morrison, who had been on the road recruiting almost constantly since the season ended, had been sick about a week ago with a flu or virus that had left him “feeling awfully weak.”

“Coach Joe Lee Dunn said he had never seen Joe feel so badly in his life physically,” Dixon said.

Morrison, who played in the NFL for the New York Giants from 1959-72 as a running back and receiver, came to South Carolina after coaching stints at both Tennessee-Chattanooga and New Mexico. Morrison’s career record was 101-72-7 over 16 seasons.

He was 39-28-2 in six seasons at South Carolina, including 8-4 in 198, when he took the Gamecocks to the Liberty Bowl, where they lost to Indiana 34-10. South Carolina has never won a bowl game in eight tries.

The season was a controversial one, however. The Gamecocks faltered near the end, losing four of their last six games. That came on the heels of allegations of steroid use among football players by former Gamecock defensive lineman Tommy Chaikin.

In a story in Sports Illustrated, Chaikin, who played at South Carolina from 1983-87, said he and other players used steroids and about half of the 1986 team used the muscle-building drugs. Chaikin also said some players used drugs such as cocaine and LSD.

Morrison he had heard rumors some players might have been using steroids but the allegations were never substantiated.

The allegations by Chaikin have prompted a grand jury investigation that is expected to continue when jurors reconvene later this month.

University President James Holderman said he didn’t think Morrison was under any added pressure this year.

“I don’t think he was under any more stress than any football coach was under,” Holderman said.

Dixon agreed.

“I did not detect any more stress on Joe this year,” Dixon said.

Morrison’s private life was the focus of intense scrutiny two years ago when it was learned he has had a child by a woman he began seeing while he was at New Mexico. The woman, Barbara J. Button, moved to South Carolina after Morrison became coach of the Gamecocks.

Morrison acknowledged he was the father of Button’s daughter, Lisa Nicole Morrison, who was born June 12, 1982 in Albuquerque, N.M.

Despite the controversies, Morrison was known as a winner as a coach and a player. Morrison’s best year at South Carolina was in 1984 when he was named the 1984 Walter Camp national Coach of the Year. South Carolina went 10-2 that season, losing to Oklahoma State 21-14 in the Gator Bowl.

Morrison began his coaching career at Tennessee-Chattanooga after former Giants teammate Sam Huff recommended him for the job. The Moccasins went 4-7 in each of his first two seasons, then went 5-5-1 in 1975.

Over his final four seasons there, Morrison coached the team to records of 6-4-1, 9-1-1, 7-3-1, and 9-2, winning the Southern Conference championship three times.

He moved to New Mexico in 1970 and the Lobos went 4-7 in his first two seasons at Albuquerque. New Mexico went 10-2 in 1982, its only loss 40-12 to Brigham Young.

South Carolina hired him away Dec. 5, 1982. The Gamecocks went 5-6 in his first season, then went 10-2 in 1984, rising as high as second in The Associated Press poll before a 38-21 loss to Navy on Nov. 17. The Gamecocks finished 1988 (sic) ranked 11th.

South Carolina was 5-6 in 1985, 3-6-2 in 1986 and 8-4 in 1987, finishing with a 20-16 loss to eventual national champion Miami of Florida and a 30-13 loss to Louisiana State in the Gator Bowl.

Morrison, who was born August 21, 1937, and grew up in Lima, Ohio, was as outstanding a player as he was a coach. At Cincinnati, he set school records in scoring, passing and rushing and twice was named to the All Missouri Valley Conference team.

He led the Bearcats in rushing and receiving in 1958. He played in the 1959 College All-Star Game, Senior Bowl and North-South All-Star Game.

After graduating in 1959, he was drafted on the third round by the Giants and went on to play 14 years for New York, earning the nickname “Old Dependable” for his clutch play.

He was named Most Valuable Player by the NFL Touchdown Club in 1972, his final season. The Giants that year retired his No. 40.

Morrison is the Giants’ all-time leader in receptions with 395, for 4, 993 yards and 47 touchdowns. He gained 2,472 yards rushing in his career on 677 carries, scoring 18 touchdowns.

His 65 career touchdowns rank him fourth in the history of the Giants with 390 points.

“He was such a versatile player,” Giants owner Wellington Mara said. “ He was the ultimate team player. He would do anything you asked him. Run the Ball, catch, play on special teams, anything.”

Dunbar Funeral Home was handling the arrangements, but they were incomplete this morning.