Curtis Frye stands just off the bend of the indoor track his program has called its winter home since 2019, a smile gracing his face and his graying mustache dancing along his upper lip with each word he sends into the wireless mic affixed to his white Gamecocks polo.
Frye is effervescent as he speaks to a local news crew with the excitement of men half his age while armed with the tone of a well-practiced preacher. Frye 72 himself has had plenty of practice at this exercise. Winning will do that. But those interview requests might slow after this week.
“I hope they don’t change the locks on me,” Frye said, chuckling.
Any real discussion of South Carolina track and field begins with mention of Frye. He’s an icon in the truest sense. His name — while perhaps less outwardly recognizable than the four head football coaches he’s outlasted — is synonymous with the program he’s guided for the better part of three decades.
Frye’s resume is littered with Olympians. He coached Marion Jones at North Carolina. Medalists Lashinda Demus, Natasha Hastings, Otis Harris and Terrence Trammell were all under his watch at USC. Frye, too, was an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2004 games in Athens.
More locally, he became the first Black head coach in South Carolina athletics history when he was hired in 1996. He guided the women’s team to an outdoor national championship in 2002, giving USC its first team national title in any sport.
The final tally: 28 Olympians (including 14 medals), 60 NCAA champions, 126 SEC champions and more than 500 NCAA All-Americans.
“He will forever be woven into the fabric of not only the University of South Carolina’s track and field program, but the track and field community globally,” incoming head coach Tim Hall said during his introductory press conference on Tuesday. “He’s an icon.”
Frye is a marvel to hear speak. His mind is filled with stories from his time coaching men’s soccer at East Carolina as a 23-year-old to explaining the advents of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) in the current scope of college athletics.
He slips atop a stool in the men’s track locker room as reporters surround him. Before the cameras roll, he regales the group with musings about coaches he’d crossed paths with over the years. He tells a tale of basketball coach Jim Valvano cooking spaghetti for the entire department at N.C. State. He quips how he was among the few people allowed into Dean Smith’s closed-off practices at UNC, where Frye — thanks to a friendship with the Tar Heels’ legendary men’s basketball coach — ran laps around the court at Carmichael Auditorium.
Fyre also sends the group into a chorus of laughs as he gives his best Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier imitations.
“(Learning from legendary coaches) just intrigued me,” Frye told The State. “Because the things they were saying and doing and how they were motivating, that became important.”
Why Frye decided to walk away now is a matter of fodder. Rumblings around town might tell you he was forced out. Others suggest it was simply time. After all, Frye has literally coached at South Carolina longer than some of the reporters at Thursday’s press conference have been alive — this writer included.
Frye offers a rather candid explanation to the timing. He notes the thought of retirement had been on his mind in recent years. He was getting up there in age and, despite his best efforts, the program had struggled recently — including finishing 12th and 13th at the SEC championships on the men’s and women’s sides, respectively, this year.
Few coaching tenures in any sport come with true closure or happy endings. The end, though, can bring clarity.
Driving recently toward the North Carolina border that he crossed almost 30 years ago for the gig he’s occupied since, Frye grew pensive. He was on his way to see a recruit near Greensboro. His family was at his granddaughter’s graduation.
“It was like, ‘How (much) are you going to miss?’ ” Frye said, still seated on the stool. “You missed your kids’ graduation from college. You missed some podiums and some dances that they went through. But what else?
“Ray (Tanner) and I talked and he said, ‘It looks like you’re thinking about it, so why don’t you do it?’ And I said, ‘Hey, why don’t we just do it?’ ”
Frye doesn’t quite know what he’ll do next. In the short term, he’s going to North Carolina next week to visit his 92-year-old mother-in-law. He also said he’s cooking fish on Wednesday. Frye will return to Columbia the following week, where he’ll wake up by 6 a.m. and get five miles of walking in. You see, he’s always on the move — despite what his longevity at South Carolina might suggest.
The rest is TBD. Frye has been involved in a number of charitable causes and figures to remain so. South Carolina intends to celebrate Frye’s career in the fall. He’s also there to be a helping hand for Hall as the latter molds the program into his own.
“I have him as a cheat code, so to speak, because he’s right there in Columbia,” Hall said with a wry smile.
As Frye heads for the locker room exit on this day, he bends down onto the gray carpeted floor and scoops up a crumpled napkin that’s been left by some previous bystander. The locker room should remain neat, even in the off-season. Frye’s bend is slow and methodical, a reminder that even as spry as his wit remains and as booming as his voice is still, 72 years on this earth still has its effects.
He takes three more steps and stops before a stack of nameplates sprawled on the table at the back of the locker room. With a gentle flick of his wrists, Frye grabs the few errant placards and stacks them neatly before heading out the door.
Those nameplates will be put in place sooner than later. Student-athletes will begin flowing back to Columbia in the coming weeks, if they aren’t back already, for the fall semester.
For the first time in 27 years, Frye won’t be there to greet them.