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The year was 1968, one year after USC Upstate, then USC Spartanburg, opened its doors as an educational institution. It was also the second year of intercollegiate athletics for the school as the men’s basketball team helped lay a foundation on which the current athletics program now stands. Coming off a 4-10 mark in 1967-68, the inaugural season of athletics at Upstate, head Coach Paul Mack looked to bring in players who could make a mark on the team and help begin to build a tradition in the program. Elbert Jones committed to join the program and by the time he left, was the school’s first marquee student-athlete.
“Elbert was our first great athlete in any sport,” said Dr. Joe Bowman during a meeting of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Bowman, who coached Jones during his second year, is widely considered the architect of the athletics program at Upstate after serving in a variety of roles including Athletics Director and head coach of the men’s basketball, volleyball, men’s golf and bowling teams. “He was the first athlete who stood out and set the mark for those early teams.”
Now, 40 years after ending his career at Upstate, Jones will lead the 2010 induction class into the Upstate Athletics Hall of Fame. He will join Krista Altom (softball), Kelly Cummings Bowden (women’s cross country), Matthew Browne (men’s soccer) and Erin Kopec (volleyball) into the shrine.
“It is a great honor for me, as well as those that I am being inducted with,” said Jones. “The Hall of Fame is the greatest honor ever for me.”
Jones finished his two-year career with 585 points and 354 rebounds, averaging a double-double with 19.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. He was solid in his first season, averaging 16.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game as Upstate claimed three wins in 11 games.
Jones, like Upstate, flourished during the 1969-70 season, the first under the guidance of Bowman. He averaged 21.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game to lead the team to a program-best nine wins. He earned all-conference honors in the Carolina League and took home team Most Valuable Player award after leading the Spartans, then the Bantams, to a second-place finish in the regular season standings and the conference tournament.
Clearly, Jones established himself as a pioneer with his play on the court. Having the moniker as the University’s first great student-athlete is something that he appreciates, yet is surprised to hear.
“Well, that is a bit of a surprise to me,” said Jones. “I respect Coach Bowman and it is an honor for him to say something like that about me. I never saw myself as a tremendous athlete, but I gave it my all on the court, as did all of my teammates. Everyone on the team wanted to be successful and that was the main focus.”
Jones and Bowman had a special relationship as the latter attempted to create a winning program and develop Jones and the other players into standout players. The early days in the life of the athletics program at Upstate is something Jones looks back on with fond memories.
“It (athletics at Upstate) was not as intense as it is now, but we had a lot of fun. I had the opportunity to play under Coach Bowman and he was a great coach and competitor. Not only did he coach, he also would get on the court and practice with us. I played a lot of one-on-one games against him in practice. He was a stud on the court. As a program, we started out a little slow, but we were successful.
“I look back to my final year of playing. I was voted MVP of the team as well as an all-conference selection. When I look back on my time in Spartanburg, those honors are my most memorable moments.”
While Upstate experienced growth and now competes on the NCAA Division I level after success in both the NAIA (1982 NAIA National Championship) and NCAA Division II (five appearances in the NCAA DII National Tournament), the early years of the program helped lay the groundwork for future teams. The fact that Jones was a standout player and set a benchmark for others to follow is something that Jones appreciates.
“I consider it an honor (to be a part of what is a quality athletic program),” said Jones. “I tell my grandson, who is eight, about my experience there as well as how the University has grown. He is an athlete and I love telling him and others about the school’s athletics and academics. I still have family in the Spartanburg area and I visit from time to time. It is great to see the growth of the University. It is a first-class institution and I would recommend it to everyone.”
Jones used his two years of education at Upstate to catapult him into a four-year degree from South Carolina. He graduated from the Columbia campus in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in business. Throughout his professional career in sales, he worked for RJR Foods, Lever Brothers Co., and Sturm Foods, rising to the level of Vice President of Sales for the latter. He left Sturm Foods and formed a real estate and property management company. Though semi-retired, he has continued to stay involved in the business world with several business projects, buying investment properties.
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