Sarge Frye: The Man, The Field, The Legacies
Across the nation, most university athletic facilities are named after great athletes or coaches, or perhaps an alumnus who wrote a really big check, like the Williams family who made the original expansion of the USC football stadium possible. It is extremely rare that a facility at a major university is named for anyone else, but the baseball field at South Carolina was named for it's beloved groundskeeper of nearly half a century, Weldon "Sarge" Frye.
Sarge Frye passed away in 2003 at the age of 90, but South Carolina Head Baseball Coach Ray Tanner was feeling his presence at the game Monday night. "I didn't want Sarge to be disappointed in us in our last game here," he said. "The only thing I had on my mind was winning that last game at The Sarge. You didn't want to lose the last game at The Sarge! That was really special. You got Sarge looking down on you, he threw the dust storm up and made the rally happen in the Georgia game."
Tanner's reference was to what was expected to be the last regular season game ever played at The Sarge, the Gamecocks came back in dramatic fashion after trailing the Georgia Bulldogs by 11 runs in the sixth inning, and won 14-13. A wind began to blow the dust on the base paths just before USC began their rally, and Tanner tells folks it was "Sarge stirring things up for us."
Tanner continued talking of Frye's presence at the field, "Then tonight, I'm in the third base dugout instead of the first base dugout (due to NCAA playoff regulations), and he's got his eye on me. Every move I made, it better be a good one!"
The coach tells how Frye was instrumental in his choosing to come to South Carolina: "When I came here for my visit (to interview for the head coaching position at South Carolina) I asked to meet with him. Those guys like Sarge Frye, they give you all the information you need in 15 minutes. You can meet with Dr. McGee (the athletic director at the time) and I did. I had lunch over at the Faculty House, all those thing; but you really get the details from guys like Sarge Frye. 'Lay it on me, Sarge, tell me the deal.'" Tanner could not help laughing as he finished, saying, "and 15 minutes later, I just knew that this was just a great place!"
Frye came to USC in 1953 after serving for 23 years in the army. A combat veteran of World War II and the Korean Conflict, Frye participated in the allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, was wounded in action and decorated with the bronze star. He received a second bronze star while in Korea. His last post was at Fort Jackson, outside Columbia, where he acquired the responsibilities for maintaining the grounds there. He was doing such a good job out there that according to USC historian Tom Price, USC recruited him to do the same for USC, where he came to work in 1953 and was placed in charge of athletic facilities. Price said, "He was in charge of maintaining all the athletic facilities - the football stadium, baseball, track and all those facilities. He did such a good job that the president of the University at the time, Dr Thomas Jones, recruited him to head up the landscaping for the entire campus."
Former USC Head Football Coach Paul Dietzl decided to replace the grass on the football field in Williams-Brice stadium with Astroturf, and mostly eliminated grounds keeping there for a number of years. Later, then Head Coach Joe Morrison and AD Bob Marcum took the Astroturf out and reinstalled grass. Price said that USC's baseball coach at the time, June Raines, talked about the major job necessary to bring grass back to the football facility and said to Frye, "Well Sarge, I guess we won't see you much around here anymore. You're going to be back up there maintaining the grass on the football field most of your time." Frye reportedly looked at him and said, "Look up on that scoreboard and see whose name is at the top of that? I'll be here."
The baseball field was named in his honor in 1980. Price said he recommended that they name the baseball facilities after him, but "it took some time for that to come to fruition." Price and Frye's children, respecively Nancy Wolff and Jerry Frye, both give former athletic director and head football coach Jim Carlen credit for making the name change happen. Carlen said, "I looked around to see who had really helped our program that was deserving recognition. They let me name the Tennis Courts after Sam Daniels. Sarge Frye just did wonderful things all over the campus. I feel sometimes you don't reward the people who do the work. The only thing I've ever done real good is I hired real good people and left them alone. I thought he had done a great job everywhere. He was a class human being."
Frye was honored in January 1993 when the American Baseball Coaches Association named him National Groundskeeper of the Year.
Sarge officially retired July 1, 1997, after 45 years of service. That was 20 years after he retired from full-time employment but remained on board to supervise maintenance of athletic facilities. Retirement meant little to Frye. For the next six plus years, until a few days prior to his death, Sarge was on hand almost daily as a consultant and advisor regarding the maintenance of playing fields and other athletic facilities.
In addition to grounds keeping and landscaping duties, Sarge for many years operated the game clock for men's and women's basketball games at Carolina Coliseum.
Frye also created a family tradition when he came to USC. His son Jerry, was a standout end on the South Carolina football squad, 1958-60, and was co-captain his senior year. Jerry's son Jay - Sarge's grandson - was a Gamecock football letterman, 1983-84, the year USC won 10 games. Jay is now the head football coach at Richland NE High School in Columbia, and has seen several of his outstanding players move on to USC, including Mark Barnes in 2007. Frye's daughter Nancy and her late husband also both not only attended USC, but also worked there as well. All four of Frye's grandchildren are USC graduates. The family has established a general scholarship in his honor through the university's educational foundation.
The field named in his honor was the site of many glorious afternoons for USC fans, as the baseball program has been without question the most consistently successful of the three major sports at USC to this date. Under Tanner, Sarge Frye Field was the site of 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004 NCAA Regional Tournaments and 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004 NCAA Super Regionals. Prior to that, in 1993, the SEC Baseball Tournament was also held there, and the facility hosted six NCAA regional baseball tournaments (1975-76-77-81-82-85) and the Metro Conference championship tournaments in 1987 and 1989.
Wolff said none of Frye's descendants so far have followed in his footsteps. She said his gift was special: "He was born on a little farm in the country, and he just understood it (growing things)." Sarge Frye grew a legacy while he was at USC, and the field that bore his name is now also retiring, with a proud legacy of it's own.
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