Mark Berson’s role Saturday in the South Carolina men’s soccer team’s senior day ceremony was one he knows well, even if the feel was quite a bit different.
The head coach handed out framed jerseys and shared a few words. But just as this was their final regular-season game at Stone Stadium, it was his last one, as well.
The video board had a logo accompanied by “43,” a nod to the decorated 43-year tenure set to come to an end with Berson’s retirement this spring. The game against Kentucky was the 864th of his career.
Up in the stands sat a large cadre of older men. All seemed chummy, sharing old stories and laughing as they needled each other. They were there to celebrate their coach, the man who defined and wove the tapestry of a program.
Looking back, the start of a more than four-decade era didn’t get too much play in the local newspaper.
One could find the story of the University of South Carolina hiring its first men’s soccer head coach on Page 3 of The State’s sports section in early March of 1978, wedged underneath a NASCAR story and surrounded by ads for car tires and the final three days of the lucky size sale at Lourie’s. (Florsheim shoes were only $25 a pair.)
The headline read “Berson tabbed soccer coach” — it was for the school’s newest varsity team. South Carolina only had club soccer before that year, and Berson was still two weeks shy of his 25th birthday.
“Now that was a little bit scary,” Berson said this week ahead of Saturday’s final regular-season match, “because now all of a sudden you come in, I was 25, and I got the job in March. And we had no field, no uniforms, no balls, no schedule and no players — and we were opening on September 1.”
The news of a new coach and the change to a full-fledged varsity team, combined with some events in Charleston the previous fall, left a few folks with USC club soccer experience a bit worried.
“We were basically asked to try out” for the varsity team, said Pat Layden, a member of the club squad. “I was thinking, ‘Man, is he going to hold that against us?’ ”
The South Carolina club team a year earlier played a road match against The Citadel as USC pushed toward establishing a varsity squad. The whole corps of cadets was out to watch the Gamecocks upend the Bulldogs.
Coaching on The Citadel sideline? It was Mark Berson.
“They have this young, blond, skinny coach,” said David Swentor, a senior at USC in 1978. “At the end of that Citadel game, we did what we always did: Had a couple beers.”
They even asked Citadel players to join. The invitation was declined.
“We were generally a different kind of club then,” Swentor said. “I guess we were a little more wily.”
Layden and Swentor became members of South Carolina’s first varsity soccer team in 1978, one that started the ride that came to a close Saturday with Berson’s retirement after 43 seasons.
How it all started for Berson at USC
Berson’s first team at South Carolina went 13-3-1. His second team went to the NCAA tournament. Starting in 1985, the Gamecocks went to 17 NCAA tournaments in 21 seasons, most notably finishing a match short of an NCAA title in Charlotte in 1993.
“When we drove in from the hotel to the field for the game, there was acres and acres of parking, like at the fairgrounds before a football game,” Berson said, thinking back to the 2-0 loss to Virginia. “And they were all Gamecocks fans come into the game.”
And it all started with an eclectic mix of players and an unusual situation. Berson — after seeing the lack of field, uniforms or, most importantly, players — hit the recruiting trail.
The coach had no intention of waiting to compete. To start, he went to the junior college ranks, landing a haul that included seven members of Meramec’s junior college national championship program in St. Louis.
“For us, it felt like we were going to play a professional sport,” said Paul Truin, a transfer who started in goal for the Gamecocks those early years. “Everything was so beautiful and new. We were south St. Louis kids that, you know, we were hard players and maybe a little hard to keep in the same line the whole time, but it was a good marriage.”
Berson added, “I really owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to them because, I mean, they came here taking a complete chance.”
Berson added the likes of Boo Westin from Sweden and Ray Vigliotti from the U.S. junior national team. And then there was that group of nervous former club players who, despite getting one over on their new coach a season prior, found their way onto the roster to help start a program.
“We tried out for the new varsity team and a few of us made it,” Swentor said. “It was great. What was really inspirational at that point, from Mark, was we were all about the same age. And he knew to kind of let players pick their space.”
That meant respecting that everyone knew how to play soccer and instead focusing on big-picture things. Berson, however, could still hold the line when the situation called for it.
Layden remembered a night at what was called “the soccer house” when he answered a knock on the door with a beer in hand. It was Berson, head shaking. Training the next day was heavy on running to reinforce the message.
Turin recalled a night when he was so amped before a match in Orlando at the University of Central Florida that he and a roommate broke curfew just to go out and grab a bite. The team was 12-4 and in the thick of the NCAA tournament chase in 1979.
“Well, we get caught,” Turin said. “Mark didn’t start us the next day.”
Turin asked the coach for leniency. He volunteered to stand behind the net to instruct his backup what to do.
“He kept us out,” Turin said. “I’m sure it was the hardest thing he ever did. And we wound up winning 1-0.
“Even the captains of the team were like, ‘Come on Mark, it was only like an hour, so what?’ He stuck to his guns there.”
What’s next for Berson?
Berson entered Saturday with 522 career wins (511 at South Carolina), and he will retire as the school’s first and only men’s soccer coach. Along the way he witnessed so much Gamecock athletics history.
The man who hired him, Jim Carlen, was fired by the school nearly 40 years ago. The only leader of Gamecocks soccer has worked alongside six athletic directors, nine full-time football coaches (with two interims) and eight men’s basketball coaches.
He had an army of players that produced 13 All-Americans, three World Cup team members, 17 future American college head coaches (10 Division I, he’ll have you know) and even a rock star in Hootie and the Blowfish drummer Jim Sonefeld.
Benson still cherishes seeing Gamecocks alum Clint Mathis on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the words “America’s Best” splashed across the page.
As Berson looked back at his time in Columbia — which he joked stretched close to the Lincoln presidential administration — he said he loved being engaged in teaching every day. Each day brought something different.
He even met his wife, Shauna, on a soccer field. He noticed her as she brought her younger bother to a camp Berson was working.
And he admitted it’s hard coming to an end. Having a rare spring season because of COVID helped him stretch his career out a few more months, but reality still hasn’t quite set in.
The past few years have been a little leaner for Berson and the Gamecocks. His 21st and 22nd NCAA trips came in 2015 and 2016. His final season got stretched from the fall into the spring, and the team finished with an 8-7-1 record after a 2-1 home loss Saturday to Kentucky.
It has been a long ride since those days when South Carolina’s soccer field didn’t even have stands. Turin remembers the first home game against Clemson, a moment when it clicked how the team could be embraced on campus.
“That one year we played them at home, it sold out,” Turin said. “I think they said there were 10,000 people there, and any of us had probably never played in front of more than 300.”
That was back in the day where the fans crowded so tightly around the field, Berson remembers opposing players basically standing at the edge of the crowd to throw the ball into play.
What’s next for Berson? He’s not sure. At 78, he’d like to stay close to the game, maybe keep working with U.S. Soccer in some sort of coaching role.
But when he’s not involved with the game that allowed him to build and define a program for more than 40 years in Columbia, he’s got another plan to stay busy.
“Lake Murray,” Berson said. “The striped bass better look out. They need to look out because some really tough times are coming for them.”
As he addressed former and current players, fans, family and USC administrators after Saturday’s match, the coach could hardly hold back emotion, wiping away tears as he spoke.
“What I got from the group is much more than I ever gave,” Berson said, voice breaking. “Other than being called dad, being called coach is as good as it gets.”