Part One …
The bus had only been on the road for a few miles when the singing started.
It likely began quietly at first, with the group first settling on a song and testing out the harmonies. It would grow a little louder as more and more people heard the faint tunes passing by them like a breeze, recognizing the melody and then joining in for the chorus.
Who started it? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Pete May remembers that the Butlers often kicked things off. They were a musical family, you see. Now, Scott Butler doesn’t deny these outbursts of singing, but he remembers Derek May, Pete’s son, bringing along a guitar. Derek, for what it’s worth, is a bit murky on all of it.
Still, it’s the early 1990s, and there aren’t iPads or Netflix to occupy your time on a long drive.
Get bored? Well, it’s time to sing. That’ll kill an hour or so.
By the way, have you ever driven to Detroit? From Augusta, Georgia?
Do you know what that’s like?
It’s 12 hours from start to finish, but that travel time gets extended just a bit when you’re stacked axle to axle with college kids in a Greyhound bus. You follow along a path that snakes its way through six states. Obviously, the bus can’t get going too fast because, well, it’s 45 feet long and 8 feet wide, loaded down with more than 50 people and their luggage.
This doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of gallons of gas it’s burning through faster than a convention-goer on a heater at a craps table in Las Vegas. So, once you factor in breaks for food, fuel and fresh air, you’re looking at something closer to 17 hours.
The bus is full of players from the two premier collegiate programs in their sport, schools that would take turns winning national championships the same way children swap Legos and Matchbox Cars during playtime.
Imagine Duke and North Carolina sharing a ride to the Final Four, or Alabama and Auburn getting together for a sing-along before the Iron Bowl.
It’s insane … right?
It’s insane because our understanding of competitive sports is one fueled by an unyielding desire to win and a simmering disdain for your rival. It’s Georgia Tech fans yelling “To Hell With Georgia” every chance they get or Ohio State banning the color blue during Michigan week.
Our understanding doesn’t allow for a reality where two rivals load up on a bus together to drive 17 hours to compete in a national championship tournament where everyone — everyone — knows the preliminary rounds are a mere formality because it’s just obvious these two squads will be facing each other in the finals.
But before we try to beat each other’s brains in, we might as well sing a little bit.
So here we are, on the road to Detroit with a bus full of supposedly heated rivals, and everyone’s belting out Eagles songs like it’s a karaoke bar on wheels. Anderson College and Augusta College are hours away from squaring off against each other, eager to bring the national championship back to their humble, but proud campuses.
Oh, right … Before we go on, you should probably know this is a story about table tennis.
Let’s start with a little background
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were only two college programs you needed to pay attention to if you were following the sport of table tennis. Anderson College and Augusta College were roughly 90 minutes apart, located in the Deep South.
At their height, these two tiny schools would have no equal.
They were the Alabama to the other’s Clemson; the North Carolina to the other’s Kentucky.
“We had these two all-star teams, 90 miles apart in these little schools, going up and competing for the national championships every year,” said Derek May, a star on the Augusta College squads. “It really was amazing what happened.”
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Now, table tennis as a collegiate sport wasn’t a new concept. Seriously.
What was new, however, was the notion that a school could support and sustain a program complete with uniforms, let alone scholarships. For much of its existence at the collegiate level, it had largely been viewed by college administrators as a hobby masquerading as a sport.
If you had time between classes, you went to the student activities center and found a free table next to foosball or a dart board and passed some time. But a full-fledged college sport? Come on.
“Before the 1980s, table tennis was found in a college union, not the gym,” said Willy Leparulo, the president of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. “It was ping pong, so you’d find it in a rec room with billiards and other student union games.”
This isn’t to say that there wasn’t competitive table tennis at the collegiate level.
According to research compiled by Leparulo, the first collegiate team championships were held in 1937. The tournament brought together 16 schools and was won by Penn, an Ivy League power (a theme that will recur throughout the sport’s journey). For the next 30 years, Penn and Princeton dominated the sport.
There was no recruiting. There was no program budget. There was no strategic plan. These were clubs primarily operating under the umbrella of the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) and, as such, the depth and quality of the teams varied on an annual basis.
That’s because success occurred because of chance.
For instance, Penn might be good one year because it would have two or three international students who merely happened to be world-class table tennis players. Their academic interests landed them at a prestigious school, and their table tennis talents — and more importantly their willingness to showcase those talents — enabled them to win a team or individual title.
But there was no school that put table tennis first, placing its focus on recruiting students to come to their particular institution solely because of their table tennis skills.
At least not until Mark Hopkins came to Anderson College.
“Two hours from anywhere”
In a South where metropolitan areas and urban centers are slowly and surely gobbling up land, transforming pastoral spaces into cookie-cutter bedroom communities left and right, Anderson, South Carolina maintains its mystique of Mayberry-like charm.
This has less to do with a stated desire to preserve a particular way of life, and more to do with its geographical fate. Located not exactly halfway between Greenville, South Carolina and Athens, Georgia, the town has been able to keep much of the rapid suburbanization that accompanies this metropolitan creep at bay largely because, well, it’s just not really that close to anything.
The town is named for Robert Anderson, who trekked through the region in the 1700s as he sought to map it out for future settlers. It’s a lovely town, nestled along the shores of Lake Hartwell, and for its humble size, it boasts a surprisingly eclectic and star-studded roster of homegrown talent, including baseball legend Jim Rice, actor Chadwick Boseman and former NBA star Larry Nance.
For some time, the community’s anchor has been its college. Founded in 1848 as the Johnson Female Seminary, it was one of the first institutions of higher learning for women in the country. The Civil War forced its closure, and the school didn’t reopen until 1912 as Anderson College, a four-year college for women, thanks to funding from the South Carolina Baptist Convention. In 1930, the school transitioned to a two-year, co-educational junior college.
It’s into this small town life that Steve Hopkins, at the age of 12, followed his father, Mark, who had answered the call to become the college’s new president in the mid-1980s. Mark had been serving as the president of Elgin (Illinois) Community College just outside of Chicago.
Steve already had established himself as one of the better young table tennis players in his age bracket. But the transition to Anderson — aside from all of those usual dynamics associated with a middle-schooler being uprooted and forced to move across the country — proved to be problematic for the progression of his game.
See, in the Midwest, opportunities to play were abundant.
There were ample recreational centers and game halls, offering lessons and leagues to hone the skills of aspiring players. Even his hometown of Elgin, with a population of less than 75,000 in the mid-1980s — making it just a hair bigger than present-day Albany, Georgia — had plentiful tables and teachers. Steve frequently traveled to play in tournaments and fine-tune his abilities.
Anderson, on the other hand, was a different story.
In the South, football was — is — king, and the biggest game in town could be found at T.L. Hanna High School on Friday nights. Kids Steve’s age spent their time focusing on getting bigger, faster and stronger so, one day, they could wind up on the gridiron for the Yellow Jackets.
Football, baseball, basketball and the rest were fine and all, but it wasn’t necessarily Steve’s thing. He wanted to play table tennis, but was, by his own admission, “two hours from anywhere and too little to drive a car.”
For someone with Steve’s passion, as well as his growing talent on the table, he needed an outlet where he could focus on the game he loved, and his father found a way to make that happen.
“The student union had a table that was a crappy, horrible table, and I used to go up there and play with whoever from the college would play,” Steve said. “I was, like, 12 and better than all of them because none of them had ever had any coaching or anything.
“After about a year of being bored with sitting in the student union hoping somebody would come and play, we started running some tournaments, and my father gave me a place on campus to open a club.”
With his father’s blessing — not to mention his urging — Steve Hopkins kicked off a table tennis club at Anderson College, recruiting not only college students, but also nearly 40 kids from the area high schools and middle schools to come practice, train and play.
It was a start.
The rise of the promoter
Let no one say that Pete May isn’t a promoter.
Want to put some butts in some seats? Call him up, give him his assignment and the crowds will come. The more obscure the thing you’re trying to sell, the better.
The Augusta native founded the National Barrel Horse Racing Association, hosting national events at venues across his hometown. His passions shifted to disc golf in the 2000s, and he organized the first-ever collegiate disc golf championships in 2007 at North Augusta, S.C.
And he’s the father of table tennis at Augusta College, positioning a city known primarily for azaleas, birdies and Sunday roars as the sport’s epicenter in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was all born from a quest to fight off adolescent boredom that blossomed into an unrelenting — almost unhealthy — desire to overcome the play of a rival-turned-mentor.
As a young boy, he found his way to the Boys Club of Augusta. Its recreation center was full of games and hobbies designed to keep boys off the streets and out of trouble, fostering a sense of community among kids who passed through its doors. There was basketball for some, and foosball for others.
Pete May gravitated to a ping pong table, and he quickly established himself as the best player in that little circle. He loved the sport, its speed and its strategy. He saved up enough money to buy his own foam paddle to gain even greater control over his shots, enabling him to better exert his dominance over the boys who, one by one, lined up to challenge him.
By the time he was 22, he hadn’t lost a match in years, and this level of local mastery bored him.
“I quit playing because no one could beat me in Augusta, so I got interested in bowling and did that all the time,” he said.
Bowling occupied his free time during his days at Augusta College, until Cliff Carlisle, a famed radio announcer, shared with him that a new table tennis player was in town and taking on all-comers at the local USO. It prompted Pete to pick up his paddle again.
Problem was Pete hadn’t played in a while. And, shoot, he couldn’t even find his beloved foam paddle, turning instead to a pimpled rubber paddle. His weapon of choice, however, wouldn’t matter. He recalled getting beat badly, again and again.
And it didn’t stop at the USO gathering. Pete got beat by this same player over and over again for the next decade. It confounded him so much, it even influenced his decision years ago to build a house next to his nemesis just so they could more easily play.
“I played him every day for 10 years, an average of 30 games a day, and I only won four games in 10 years,” Pete May said. “Now that is 90,000 games if I just played 300 days a year, and I only won four.”
This neighbor, Herb Beckham, would go on to become a Richmond County Commissioner and one of the community’s most successful businessmen. But one of his lasting — and largely unheralded — legacies in Augusta is the role he played in fueling the fire for the sport within a young Pete May.
Beckham introduced him to competitive table tennis, taking him to tournaments and meets across the region. Pete’s play improved to the point that he moved up in the rankings and captured state championships. More importantly, he got a glimpse of how to run a tournament, and it sparked ideas for what it would take to get more people to come out and watch. These experiences not only cemented his love for the game, but rooted in him a desire to take the sport to a broader audience.
It would take time, but his path was set.
Putting a plan in motion
As Steve Hopkins’s table tennis club at Anderson College began to grow in popularity, so did his father’s interest in what the sport could do for his school.
As the president of a small, private college, Mark Hopkins had ample discretion with regard to where and how to make investments and prioritize growth. And his son’s passion gave him a unique opportunity to both nurture his child’s interest and attract prospective students to the college.
All higher education institutions have fixed costs associated with housing, facility maintenance and the like. The costs to keep things running are the same whether or not your enrollment is up or down in a given year.
At smaller schools like Anderson College, the margins are even tighter. The buildings don’t simply contract in size when there are fewer students, and revenue is needed to keep the ship steered straight. Small schools often face additional market pressures because, in many cases, there simply is less interest from prospective students.
Mark envisioned creating a table tennis program not just because he loved the sport and his son loved the sport, but also because he believed that offering a limited number of scholarships for table tennis players could potentially fill space and attract additional students, as well as coaches or faculty, to the college.
“If you’re Erskine College or Anderson College or whatever, and you have beds that are empty, that means you also have classroom spots empty and gym facilities that aren’t full,” Steve Hopkins said. “All of the facilities on campus are still running whether they’re full or not, so if you’re Anderson College running a soccer program or even a table tennis program, they can be a net positive as long as you bring in more people than whatever scholarships you offer.”
As such, the first scholarship table tennis program in the collegiate ranks was partially designed to be a strategic recruitment tool to grow enrollment at Anderson College. The scholarship, whether full or partial, would serve as an incentive to attract the top players from across the world, and then other young players who wanted to train or compete with them would follow suit.
It seems like a rather bold gamble. The bet, however, was that these scholarships could entice students who would have never given Anderson College a second thought, and they’d bring with them players eager to train with the best. Given that table tennis was — and still is — one of the most popular participation sports in the world, it was a strategic risk with the potential to pay off.
“The program actually paid for itself because even though we gave a few scholarships out, a lot more people came and paid to go to school just because they wanted to be part of a table tennis college,” said Richard McAfee, one of Anderson College’s coaches.
Table tennis talent from the Caribbean, Europe and China would flood this small South Carolina town over the next five to six years.
“I always wanted the opportunity — whether it was here or Europe — to play table tennis at a higher level,” said Greg Riley, a native of Barbados who won an individual national championship at Anderson College. “I was fortunate to play on national teams because that’s why we were up here, but to continue to play table tennis at a pretty decent level and pursue an education was a game-changer.”
Practically overnight, this unique marketing tool transformed Anderson College into a boom town for college table tennis.
At least for the time being.
Formation of a rivalry
Anderson College’s table tennis program was officially founded in 1986, immediately attracting some of the best young players in the sport. Two of the first recruits for the fledgling program were Scott Butler and Derek May. Butler, from Iowa, was ranked as one of the top high school players in the country, while May, an Augusta, Georgia native, was the top player in his state.
“If you want to be the best, you have to play against the best,” said Derek. “I was the best player in Georgia at my age, but (Butler) was much better than I was. I recruited him in the spring semester, and he came to Anderson College. The two of us became great pals, and I was so fortunate to have a guy at his level to train with at Anderson.”
Derek, of course, had learned the game from his father, Pete.
The two spent their freshman seasons at Anderson College, helping to get the fledgling program off the ground. The duo were strong players, but what was going on at Anderson was starting to garner some international interest and raise the level of competition on campus.
Meanwhile in Augusta, Pete May was overseeing the growth of his own table tennis program at the Boys Club where he volunteered. He had brought in John Onifade, one of the top players from Nigeria, to help serve as a coach and trainer in the community.
In the same way the interest in Steve Hopkins’s table tennis club at Anderson College was attracting some of the top players, laying the foundation for the start of the collegiate program there, Onifade’s presence sent out a signal that Augusta was staking its own claim as a place to train and compete.
This prompted the May family to put their own plan in motion.
“Derek called me and said, ‘Dad is there any chance we can get Scott Butler a scholarship at Augusta College?’” said Pete. “I said, ‘Probably, as long as he carries a B average.’
“He said, ‘If you can get him a scholarship, he’ll come to Augusta College. And if he comes, I’ll come.’”
It cannot be stressed enough that under what most folks would consider to be “normal circumstances” this clearly would have been viewed as a hostile — if not potentially illegal — move in the landscape of college sports. In essence, it’s a coup, right? You’ve got two of the best players at one college conspiring with another college to start a brand new program that would directly compete with it.
But there was no conspiracy here. In fact, it was a collaboration.
The decision to launch a program at Augusta College was welcomed — even embraced — by the leadership at Anderson College. In fact, it was Mark Hopkins who worked closely with Pete May to sell the vision to William Bloodworth, then the president of Augusta College.
“Pete decided they could repeat what was being done at Anderson College in Augusta, and he went in and pitched that to Augusta College and my father helped — college president to college president,” said Steve Hopkins. “And they decided to just mirror the program and do the same thing down there.”
With the blessing of Mark Hopkins, Butler and Derek May agreed to transfer to Augusta College to help start the program there. Thanks to the support of Mark Hopkins and passion of Pete May, Augusta College’s leadership gave the go-ahead to put together its own table tennis program.
The duo had done what they do best: persuade others to take a risk on something new. It was a bold endeavor that hadn’t yet been done, and that first hurdle had been cleared.
Great. Now what?
In Part Two, we’ll look at the rapid rise and overwhelming dominance of Anderson College and Augusta College in the collegiate table tennis ranks, and how it laid the foundation for the growth and evolution of the sport.