The only sound on South Carolina’s practice field on this hot Columbia, South Carolina, day — apart from the whirring lawn equipment whipping sand onto the grass ahead of preseason camp — is the voice of Justin King.
Most days, USC’s associate athletics director for new and creative media would be surrounded by members of his 10-person team, maybe a few of the students who also share his office. Today, in the oppressive 100-degree July heat, it’s just him — and the two 40-pound dumbbells he carries as he jogs the perimeter of the 115,000-square foot practice field.
Sweat pours off his forehead. Gnats swarm around his face as he finishes a lap. “These bugs are crazy, aren’t they?” he says, swatting them away. “It’s too hot, too.”
But King isn’t afraid to sweat — at his daily workout or at his actual work. “I don’t want a comfortable mindset in, like, anything,” he says. “When one thing is accomplished, turn to another thing that needs to be accomplished. For me, it’s the next thing, it’s the next thing, it’s the next.”
The next thing
When King, ’10, took over USC’s creative media department in the spring of 2017, he had big ideas. Thousands of content items and millions of social media impressions later, evidence of those ideas can be seen across the college football media landscape, most notably on YouTube.
There’s the famous Soulja Boy video his team put out before SEC Media Days in 2022. There’s the postgame locker room dance he orchestrated after USC beat Kentucky the same year — the famous Pit Viper sunglasses Beamer donned still hang in the suite down the hall from King’s office. His team’s videos have earned mentions from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Saturday Down South and other media outlets nationwide.
But the job that made King king? King initially turned it down.
On Jan. 9, 2017, he was on the sidelines at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, covering the national championship matchup between Alabama and Clemson for AL.com, where he worked as a producer. He lived in Birmingham, 500 miles and seven years removed from his alma mater.
That same week, though, the USC administration was having discussions about beefing up the athletics department’s social media. And King came up as a candidate.
The media arts major, who got his start cutting together fan videos for YouTube, had built a reputation for creativity. He might bring new life to USC’s athletics department’s media office. He might also bring more eyes to its social media channels.
A few days later, an unknown number popped up on King’s phone while he was running. And when he answered, Ray Tanner was on the other end of the line. King stopped running — when the USC athletics director reaches out, you take the call — but he didn’t realize he was, in fact, being interviewed for a new job.
“I thought it was just him asking me questions,” says King. “And I was just walking, talking to him. I was kind of being blunt. We finished the conversation. He goes, ‘All right, so when are you starting?’”
It was a great opportunity, but King was enjoying his time at AL.com. He had a 3-month-old son and no interest in relocating. But Tanner, a relentless recruiter going back to his coaching days, kept at it until he landed a commit. “Eventually we got to the point where I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” King recalls.
A month after that, King was in Columbia.
King gets social
Peek into the office King shares with his team and you’ll see rows of Macs, a whiteboard chock-full of notes and inside jokes, and camera equipment stacked floor-to-ceiling. It’s a near-perfect work environment for a team of creatives but a far cry from the two cramped rooms in the bowels of Williams-Brice where King first set up shop.
“We were essentially working out of two different closets in Williams-Brice,” says Alex Grant, one of three full-time staff members at what was then called Gamecock Productions
Grant, now a videographer with the Carolina Panthers, was part of an Emmy Award-winning outfit, along with Marissa Cockrell and Joe Buschur. But Gamecock Productions circa 2017 was more focused on long-form, documentary-style work. King aimed to create shorter work geared toward social media.
The age of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube demanded a new approach. And that meant shaking things up. There were some growing pains — there was even some tension — but King had a vision, and the work came first.
“If you do things in the right way, for the right reasons, that stuff will work itself out,” King says. “People will see that you’re not asking other people to work more than you are. You’re going to outwork everybody. And that’s how it needs to be at first.”
And things started to click once the new Long Family Football Operations Center opened across Bluff Road and both departments merged into a single workspace. As some staff departed for other opportunities, King built out his team organically, responding to the evolving needs of new media.
“We were building the airplane as we were flying,” King says. “We got it off the ground, and then it’s like, you know, you couldn’t steer it or land it or anything like that. I taped the wings together up in the air.”
The goal was less about the content, more about building a culture to foster sustained success. Hire the right talent, King figured, the content would come. And it did. It’s not unusual nowadays to see creative media personnel sprinting around at a game, or even at a practice, getting in the middle of things, sweat dripping off their faces for the sake of a single shot.
“What I preach to the team is, if there’s going to be a difference between us and somebody else, it’s going to be our energy and our enthusiasm when we’re creating,” says King. “What we’re creating is going to simply be at a different level.”
By the end of that first football season, King’s creative media team was producing the kind of content Gamecock fans crave. There were videos showing the daily lives of the athletes. There were in-game and postgame recaps. There were the popular Battle Armor videos each week revealing the football team’s uniform for the upcoming game.
King’s team was starting to build a significant following, and at the heart of that following was a Culture, capital C — something King had been cultivating from the minute he set foot on campus. And while maintaining a culture can be difficult in a profession with a high turnover rate and a new batch of interns every year, doing the little things right translates into bigger and bigger successes.
“I think the small things have the most profound impact,” says Mary-Paige McLaurin, a former intern who now works for East Coast Greenway. “That’s one thing I learned from Justin, and that’s why the department always puts out consistently good content — in my opinion, some of the best in the country. Because Justin cares about it being top-notch.”
And King’s team cares. It’s hard to know when a culture takes root, but King saw it firsthand in 2019 when he took time off for personal reasons. For a high-energy, hands-on team leader there could have been some anxiety, but the team he built never wavered.
“They’re the ones who handled things the right way when I wasn’t there,” King says. “Not because they knew I was going to be mad at them if they didn’t. It was a pride thing. They loved what they were doing, and they really wanted to build this place.”
What the fans want
King’s head had barely hit the pillow when the phone rang. He was just home from Lexington, Kentucky, after the Gamecocks’ 2020 season finale against the Wildcats, and Charles Bloom was on the phone. USC's executive associate athletics director had a new assignment: “Go get on the plane. You’re going to get the new coach.”
After a few hours on the university jet, King arrived in Oklahoma to pick up Shane Beamer on his first day as the Gamecocks’ head coach. He was knocking out some work while on the tarmac when a hand reached out. He heard the voice first: “Hey, man, what’s up? I’m Shane.”
That was King’s first interaction with Beamer, the start of a collaborative relationship that would thrive in the years ahead. Under Beamer, King would switch from handling video for the full range of USC sports to focusing exclusively on football. In the process, his team has built an impressive portfolio, but it goes back to a single question Beamer posed to King. “He asked me, ‘What do the fans want? Like, what do they want?’” King recalls. “My response was that they want somebody who loves this place as much as they do. I know that because that’s what I want.”
A family affair
In one corner of the new media office, you might notice something peculiar: a growth chart marking the height of each team member. It’s not a metric but a symbol, a way to make the office feel more like home. King’s team may be serious about the work they do, but the vibe is whimsical, wonky and above all else collaborative.
The vibe also translates into success. Wander down the hall, and you’ll see a photo of the Gamecocks’ creative team after the 2022 Clemson game. They were awarded an internal MVP award that day for their efforts — same as a standout player who helped carry the team on the field, but awarded to the group, to the team, to the family.
And that’s the other big keyword: Alongside culture, alongside collaboration, King wants his team to feel like family. In fact, it’s not unusual to see his son, Ezra, along with other staffers’ children, roaming the halls at the Football Operations Center. Once, King brought Ezra to work, left for a minute, and came back to find him eating candy from Beamer’s office.
That’s how family enters the office. It would be a unfair to compare the interns who have come through over the past few years to King’s 6-year-old son — they stand a lot taller on the office growth chart, for one thing — but the comparison is tempting.
King hasn’t simply built a dedicated team at USC. He has former employees working in the NFL, at other college football programs and at agencies across the country. It’s a testament to the people he wants in his office and the qualities he cultivates.
“You have students who are graduating but have been raised in two, three or four years as interns under Justin and under that staff, so they know what the standard is,” says Grant. “They know how we operate. You kind of create a ready-made workforce just by doing that.”
Collyn Taylor has nearly a decade of experience covering South Carolina football, baseball and men’s basketball for GamecockCentral.