In the world of football, South Carolina can be roughly defined as a rather independent football kingdom bounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other two sides by Duke University and Georgia Tech. Within this kingdom each autumn a number of minor colleges fight for minor honors. Furman University and The Citadel serve bravely as punching bags for bigger teams in the Southeast, and once each glorious October the state's two big teams, Clemson and the University of South Carolina, meet to decide who is football king in Carolina.
There are a half dozen reasons why this annual Clemson-South Carolina game, which captures the fancy of so many, should be a washout rather than a sellout. It is a midseason game, over and done with before the rest of the country has settled down to its hardest feuding. It is played on Thursday rather than Saturday. It is held within hog-calling distance of a state fair that offers as competition whirly rides and cotton candy, fat cattle and spangled dancing girls. It is played in a 35,000-capacity stadium that will not hold half the diehard followers of either team and in which the low seats slope back so much that in the heat of the game, when coaches, bench warmers and semi-official hangers-on are prancing about, only a giraffe could see anything from the choice front seats.
Traditional games, however, have a way of defying obvious drawbacks and flourishing because of their own peculiar charms. When Clemson meets South Carolina on the outskirts of the city of Columbia, alumni of both crowd in from all over the state, some of them bearing advice for the coaches and many bringing wives who want to see what sort of clothes the rest of South Carolina is wearing. Politicians come to be seen and possibly heard. There are a few traditional parties and countless impromptu ones in which anyone becomes easily involved. In the two hours before game time the parking lot becomes a vast picnicking reunion. The lucky supporters who already have tickets come out early in order to get parking spots near the stadium, where one stands a better chance of running into old friends. Many who do not have tickets come to enjoy the parking lot partying anyway, hoping vaguely that a scalper might have a pair for the reasonable price of $25. In the parking lot the car trunks are opened, the back flaps of station wagons lowered and the fried chicken and bourbon passed around.
As the crowd slips around toward the stadium a man shouts wishfully, "I'll give you a whole fried chicken for just one ticket."
October 31, 1955
Another man, cradling a large Thermos jug in his arms, waves him off, spies a Cadillac with a low license plate number and exclaims, "Jimmy Byrnes is here! Where's Governor Byrnes?"
"Byrnes isn't governor," an officer advises him. "Timmerman is governor."
A lady squeals, brandishes a pimiento sandwich and rushes across the traffic lane to embrace a friend of long ago. "Lord, Margaret, you haven't changed a bit," she gurgles. "You are Margaret, aren't you?"
"Why, hey!" shrills Margaret. "Yes, I'm Margaret. Why, you look just fine."
"You come looking for old friends," observes Carolina Alumnus Ed Potter, "and you can't remember first names."
A white-haired gentleman who is surely not a year over 70, walks by the north gate, pleading, "Doesn't anyone have a ticket to sell an old Confederate veteran?" This fancy bit of fraud fools no one. Few, in fact, pay much attention to it since most at the moment are watching with glazed fascination as a ticketless trio tries to scale the stadium wall.
The cheerful man with the large Thermos jug is now pleading at the gate. "Look," a guard reasons with him, "you can't see Jimmy Byrnes or anybody in here without a ticket."
Just before game time the parking lot partying breaks up, with a hundred vague promises by everybody that everybody else come visit them real soon for a weekend and be sure to bring the children. The car trunks close, the parking lot empties, the stadium fills. Behind prancing cheerleaders the white-jerseyed Clemson Tigers burst onto the field from one corner of the stadium, and from the other corner the cheer-leaders and garnet-colored Gamecocks of South Carolina.
As the kickoff whistle blows to start the game which will decide whether Clemson, as the smart money predicts this year, will lord it over South Carolina finally after six winless years, the undergraduates are winding up a customary half week of extracurricular feuding. During three nights of pranks and counterpranks, the Clemson raiders have broken through the South Carolina defenses rather consistently, and the final score in extracurricular feuding runs something like this: for Clem-son, one 1955 Chevrolet captured from Gamecock raiders and pushed a half mile back to the campus, one stuffed Clemson Tiger with a 40-foot tail rescued from the enemy before they could burn it, six enemy heads shaved and several enemy sidewalks and walls and one statue daubed with paint. South Carolinians do succeed in fashioning another Tiger effigy in time for their traditional Tiger burning on the State House steps. Beyond that, however, the Gamecocks fare poorly, shaving only two heads and getting through the Clemson roadblocks once but never far enough to touch a paintbrush to the heavily guarded statue of Tom Clemson, the mining engineer (1807-1888) for whom the favorites are named.
While some colleges decry such pranks in the dark of night, authorities in Carolina are inclined to view the prowling and painting of their students rather benignly—so long as the damage remains minor. "It only proves," says Carolina Trustee Douglas McKay, a former Gamecock coach now better known as the chairman of the 1952 Eisenhower movement in South Carolina, "college boys today are just as big damn fools as we were—tremendous enthusiasm, tremendous energy."
It was in McKay's day that the tremendous reserves of energy exploded violently and almost ruined a fine old tradition six years after it was born. Clemson College had been fostered by Pitchfork Ben Tillman, a Carolina governor with a great affection for the rural people and much disdain for the foppery which, as he saw it, had contaminated the long-established University of South Carolina. Pitchfork Ben favored the new Clemson and let the older university shrivel. In the midst of an academic rivalry that was far from mellow the football rivalry began in 1896. On the night of the 1902 game, students brawled in the streets. Having lost the game and gotten, at best, a tie in the street brawling, the next night the Clemson cadets with guns and bayonets charged the campus wall behind which the outnumbered Carolinians crouched with makeshift weapons and a few shotguns and pistols. A Carolina assistant coach, Christie Benet, backed up by a loaded pistol, mounted the wall, offered to fight any two Clemson Tigers and urged both sides to arbitrate. The two colleges did not clash—on the gridiron or anywhere else—for six years.
With the resumption of play in 1909, the "Big Thursday" game, as it has been known since the days when it was a corporate part of the state fair, became the most important 60 minutes of autumn madness in the state, reaching its maddest peak in 1946.
That year counterfeit tickets were discovered, but too late. At game time there were 10,000 too many very irritated people on hand. They broke through the gates, sweeping one ticket taker back to the 50-yard line. When the ball was on one side of the 50, the people swarmed over the other half of the field. As is the smart custom of all Carolina politicians any year, James Byrnes, then Secretary of State, and the late Senator Maybank were in prominent box seats down front. They might as well have been in Grand Forks. For the first half they listened to the game on radio until room was made for them on the grass near the South Carolina bench. "People were all over," recalls Clemson Coach Frank Howard. "They were all over everywhere. I couldn't see much more of the game than punts going up in the air. I tried to send in a substitute, but I couldn't get the boy through the crowd. It really grew very amusing, except that we lost."
Losing on Big Thursday has become especially humorless for all who played or rooted for Clemson in the years since the gates gave way. "This used to be just another game," Coach Howard noted as he moved with his Tigers down to the Big Thursday game last week. "We used to beat them and go on about our business, but it's sure turned around now." Largely based on the solid beating Clemson gave Georgia and their creditable losing game against Rice three Saturdays ago, the experts this year were hanging a seven-point advantage around Coach Howard's neck, a burden which he did not bear too cheerfully, since the experts have been picking Clemson fairly consistently while South Carolina has been doing most of the winning in the past 10 years.
"If we lose this one," a Clemson man panted as the first Clemson offensive stalled in the opening three minutes, "I'm leaving town before dark. And Frank Howard better come with me." In another three minutes, the Clemson world was bright and cheery. As substitute Quarterback Charlie Bussey slipped back to pass, substitute End Willie Smith slanted fast toward the center of the field, got behind the Carolina secondary, outscrambled Halfback Carl Brazell and Quarterback Mackie Prickett for the ball and ran free to the goal. Having packed away the touchdown lead the experts said they deserved, Clemson ran the score out to 21-0. Coach Tex Enright of South Carolina had hoped to match Clemson in the air, work the middle to keep Clemson's defense honest and beat them by running outside. However, the Clemson line, much of the time using a modified 6-2-2-1 defense which Frank Howard borrowed from rival Enright's book of tricks, had a good day, holding the Carolinians to 93 yards on the ground and chasing Quarterback Prickett with zest as he vainly looked for receivers. Principally due to some small wonders worked by substitute Quarterback Bobby Bunch with an option pitch-out play, Carolina came back to trail 21-14 by the middle of the last quarter. Then, gambling for a win rather than a tie, Carolina tried an onside kick to get the ball. It misfired, and Clemson had to go only 48 yards for a fourth score to win 28-14.
"I tell you," said Clemson Rooter Phil O'Reilly to a restaurant room full of Carolinians quietly eating crow, "we're coming down here every year and behave like this. That losing was sure hell." Having spoken, Rooter O'Reilly waggled a stuffed tiger cub in the Carolina faces and quietly withdrew into the jubilant evening.
It may be that Clemson will have only one more chance to descend on Columbia for victory on Big Thursday. There are many of the games' followers who think that, since this is the big game, it should be played like all traditional rivalries at the season's end, one year at Columbia and one year at Clemson. When the present contract expires in 1956, whether it is their business or not almost all of South Carolina will be debating the matter. This, as Coach Enright sees it, is as it should be. "This game," says Enright, "was here before I was. It belongs to the people of South Carolina, and if they want it played in Nome, Alaska on the 20th of December, I figure we'll play it."