It is Rivalry Week. The Carolina-Clemson football game will be played for the 114th time in Memorial Stadium a/k/a Death Valley a/k/a the Valley* in Clemson, South Carolina. Directions: drive to Greenville and turn left.
Many of you have gathered with family to celebrate Thanksgiving, and any person reading this has plenty to be thankful for. Those of you of the orange persuasion have a little extra starch in your overalls as the Tigers are made to be enormous 24 point favorites over the Gamecocks by the mathematicians in Nevada. This is the highest the betting line has been in at least 20 years but a couple of you Gamecocks will naively say "it's a rivalry game, throw out the record books" and "we only lost by 5 last year and we were worse and they were better." The reality is the folks in Vegas are not often wrong with outright winners and losers and certainly not with such a huge margin. After all, THAT IS WHY THERE IS SUCH A THING AS LAS VEGAS. I happen to be a Gamecock so I have been focusing on more pleasing matters this week, such as the alternative minimum tax. I am definitely not thinking about my donor history with the Gamecock Club.
But it was not always so.
In 2012 the Gamecocks were going into this game having won three straight against the Tigers but with both the starting QB and RB out another consecutive win looked doubtful. The Cocks made it 4 that night (with DJ Swearinger blowing up Andre Ellington and then flexing over him being one of the iconic images of the series) and then 5 in a row the next year and all was well at the state's flagship university. And then the steep decline began from which we are slowly - maybe? - possibly?? - hopefully??? - recovering (for those seeking out a cause of the decline, check out the Gamecock 2013 recruiting class coming off of three straight 11 win seasons/New Year's Day Bowl wins: (WARNING, looking at this on the internet may be illegal in certain jurisdictions).
But that was also not always so.
From 1978 (first year I was alive for the game) until the 5 game win streak began in 2009, the former Clemson Agricultural College was 22-8-1 against Carolina (I was on scene for the sole tie coming at the Valley in 1986 in Todd Ellis' freshman year - Jake Bentley parallel?). For close to the first 10 years of that span I was a Clemson fan like most of the relatives on both sides of my family (one of the more difficult parts of Honey's passing was suggesting that those wishing to memorialize her could donate to the scholarship fund that exists at Clemson in the name of her beloved father). But I was the third child itching to establish my own path, and Big A Goldsmith (there he is again) got me pulling for the Gamecocks and the rest is history.
However, my dad was still an IPTAY member and we were in section Q at the Valley for most home games so I have plenty of memories. I remember when they started playing at night. I remember when people there actually knew how to sing the alma mater and didn't need instructions. I have been there for more Textile Bowls, option quarterbacks, "ROTC Sez Take No Prisoners" banners, push-ups and cannon shots than I care to remember. As late as summer 1989 I was getting autographs of what I believe to be one of the best college linebacking corps ever assembled (Levon Kirkland, Ed McDaniel, Wayne Simmons, John Johnson, Ashley Sheppard, Doug Brewster, Kenzil Jackson - and that is from my memory as it is seared in; if you did not see Kirkland play in college do yourself a favor right now and go to YouTube and search "Ford's Last Stand" and watch him nearly decapitate Major Harris in the 1989 Gator Bowl). Despite pulling for the Gamecocks I did continue to enjoy Danny Ford. I recently came upon the Danny Bored Rap that Love and Hudson did on their WMYI morning show and it remains excellent (on Florida State after the puntrooski loss: "Looks like we had 'em, down number 4, fake punt youngster don't let 'em score. Danny can't wait to play 'em again, Danny'd be very very happy to win"). My college roommate Ryan Lindsay even gave me an autographed and personalized photo of Coach Ford for my 21st birthday, and it wasn't a prank.
As a Clemson fan, my dad did not like going to the game when the teams played in Columbia, but he relented at my begging in 1989. After all, I thought, this Clemson team lost to Duke (Duke!) and surely this was my chance to see a home win. We drove to Columbia for the night game and sat in the frigid corner of the East Upper. Perhaps it should have been clear what was about to take place when the visitors came out in orange pants for the first time ever on the road. In what was to be Danny's last game against Carolina, my father and I witnessed perhaps the biggest throttling in favor of the Tigers in the history of the match-up (I hear you aggie folks crying "63-17! 63-17!", but trust me, 45-0 led by Terry Allen was even more dominant, and I was in Williams-Brice for both). We never went back, and to his credit he did not ever say "I told you so."
Soon I was coming into my teenage years and took great delight in the arrogant decision to fire Ken Hatfield one season removed from a conference championship and after an 8 win regular season - the Tigers did not win the league again for 20 years. Baseball provided another outlet with the Gamecocks beating the Tigers twice in Omaha in both 2004 and 2010 and the latter leading to a Gamecock National Championship. In more recent years I have cracked a smile at Clemson misfortunes on the field (recent examples are watching 8 win West Virginia put 70 on 'em coming off that elusive ACC championship, with the Mountaineers using about 4 plays called from an index card and watching Jameis and the Noles pound them after the absurd ABC segment following the Youngs buses around the stadium) and off (Duane Coleman responding to a Seneca police officer's question about the presence of drugs by responding "we done smoked it"). Hell I fell to my knees and beat the floor when the Pitt kicker drilled the kick two weeks ago, only to see them remain in the playoffs come Tuesday. There is the ongoing objective mismatch of a school in the foothills of South Carolina playing Tiger Rag (the Golden Corner is not exactly known as a hotbed of jazz) and the continual ridiculousness about who has the real Death Valley (neither is a valley so does it really matter?) and who used "all in" first (people seriously argue about who used "all in" first?). And, of course, the term Clemsoning coming into the national lexicon was a high water mark. I know, I know, I know, this is all admittedly juvenile. Many many many times in recent years I have tried to follow Honey's advice and "rise above it" but my success in doing so has been . . . uneven.**
Speaking of 20 years, it has been that long since I last enjoyed a win in Pickens County, a 34-31 victory in 1996 when I drove a Bronco with a Dixie horn and believed my most important earthly possession to be a pledge pin. I will not be in attendance at this weekend's "Palmetto Bowl" (RIP Hardee's Trophy), continuing my decision not to ever go back to the game in Clemson after a particularly miserable loss in 2002 when the former Keith Kelly refused to give us the ball back in the 4th quarter. Brandt also has regrettable memories of Mr. Kelly, who changed his name from Keith to Yusef, after the Gilberts failed to take advantage of the gift-wrapped opportunity to use the picture of Kelly kicking the prone Gamecock Woodly Telfort in the 2004 brawl for a Christmas card with the tag line of "Have Yusef A Merry Little Christmas." I truly believe that failure to act was the seed that sowed this blog in Brandt's mind and thus has me writing this post.
Of course, what makes this a rivalry is the familiarity. The fans of each team have plenty more in common than not. First and foremost we are all good Sandlappers. Our commonality includes constantly having to explain to people not from here how to pronounce Clemson (there is no Z; P is acceptable) and how to differentiate Carolina from the University of Southern California (we were a university decades before they had a state) from the University of North Carolina (no longer located in the South). Our conferences sometimes play favorites against us - remember when the ACC added extra punishment to what the NCAA gave Clemson? Remember when the SEC picked a 6-6 Alabama team for the last remaining bowl slot over the 6-6 Gamecocks? We both have a checkered past when it comes to tearing down goal posts as well as punny player slogans ("No Knocks on Woody" is admittedly a little more family friendly than "My Cock is Smelley"). We both have institutions of higher learning that are of a higher caliber than the other likes to admit. We both have worn some laughably terrible uniform combinations in recent years (purple jerseys and purple pants with orange helmets for Clemson, take your pick of several misses by Carolina). We both have fans who make us proud and fans who make us embarrassed. Our game day dress codes are eerily similar, with tiger paws on cheeks and "Beat" stickers on chests being staples. Ladies secretly covet the coming of the cooler weather so they can break out the boots and men the same for Barbours. We often target the same high school players and some of our biggest stars - and biggest misses - are local boys. And most importantly, we obviously all agree the best way to pregame (and postgame) is at the tailgate, preferably with a bottle of brown water and a "WHOOOOOAAAAA COCKTAIL!" hollered by Dean Dollar.
But this week from the red clay to the sand hills to the pluff mud, the many ties that bind are cast aside for the one line that divides. While the brawl is thankfully a distant memory, the handshakes are a little more straight-armed than usual this week and smiles on the street become merely nods. Text strings are separated into "talk junk with before game" and "talk junk with after game". Words like "tater" and "coot" are used, even in mixed company. Ammunition is prepared and the big guns come out: Clemson fans are quick to mention 1981 and a national championship - Gamecock fans counter that there has never before or since been a team ineligible to defend its crown due to probation as were the 1982 Tigers. Carolina fans are quick to mention 1980 and a Heisman - Tiger fans counter that George Rogers never scored on them. At this time any Gamecock fans still reading should pour out a little liquor for Lamar Jackson's electrifying season. Mr. Jackson pushed Deshaun Watson out of the Heisman race early to preserve this delicate balance of power that is really not so different from the positions staked out by an entire generation of Greenvillians. I am speaking of course of Como's Pete's vs. Frodo's on a Friday night.
Several years ago I decided I would no longer let 18-22 year olds who wouldn't know me from Adam dictate my mood each fall weekend. And yet, here I am, spending Thanksgiving Day morning pumping out a too long and too personal blog post about it. The fact of the matter is you just have to choose sides and that is that. Oregon-Oregon State calls theirs "The Civil War" but here we live it and we mean it.
So, to those of you on each side who will take Highway 123 west on Saturday I wish you a great tailgate, a good game, and safe travels. To those of you in orange here's hoping for The Catch II. To those of you in garnet here's hoping for another iteration of Taneyhill signing the paw. But let's be honest - those of you in garnet should probably plan to take solace in the little things this year, such as the fact that Clemson fans have ruined one of the more rousing college cheers by adding a totally unnecessary but satisfyingly agricultural "woo hoo, woo hoo ah woo" in the middle of it (sorry, I just cannot help myself). And, the fact the Coach Muschamp appears to actually be interested in recruiting.
Brandt, friends again next week?
*This has to be said in your best Clemson accent.
**The most notable failure being the "Three E's in Greene" mistake at the 2002 College World Series, with a close second the time Greg Buckner considered killing me in the Carolina Coliseum in 1996 when Brandt and I sat front row behind the scorer's table and I immaturely let loose with a "Buckner you suck!" when every other person in the gym had taken a break from talking - the dynamic Clemson forward looked at me from about 15 feet away with daggers in his eyes and later glared directly at me after dunking on someone. On the other hand I thought the "five bomb" photos with Dabo were amateur and rude, and I closely followed BYOG and the Gilbert family's 2016 College Football Playoff trips to Florida and Arizona with delight. Still got work to do.