I wish our dear friend Ken Burger were still alive to see this and weigh in. Or the man who first hired Burger to write about sports for the Columbia evening paper, Doug Nye.
The South Carolina Gamecocks. Men and women. In the Final Four. Goodness gracious, what a time to be alive.
It was Nye, who succumbed to cancer in 2011 at age 69, who introduced the phrase “dreaded Chicken Curse” in print in the 1970s to the Gamecocks sports audience after years of the term being bandied about as an inside joke in the newsroom.
“Somehow his putting it in writing turned it into legend, which he found amusing,” Burger wrote in Nye’s tribute.
It was Burger, who lost his own battle with cancer two days shy of his 66th birthday in 2015, who introduced me to the “curse” with his mellifluous columns on the subject from Charleston.
“There was a time in my life when there was no place on earth I wouldn’t travel to watch the Gamecocks break your hearts, which they almost always did; finding, somehow, a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as only USC could,” Burger once wrote. “So profound was their ineptness that the program inherited a curse, the Chicken Curse, which grew in infamy with each misstep along the way.”
The curse allegedly dated back to the 1800s when former governor and U.S. Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman thrust said garden utensil into the statehouse ground and cursed the flagship institution over his frustration at the lack of support for an agricultural school upstate which would eventually become archrival Clemson.
Ever since, all manner of disappointment and calamity has been blamed on the curse, peaking with the 1984 late-season football loss to Navy when the Gamecocks were poised to take over No. 1 and play for a national title in the Orange Bowl. It was blamed for Elvis dying six months after playing a concert at Carolina Coliseum. It was blamed for the demise of Gary Hart’s presidential hopes in a extra-marital scandal with former South Carolina cheerleader Donna Rice. It was blamed for losing the controversial gold-medal game to the Soviets in the 1972 Olympics because ex-Gamecock Kevin Joyce was on the U.S. roster.
Lou Holtz invoked it when he was hired after a winless football season and said “I feel pressure that if we’re not successful, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of people who will start putting credence in ‘The Curse.’ ”
The men’s basketball team certainly embodied it in a 44-year winless drought in the NCAA Tournament. When a gifted Gamecocks team suffered ignominious one-and-done exits in 1997 and ’98 to 15th seed Coppin State and 14th seed Richmond, one of its stars Melvin Watson exited school a believer.
“There’s got to be an answer to it,” Watson said. “Two years in a row? We’re a good team. I just can’t figure it out. Maybe it’s the ‘Chicken Curse.’”
The concept had taken root in the psyche of South Carolina players and fans and was an easy notion to troll them with. A group of fans even hired a witch doctor in 1992 to try to get rid of it.
There have been recent athletic achievements that many argued showed the curse was waning if not deceased. The Gamecocks won consecutive College World Series in 2010-11. The football team won the SEC East in 2010, only to suffer a lopsided loss in the SEC Championship to Auburn.
“That’s the basis of the Chicken Curse,” Nye said back then. “It makes fans think they are on the brink of greatness, and then it slams them in the gut.”
Now here are the Gamecocks on the precipice of glory few dared to dream even a few weeks ago. The odds are heavily stacked against both teams of lifting a trophy in the end. The men might have to beat a pair of No. 1 seeds in Gonzaga and old ACC nemesis North Carolina to cut the nets on Monday night. The women face a loaded bracket with the ultimate prospect of stopping UConn from getting its 113th consecutive win and fifth straight NCAA title.
But that’s beside the point. The Final Four is the only non-championship destination that holds up as an accomplishment in its own right. After all, the Gamecocks got to cut down the nets after regional triumphs. There will be a banner hanging from the ceiling of Colonial Life Arena that will be hailed forever as a triumph regardless of this weekend’s outcomes.
However this fairy-tale season end, the dreaded “Chicken Curse” can be buried alongside the trolling phrase “Clemsoning” in the graveyard of outdated sports lexicon.
I wish Burger were still with us to deliver an eloquent eulogy. In his absence, I’ll let his timeless writing serve as the last word to the Gamecocks Nation he once called “the legions, the endless lines of faithful, unfazed, undaunted, everyday people who have been striding through life, forever proud, forever faithful, eternally hopeful, dragging that rusty ball and chain of mediocrity like a well-earned medal of honor.”
“As a newspaper columnist,” Burger wrote in 2011, “I used to say this state was littered with tombstones of long-gone Gamecock fans engraved with the epitaph, ‘Wait ’til next year!’
“Well, maybe, after all this time, next year is finally here.
For the sake of every faithful Gamecock fan, I hope so.”